Mahesh Bhatt in Conversation with Teesta Setalvad (English)
The band-width of Indian tradition has been open and wide enough to have a Buddha, 2500 years back in Varanasi questioning the very basis of the Hindu system which is caste and to narrow this tradition to a bitter and narrow perspective of faith that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) embodies would be to deny India’s diversity and pluralism which has been its uniqueness and strength, says Mahesh Bhatt in this crucial interview that traces the dark bitter time of 1992-1993 when Bombay burned, igniting a personal anguish and history that resulted in his last directorial venture, ZAKHM in 1998.
Can there be development without democracy? Can there be progress without freedom? Mahesh Bhatt asks a young generation that he says has chosen profit over values to catapult an extreme rightwing government to power, a government whose ideology militates against the Founding Fathers who wrote our Constitution. Nations that become intolerant, totalitarian or majoritarian run the risk of becoming sterile, where culture is dead and fear walks tall he said, likening this attempt within India to ape sections of the Middle East where aspirations centre around huge structures, flyovers and bridges while human beings are made and forced to turn against one another in private.
“Ma Aur Mulk badle nahin Jaa Sakte”, says Ajay Devgan, portraying Mahesh Bhatt, as he determinedly tries to bury his dead mother, Shirin Mohammed Ali while mobs shouting chilling slogans of “Shuddikaran and Rashtra ki Safai” (sounds familiar?) prevent his free passage to the Shia burial ground (set in Bombay 1992-1993). “Daddy Aapse Isliye Shaadi Nahin Kar Saken na? Kyon ki aap Mussalmaan hai? Kya Hindu Musalmaanse nahin shaadi kar sakta?” says a young actor playing Mahesh Bhatt, tearfully clinging to Pooja Bhatt playing her grandmother, Shirin in this heart wrenching role. “ Ho sakti hai, beta”, Pooja as Shirin haltingly replies, “Par aapke Daadi jaise kuch logon ko yeh manzoor nahin hai; Tere Daddy ne dadi ko samjhaane ki bahut koshish kee; Magar hum logon ka pyaar unke naphrat ke saamne kam pad gaya bęte.” These lines sit well16 years later when the hate cries of love jehad are the new methods of bloodletting and moral policing.
Mahesh Bhatt was compelled under a restrictive NDA I regime to digitally change scenes that depicted the mobs on Bombay’s streets wearing saffron headbands and also dilute a scene that showed the rank communalisation within the police force. “Those scenes for me were straight from the ugly mobs atop the Babri Masjid” says Bhatt who recounts how for every film maker, writer and dissenter, the personal is the political. “My mother suffered deeply because of this intolerant Nagar Brahmin stream to which my father belonged,” recounts Mahesh Bhatt, emphasising that what was playing out years later on Bombay and India’s streets was a version of his personal conflict on a larger space.
The trauma of Partition could be dealt with and a minority made to feel safe within India largely due to a man like Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister - whose consciousness was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi and who could be seen chasing a murderous mob with a cane at Delhi’s Connaught place when it tried to burn a Muslim shop. The efforts of the current regime in Delhi to denigrate Nehru are cheap bids to snatch away the narrative from political opponents by altering the historical narrative. The inability of the leadership of ‘secular’ parties to confront the fanatics and fundamentalists within and outside their ranks has resulted in the abysmal state of affairs today.
Bollywood and Hindi cinema, until the advent of the neo-liberal phase of the Indian political economy, was wedded to the values of Indian nation building where plurality had to be preserved and diversity celebrated says Bhatt who explains that the ‘profit at any cost’ ideology of neo-liberal economics has tried to flush this fundamental concern out though it has not succeeded completely. Dilip Kumar a la Yusuf Khan in the roles he has played and the values he represents embodies these values though he has suffered from the fanatical rightwing tendencies that have attacked him, added Bhatt. Many of his roles for which he received praise and acclaim were those he played a Hindu, singing bhajans and celebrating this vast land. Yet the “Hai Ram” he uttered at the climax of the film, Ganga Jumna generated heat and dust with vile requests for its ‘cuts’ until the veteran actor put his foot down. Bhatt also speaks about his successful efforts to breach the Indo-Pak divide through joint productions even though hate mongerers have dubbed him an ‘ISI agent’ for these productions. How do you deal with the hatred? You have to take it on your chin and always remember that it is a price you have to pay for being you! Even the Mahatma was the targeting of bitter hatred, says Bhatt.
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