Ace of Champaran

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Behind the studious facade, filmmaker Prakash Jha is a man born with an instinctive love for risk. And there may be more twists and turns yet, says Vaibhav Vats

Tightrope walker
Filmmaker Prakash Jha in the lobby of a New Delhi hotel
Photo: Vijay Pandey

IN THE PLUSH lobby of Le Meridien, the central Delhi hotel where we meet, 58-year-old Prakash Jha appears sedately calm. It is a week before Raajneeti, his most expensive film to date, hits the screens. But his demeanour could lull you into believing as if he found himself in the spotlight almost by accident, and he would rather play the role of the anonymous passenger. Wearing a crisp white shirt with red threads tied to his wrist, Jha’s appearance speaks of the peaceful negotiation fashioned after years of sifting through opposite worlds — between the bright lights of Mumbai and the poor plains of his native village in Bihar’s Champaran district. Speaking about Raajneeti, Jha comes up with replies rehearsed over hours spent in television studios. “It is about the greed of power set against the background of an election,” he says, speaking with the unfazed alacrity of someone who has tread this path several times before.

His earthy, well-reasoned responses create a mirage of level-headedness and equanimity. Scratch the surface and Jha comes across as a compulsive punter, a man born with an instinctive brazenness, a love for risks. His younger brother Prabhat thinks of him as “a man who has always taken brash decisions, without worrying too much about the consequences”.

Before his ultimately successful foray into films, Jha had first tried his hand at physics, and later, at painting. He studied physics for a year at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, before realising he had no interest in the subject. After spending a year farming at home, he decided to move to Mumbai to join the JJ College of Arts, dreaming of becoming a painter.

Before his ultimately successful foray into films, Jha had first tried his hand at physics, and later, at painting. He studied physics for a year at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, before realising he had no interest in the subject. After spending a year farming at home, he decided to move to Mumbai to join the JJ College of Arts, dreaming of becoming a painter.

And then, one day, painting too was abandoned in favour of films. While preparing for the entrance, Jha became friends with art director Agha Jani, who happened to live in the same building. One day, Jani took him to the sets of the film he was working on. “It was a film called Dharma, starring Navin Nischol, Rekha and Pran,” says Jha. “I stood there the entire day watching, completely mesmerised.”

Jha’s film about the Biharsharif riots was first banned by the government. Later it won the National Award

Yet, it was only through films that Jha welded his dreamy-eyed passions with a steely resolve to see it through until the very end. After an amusing stint as the 13th assistant on the sets of Dharma that lasted just four days, Jha was determined to make it to Pune’s Film and Television Institute (FTII). “I realised that if I had to make movies, I had to learn the craft,” he says.

He took up a job in a Colaba restaurant to make ends meet. It was a life of labour and dreams — in the day he would count change, present bills; in the night, he would watch films. “There was a theatre called Akashwani, which used to show classic films after 11,” he says. “I went there every day.” It was an ecletic education — the theatre showed films from lands near and far. “I saw all kinds of films — Bangla, Malayalam, European,” he recalls. He made it to the FTII, but was eligible only for the editing course. “All the other courses required one to be a graduate and I wasn’t a graduate,” he says.

Despite spending a couple of years in institutions of learning, at Delhi University and FTII, it was perhaps his lack of continuous formal training that allowed him to constantly reinvent himself in the face of newer challenges. In the 1980s, Jha was part of a tiny coterie of filmmakers (along with FTII batchmates Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah, Saeed Mirza) making small, powerful films on pitifully low budgets. In 1981, riots broke out in Biharsharif. Jha rushed there and what he filmed there later became Faces After Storm. The film welded montage and narrative powerfully — so powerfully that it was banned altogether. In one of the bizarre opaquities of Indian babudom, it still went on to win a National Award.

Jha considers some of his films of that time — Faces After Storm, Damul, Parinati — as his most honest work, but he realised that times had changed. “You had to create your own language, and orient your script in line with commercial interests,” he says. It was a period of personal turbulence, his mother had died, he and actor Deepti Naval split up after two years of marriage. The little girl they had adopted was growing up.

However he had never lived with safety nets, and it was this ability to delve into the unknown, that allowed him to adapt to the mores of the changing cinematic landscape. In 1996, for the first time, Jha roped in a major star to strike the balance between commercial and artistic considerations, or in his own words, “mix and match”. That film was Mrityudand, and it starred Madhuri Dixit. “I realised I had to compromise in some way, if I had to continue making films,” he says, reflecting the ambiguous morality of his recent films like Gangaajal and Apaharan, where the minor misconduct can be overlooked in favour of the greater common good.

Despite his sporadic stints into higher education, he is marked by an academic zeal. His lawyer Puhin Shankar, who has worked with him for a decade, calls him a ‘most involved client’. “He has a habit of examining the provisions of law and implications of legal issues thoroughly,” he says. Shankar remembers the proceedings of a case in the Supreme Court. “Jha was so involved in the proceedings that people mistook him to be a professional lawyer,” he says.

Struggling to make inroads into the homogenising commercial sphere of the 1990s, Jha brought the same approach to understand the medium of popular cinema. For Raajneeti, a film dealing with the psychology of politics, he says he read much of Ashis Nandy’s work. “I found his ideas on secularism and religion captivating,” he says.

However, his decision to fight elections was born of an earlier recklessness. Though he had started two non-profit organisations in Champaran way back in 1989, no one among his close associates knew of any plan to fight elections. “In March 2004, two months before the Lok Sabha elections, he suddenly announced he was going to be a candidate,” remembers his brother Prabhat, who opposed the move at that time.

Despite the expected heavy defeat, Prabhat thinks it was the second defeat in 2009 that really scarred him. During the campaign, Prakash Jha was arrested after Rs 10 lakh in cash was found on him. The brothers allege conspiracy, and claim the amount was within legal limits, but that incident seems to have been a trigger in his decision to quit politics. “It is very difficult for him to erase those moments,” says Prabhat. “The defeat hurt him immensely, especially the way in which it happened.”

Jha’s close friend Manmohan Shetty says, ‘Prakash insists he will not go into politics again, but I don’t buy it’

 

Political lens With Raajneeti, Jha has woven his experiences at the hustings into film

A couple of days after we met, as this incident is mentioned over telephone, Prakash Jha loses his studied veneer and passionately recalls the plans he had for Bihar. “I wanted to improve healthcare, education,” he says. “Bihar sends the maximum people to the service industry but does not create any wealth itself — I wanted to change that.” Jha claimed he was robbed of the money — his lawyer added that the case in the Patna High Court is nearing its end.

But whatever the outcome, Jha is clear he will never contest elections again. “That chapter is over, and now I have set myself personal goals,” he says. One of those, he says, is learning how to play the piano. It is curious then, to know, that one person who does not believe this is his close friend for over three decades, Manmohan Shetty, with whom he has produced several films. “He keeps on saying that he will not go into politics again, but I don’t buy it,” he says.

PERHAPS ONE incident may offer an illuminating sliver into the mind of Prakash Jha. In the 1980s, his brother recalls they were shooting for a film in Rajasthan and had to get to Bhopal by morning. It was fading daylight — the driver thought the terrain dangerous and recommended that they stop for the night. But Jha would have none of it. He took over the wheel himself, driving so fast at one stretch that they missed a gorge by inches. “One feet to the left, and no one would have survived,” says Prabhat. “But he was always reckless and obstinate like that, wanting to achieve what he had in mind.”

Maybe this is what Shetty means when he says he expects Jha to return to the political battlefield. “He’s a Bihari with politics in his blood,” he says. “He’ll be back.”

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