In the haze of the 1960s hippie fear, when the awe of spiritual abandonment gave way to the fear of societal collapse, the writer and journalist Joan Didion was given a tip-off. She was asked to immediately rush to the scene in question. Didion arrived to a sight of total disorientation — a five year old being fed LSD by her mother. In the documentary of Didion's life The Center Will Not Hold, when asked about how she reacted to the moment she said, "Well, it was …", and after a long pause, "Let me tell you. It was gold. You live for moments like that, if you're doing a piece. Good or bad."
A grotesque but honest summation of the writer's thirst for subjects and stories to a point where even despair looks promising first, devastating later, it is perhaps why one must never trust a writer. They make the most lethal observers, most unsteady chroniclers. You never know when you become side characters in their story, demoted from character to catalyst, from person to personification. They'll flatten you into a weepy personal essay or strident femme fatales or worse, like director Mahesh Bhatt, do it thrice over.
The story he spins is the same, the names and timelines shifted around — a married Mahesh Bhatt falls in love with actress Parveen Babi, pursued this extramarital affair as Babi's mental health descended into a schizophrenic lump, and her fame dimmed till she became an obscure figure. Bhatt went ahead and made a movie on their love and her swift, steady descent in Arth (1982) — released while Babi was still working in the feeble margins of fame; he even advised her not to see the film when she expressed her desire to do so, yet, he gave interviews talking about her mental health — then, again, in Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993), then in Woh Lamhe (2004), and then now with the 8-part show Ranjish Hi Sahi. (Though neither the PR material nor the disclaimer notes the autobiographical nature of the show.) One Mahesh Bhatt-Parveen Babi story for every decade-or-so. If you repeat a story enough times, it becomes a genre. If you repeat the same story enough times, you signal artistic bankruptcy. Then, there is the story of Bhatt's mother, a Muslim who practiced her faith with caution, which he had milked with such silent, profound crooning in Zakhm, which also he brings in here.
Bhatt has often spoken about how the Juhu Gang of the 1970s — including him, Kabir Bedi, Protima Bedi, Parveen Babi, Danny Denzongpa, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Kapur — were the "flower children of India", inheritors of the free spirit of the Hippie generation. In Ranjish Hi Sahi, this free spirit is traded in for a more oppressive Bollywood — with mongrels for producers and sexual hawks for stars. The place is irredeemably bad, even the artistic geniuses look unconvincing.
In the last episode of Ranjish Hi Sahi, Bhatt does a Didion. The character based on him, Shankar Vats (Tahir Raj Bhasin), finally confesses to his friend, after experiencing both mental and emotional breakdowns, leaving a schizophrenic lover Aamna Parvez (Amala Paul), to get back to his distraught wife Anju (Amrita Puri), "Mein hamesha kehta tha na, ki mere paas kahani nahi hai? Aaj kahani hai mere paas." The thirst for stories. How hollow does this pursuit ring?
When asked if he was being exploitative by making Arth, Bhatt had been defiant, "Everybody says that I have exploited my wife and Parveen, but I have exploited myself too. I have no false hangups. I am the first to admit that I am like a roadside leper selling his wounds. I make money from my humiliations."
Created by Mahesh Bhatt, written and directed by Pushpdeep Bhardwaj, Ranjish Hi Sahi is undoubtedly a creation of artistic bankruptcy.
But has he really exploited himself? Constantly being shown as a genius, an artist whose art was burnished by pain, whose stories existed beyond its time, whose moral recklessness was seen as spiritual pain. In interviews he made his disdain for Amitabh Bachchan clear, one that shows even in Ranjish Hi Sahi as the star who uses and throws Aamna Parvez per will. This show feels grotesque at times, like being stuck in a therapy room of someone who refuses to, but, see himself as the hero of his story.
Created by Mahesh Bhatt, written and directed by Pushpdeep Bhardwaj, Ranjish Hi Sahi is undoubtedly a creation of artistic bankruptcy. The acting is weighed down by the writing. Amala Paul in trying to pull a Parveen Babi comes across as a shrill, shoddy Deepika Padukone from her Om Shanti Om days — maybe it is just the physical and vocal resemblance? Tahir Raj Bhasin, with an awfully stitched wig, is given a character that feels like repentance. The heroism and charm is difficult to buy into. Puri's character Anju, struck by the Kashibai-complex of loving someone who loves another, brings in the desperate twining of love and duty, but even this is a character that is written with such guilt that it refuses to see her as anything but virtuous and valiant. Every character feels stuck inside Bhatt's head, like penitence.
Sample the scene — oddly conceived, even more so executed — at an awards function. It is a sudden flash-forward in time, and we are jettisoned from the 70s to the mid-2000s where Shankar receives a Lifetime Achievement award. As he is walking towards the stage, he receives a call that Aamna's body has been found dead. He turns around, away from the stage. Anju just stares in the background, confused by this about-turn. Shankar hasn't seen or heard from Aamna in decades. How are we expected to feel Aamna's presence in Shankar's thoughts in the intervening decades unless we recognize in Shankar a reflection of Bhatt's yearning and guilt? These are characters that cannot stand on themselves, characters that can only be understood by reflecting on the person in whose image they are cast.
The show uses the flash forward and flashback as a crutch, to get away with saying nothing. In one scene we see Aamna Parvez finally accepting to do Shankar's film. Then we get the above-discussed flash forward to the 2000s when he is receiving a lifetime achievement award, then a flashback to his childhood, only to circle back to the story in the 1970s. But now, we are told that the film they were working on didn't materialize and their affair is in full bloom. Bhasin's voice-over does the shoddy stitch-job across the decades.
That Mahesh Bhatt has lost his artistic edge is apparent. He has traded in good stories for good sounding stories, unable to furnish his characters with intensity, giving them dialogues with mirage-like depth. A brief glimpse at his writing credits over the last two decades is proof — Hamari Adhuri Kahaani, Kajraare, Sadak 2. What remains is a shadow of the musical provocateur of the 80s and 90s.