This year, the Bhatt stable will have spun five franchises out of its previous hits. The troika tells Nishita Jha why they couldn’t care less about Bollywood’s prestigious Rs 100-crore club
A WEEK before the release of Raaz 3, at 9.30 am, the Vishesh Films office is empty, but for a watchman outside and a woman at the reception. Cradling a receiver while tapping away on another cell phone, she says placatingly, “Don’t worry, baba. You were very good in the film. Bhatt saab didn’t mean to ignore you, he just has this way of looking through people sometimes.” She hangs up hurriedly as Mahesh Bhatt walks in to the lobby looking through all of us, and unlocks the door to his office. Between attending phone calls, receiving congratulatory texts and sending out tweets, Bhatt’s mood alternates between belligerent and philosophical. The co-producer of Raaz 3, Emraan Hashmi requested Bhatt to stay off the film’s set during the climax due to his tendency to overshare online. The 64-year-old reads his latest 140 characters out now, his voice booming through the glass room, “Raaz 3. Release anxiety builds with each passing day. The excitement grows. We need you to need our film.”
In truth, Vishesh Films needs very little. Following the success of Jism 2 (a film made on a budget of Rs 12 crore, that has already earned Rs 34 crore so far), the Bhatt brothers — Mahesh and Mukesh — are making arrangements to “send their next child to school”. The promotions for Jism 2 centred aggressively on the entry of adult film actor Sunny Leone into Bollywood. A press meet even had photographers gathered around a writhing, semi-clad Leone in bed. Their latest release, Raaz 3, has multiple selling points. It is the Bhatts’ first 3-D horror film. Second, the story, (a fading star taking to black magic to destroy her cinematic rivals) is based on director (and nephew) Vikram Bhatt’s past relationships with ageing prima donnas. Finally, it mirrors what Mahesh believes is a parallel decline in its lead actor Bipasha Basu’s life. “She is fighting hard to stay on top,” says Bhatt through clenched teeth, “That’s what makes her performance so damn memorable.”
There is some truth to the Bhatts’ metaphor of getting their next child ready and dressed for the world. There are distinct ingredients to a Bhatt film that their audience has learnt to expect — high erotic content, provocative dialogue, beautiful locations and a pulp thriller storyline. Says film critic and author Anupama Chopra, “They perfected the formula of low-budget films that have a twist. They don’t rely on stars, their banner is not big budget. Their films throw up one or two songs, which is why Emraan Hashmi is a star. There’s always crime and some sex.”
Counting Aashiqui 2, the poster for which already occupies pride of place in the lobby, this year the Bhatts will have spun five of their films into successful franchises (Raaz, Jism, Jannat, Murder and Aashiqui). For someone familiar with Mahesh Bhatt’s earlier films (Arth, Saaransh, Naam, Sadak), it is difficult to reconcile his undeniable magic in the past with the flat characters he creates at present. Veteran film critic Rauf Ahmed remembers how everyone wanted to work with Mahesh in his early days because he was considered a “different director”. “But after a point, you cannot keep experimenting. What people are doing hypocritically, he does openly. They try to use sex and give various colours but Mahesh Bhatt just calls a spade a spade,” says Ahmed. Bhatt himself appears unapologetic. “The objective of a mainstream Bollywood film is to make money. Period. Full stop. We are all money-making machines, whether you like it or not,” he snarls.
|All in the family Mukesh and Pooja BhattPhoto: Vinit Bhatt, Shailendra Pandey|
The Vishesh Films franchise is an efficient machine. If Murder was the highest grossing film in 2004 (earning over Rs 12 crore for Vishesh), its sequel Murder 2 grossed 36.5 crore in 2011. Jannat 2, which was made on a budget of Rs 10 crore and was only a “semi-hit” at the box office, still went on to gross over Rs 40 crore. It is no surprise then that the Bhatts consider the much feted ‘Rs 100-crore club’ to be an eyewash. “How is it great business for a film made with a budget of Rs 90 crore to make Rs 100 crore? Double your figures, you have a hit. Triple them, and you have arrived,” says Pooja Bhatt, the 40-year old director of Jism 2. While the Bhatt franchises might work wonders at the box office, it’s been a while since they earned rave reviews from critics. Responding to a bad review of Jism 2 that he recently read, Mahesh says that he stopped relying on reviewers to feel good or bad about his work once he realised that they were “blood-sucking mosquitoes”, then, “businessmen just like me”, and finally, “prostitutes like everyone else”. “A prostitute doesn’t go to a customer because she wants love, she wants money. You need money and so do I,” he says.
YET, THE success of the Bhatt franchise factory relies on more than just financial assets. Vishesh Films underwent its most drastic makeover in 1998, the year Mahesh decided to stop directing films. From being a gofer to a National Award-winning director, he says that once his turbulent 20s were behind him (“Those were the days of LSD and extra-marital affairs, my dear,” he smiles) and he had made his watershed film, Arth, he wanted to focus only on making money. “I had all the awards I’d ever need. I got into this industry because my mother said the telephone line would be cut if I didn’t earn something, and much like anyone looking for a job, I came to the only line of work I’d ever known,” he says. (Bhatt’s father, also a filmmaker, had another wife and could not provide for both families.)
‘The theatres are full of a pleasureseeking audience. They just want endless gratification,’ says Mahesh
Mukesh, the 60-year-old financial brain behind the operation, recalls the dread he experienced at the news that Mahesh had decided to turn producer and “ideologue” for Vishesh Films, instead of continuing to direct, because he knew that “without Mahesh, the stars would not touch us”. Bhatt’s own idea, that instead of “making heroes” they would now “become heroes”, sounded suspiciously like spin. And Mukesh, the spin doctor, was not convinced.
In the years that followed, the Bhatts came up with a process. They consciously decided only to work with new talent. Pooja, who once acted in, and continues to direct several of her father’s films, believes the Bhatts have brought in the maximum new talent into the industry in the past 10 years. “Apart from new actors, we’ve also introduced new locations into the filmmaking vocabulary. No one had shot in Spiti, Galle and Turkey before. We brought Indian audiences to the kind of music we love — Ali Azmat, Himmesh Reshammiya, Arko Pravo Mukherjee and Neelesh Mishra’s lyrics.”
The Bhatts are also responsible for introducing a long list of sirens on screen — Anu Agarwal, Lisa Ray, Bipasha Basu, Udita Goswami, Mallika Sherawat, South African model Ilene Hamann, Esha Gupta, Jacqueline Fernandez and now, Leone. The writer of Jism 2, Shagufta Rafique (another Bhatt camp discovery) agrees, “Newcomers in any field of the industry know that this is a great place to start. We made Imi (Emraan Hashmi) a star, because we backed him again and again despite his failures.” Apart from Leone’s debut, Jism 2 was also a first for its cinematographer, Nigam Bomzan, a young filmmaker from Darjeeling with no formal training.
Signing fresh talent was certainly less expensive than signing stars. In addition, the Bhatts made up for losing out on the already established fan-base for a popular actor with the one thing guaranteed to draw crowds to the theatre — sex. As the brothers tell it, Mahesh returned home one day after a trip to Bastar (he frequently visited rural spaces for “inspiration and activism”) and told his brother that he’d seen tribals watching semi-clad white women on cable in their thatched homes. “I realised that what everyone from Bhanupratappur to Bombay wanted was not stars, but pleasure,” he says, rolling the last word out.
For Pooja Bhatt, who now runs her own production house (Fisheye Network), but started out shooting all the Vishesh Films’ love scenes, says making erotic thrillers was a challenge because the baser passions had only been explored through a male perspective in Indian cinema. “Jism 2 is way up there for its aesthetics, its luxury, and for the discreet way in which we tell the story of a porn star. That’s something only a woman could do. I could have put 500 grovelling men grabbing her ass while she sang a raunchy song. But that’s not me,” she says. The fact that Leone’s character is a porn star in the film (a fact she tells us in the opening scene) ends up seeming like something of a non-sequitur, since it is never again mentioned in the film, nor does it have any bearing on her character whatsoever, unless to explain why she likes sleeping with men, or walks around, sometimes, in lingerie with heels. Inhaling deeply on a cigarette, Pooja Bhatt is more insightful when it comes to deconstructing the Bhatt franchise — “My father has the capacity to be able to bring a worldview to even a simplistic story, philosophical nuances that you would not expect. Mukesh Bhatt can market and sell anything at an unimaginable turnover. I have a well-tuned aesthetic that makes films look like bigger and slicker products than they really are.”
This pop philosophy-meets-pulp might be the reason that a generation that has little or no inkling of the previous (and far superior) cinema that came out of the Bhatt stable, will remember Mahesh as the man who signed on India’s first porn star, promising her “great spiritual heights”. He compares himself to a man who sells hooch, but drinks fine whiskey, as someone who chooses not to be defined by his past, or the “tyranny of taste”. He slams a fist on the table as Mukesh, Shagufta and a production assistant filter into his office for a meeting, his performance rising a notch with the entry of an audience: “Cinema is not the cure to cancer. The theatres are full of a pleasure-seeking audience that belong to the consumerist age. They just want endless gratification!” And the Bhatt franchise factory is happy to serve.
‘There’s a thin line between movies and prostitution’
The ace in the Bhatt pack, scriptwriter Shagufta Rafique tells Nishita Jha why bollywood could do with a dose of bold sexuality
THE WOMEN I create in my films are all women I’ve known,” says Shagufta Rafique, perched delicately at the edge of a sofa. Having written nearly 10 feature films for the Bhatts in the past decade, Rafique, 41, is an integral part of their successful franchise, known especially for its sexually bold female characters. While the Vishesh Films office is a buzz with preparations to promoteRaaz 3, Rafique is neck-deep on spinning her next script, Aashiqui 2, a sequel to the 1990 hit. The film will be something of a challenge for her since she is accustomed to writing the Bhatt’s favourite genre — erotic thrillers.
In many ways, Rafique is the quintessential Bhatt heroine. For one, she believes with an almost religious fervour that if you are meant to belong to the “filmi duniya”, the elements will seek you out. Adopted into a film family, Rafique grew up with a heightened awareness of how fickle fame could be. Her foster mother was an extra in Hindi films, her sister Sayeeda Khan saw moderate success in the 1950s but was a ‘jinxed star’ (she gave up her career to marry film producer Brij Sadanah, who shot Khan and her son before killing himself). There were other scars too. When the news that she was adopted was cruelly broken to her over a family argument, the 14-year-old Rafique dropped out of school. Her uneducated mother saw this as a good time to groom her for films, but the rejection of producers only added to her sense of humiliation. “Shagufta has been the little match girl looking in through fancy windows,” says mentor Mahesh Bhatt, “The hunger to feel like she’s arrived, to earn what she never had, makes her an exceptional storyteller.”
Soon after a brief but frustrating stint looking for a writing job in the industry, Rafique went to Dubai seeking a job. Trained in classical Hindustani music and kathak, she became a bar dancer. Rafique describes the abject terror of stepping on to a stage for the first time, surrounded by a male audience, saying it took her exactly one night to realise that she was born to be on stage. “ I wanted to be a slut. I wanted to fight the world, make money, entertain men, use and devour them. It was a power trip,” she smiles.
Always fond of cinema that had an element of rebellion, Rafique believes her life changed when she read an interview of Mahesh Bhatt, where he called himself a bastard who didn’t care about the world as long as he had “the sun and the moon, like everyone else”. After she had made enough money in Dubai, she returned to Mumbai to look for Bhatt, who asked her to narrate any story that she’d written within five minutes. Nervous, tongue-tied, Rafique found herself blurting out the sketch of a pious Muslim woman who befriends a prostitute during a riot, and described their journey as they realise that the worlds of devotion and desire are not too far apart.
Apart from the money she made, Rafique’s decade in Dubai honed her skills as an entertainer. “There’s a thin line between movies and prostitution. The people and the players are the same, directors look at women the same way people do at whores. When an actress comes for a meeting in tiny shorts, what is she selling? What I did in Dubai is no different from what Katrina Kaif does in Chikni Chameli. Some asset of yours is always being sold, always being exploited,” she says. It is the sort of provocative line one would expect in the trailer of a Bhatt film, but for now, it is a Shagufta Rafique original
with inputs from Shonali Ghosal
Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.