25 years, and 16 films later, what does one make of Subhash Ghai—that he is a shrewd businessman, a conservative film-maker, and a successful marketeer both of his films and himself. He is no trend-setter, but rides a trend better than most people. And of course there is his one great contribution to the modern day Hindi cinema: giving the likes of Madhuri Dixit, Meenakshi Seshadhri, Manisha Koirala and Mahima Choudhury their first break.
We are at Subhash Ghai’s suburban office in Mumbai. Yaadein, his latest blockbuster starring Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor, is in its final stages and the showman is preoccupied as our conversation begins. He seems to be fighting for time and explains that he has three meetings following this one and that the last one begins at 10:30 p.m. So it is hardly surprising that our conversation gets interrupted, first by his employees who step in for consultations, then by a telephone call for ‘Subhashji’ to which he replies, “Woh aaj busy hai. Aaj unka birthday hai na. Toh unke pass baat karne ke liye bhi time nahin hai,” and then by the lunch gathering with his employees who have made the effort to organise a feast with the usual birthday cake, flowers, decorations and to play the soundtracks from his films.
Ghai’s office is a cozy room with a Casio keyboard-synthesiser for company, and an irksome telephone. His desk is strewn with the usual stationery, a Palm Pilot and a high-end mobile phone. Ghai is as much a techno-freak as the average yuppie. His studio offers the latest technology; he always has a finger on the pulse. “I just finished an editing session on the Avid,” he says excitedly about the new film editing system he has acquired, “It’s so wonderful. I can make four different versions of my film!”
He prides himself on being in touch with the Zeitgeist. Before he began his last film Taal he sacked his traditional team of technicians and writers in favour of a younger, fresher lot. He learnt to work on the Avid and trawled the internet to find costumes for Aishwarya Rai and Anil Kapoor.
Those who work with him are in awe of his work ethic. Kabir Lal, the Filmfare award-winning cameraman of Pardes, Taal and Yaadein (one of the few technicians who survived the mass retrenchment) speaks of Ghai as a driving perfectionist. “The first shot of Taal was taken on the day when the weather bureau had predicted a storm in Mumbai. Subhashji had been waiting for that. He took us all to the Gateway of India so he could shoot fourteen-foot waves. Even the Ishq Bina song was shot in actual rain so that we could get the entire landscape in tones of grey, rather than just a shower in the foreground. And now for Yaadein, he’s trying to shoot each of the four major sequences in the film with a different colour scheme according to the four seasons.”
At the lunch organised by his technicians to celebrate his birthday he is at his social best, looking after the comfort of his employees. They flutter around him; some shyly, some looking for attention, which he gladly offers. An eager-to-please team member mentions that Ghai spent more time on the music for Rahul than even the man who set the tunes. “I’m investing in the film, right?” is his casual retort. He is known to have a keen ear for music. He plays the piano, tabla and the flute. He describes it as “instinctive talent” a new favourite term that vends its way into the conversation regularly. Ghai then gets talking, without meaning to direct it at anyone in particular. “I was telling Anu Malik the other day, ‘You are not a music director. You are a songwriter. A R Rahman is a music director.’ He didn’t like it at first. But when he got home, he called up and said I was right.”
Talking to Subhash Ghai you notice two things almost instantly. One, an anecdote would invariably crop up that would put down somebody and indirectly show himself in a prophetic light. And two, an anecdote that illuminates his own aura as a visionary, a self-made messiah of Hindi cinema. And his life story which he relates is like a script of one of his own movies—the middle class boy with no Godfather who worked to become the most powerful (and yes, visionary) film-maker in commercial Hindi cinema.
Having started out as a marketing executive in his father’s company, Neelam Dental Goods, Ghai learnt the techniques of selling at a very young age. It is an instinct that has served him well. He trained to be an actor at FTII and struggled for two years to become one in Mumbai. The closest he got to fame was playing Rajesh Khanna’s pilot friend in Aradhana. “It was not a pleasant time,” he recalls. After a host of nondescript roles in inconsequential films, he switched to story writing (he wrote Khan Dost for Raj Kapoor) and then direction and soon got his ego retribution by dominating the very stars who were his rivals in his actor days.
Today, he cannily reinvents his failed attempt to become an actor for the record. “Acting was just a hobby,” he says, “if I wanted to become an actor, I could write a good role for myself, something that would suit my age, and become a star. I could have done it 10 years back. But I have seen actors up close—acting is a very demanding profession, so much to give and nothing to gain, except that you are the media’s delight and people’s delight. You are a delight for somebody else but you’re a fright for yourself because you have to live up to an image at all times. Actors are puppets. They live on borrowed glory—they speak borrowed lines… The credit or discredit of an actor’s performance should go to the director.” Nevertheless he makes a Hitchcockian cameo in every film of his till date.
His directorial debut, Kalicharan (1976), was a crime thriller starring Shatrughan Sinha and Reena Roy. The FTII-graduate Shatrughan Sinha was considered a villain at the time and casting him as the protagonist proved to be a coup for the debutant director. After its success, he cast the same pair in his next film, Vishwanath, followed by Gautam Govinda, both average hits at the box office. Then came Karz with Rishi Kapoor. Based on The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, the storyline challenged the sensibilities of the Hindi film audience. But it was packaged in suitably commercial garb. For the song, Om Shanti Om, Ghai had Rishi Kapoor dancing on a giant LP. Revealing his genius in marketing, Ghai got the LP branded by HMV, which became a regular feature in the movie merchant’s future career. Three years later in Hero, he had the anti-hero Jackie Shroff ride a Rajdoot motorcycle. Somehow, the rest of the industry caught on only when he openly flaunted Coke bottles in Taal in 1999. For his next venture Yaadein, Ghai has managed to get a whopping Rs 3.5 crore as endorsement fee from sponsors Hero Cycles, Coke and Pass Pass.
He has never been a trend-setter, but he caught on to trends very fast and successfully. In 1988, after Mansoor Khan’s youthful love story Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak became a sleeper hit, followed by Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya in 1990, Subhash Ghai began working on a young love story with a fresh romantic pair, Vivek Mushran and Manisha Koirala, called Saudagar. Five years later, after Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge became a rage, Ghai began working on a script which was too cleverly disguised to be called a copy, yet too similar to be entirely unaffected by the original. In Pardes, like in DDLJ, Ghai introduced an NRI hero (Shah Rukh, ditto), an intercontinental love story and a finale in which the hero must convince the family that he loves the girl rather than fight with goons to rescue his beloved. Some euphemistically called it a tribute to Aditya Chopra’s film. Ghai called it business as usual.
Following Mani Ratnam’s success with Dil Se in the UK, Ghai sought out the NRI audience with a vengeance with his musical spectacle Taal. The story was nothing to write home about and the performances average. But always the shrewd businessman, Ghai made sure that the movie was a spectacle in terms of the choreography and sets, and great dance music—a combination that would not go wrong with the NRIs. He got the then newcomer Aishwarya Rai and the almost over-the-hill Anil Kapoor as the main stars (he may have thus saved a lot of money in terms of star fees), but paid top money (rumoured to be in the region of Rs 2 crore) to get A R Rahman to compose the songs. “You can’t waste a talent like Rahman for any and every film,” Ghai says. “He deserves no less than a musical.” Ghai’s risk-taking more than paid off. The music was an astounding success. To deter piracy, 16 lakh units were released at the same time and for a few weeks Taal was selling an album a second! The film entered the US Top 20 charts of Variety magazine, and the UK Top Ten, proving to be the most successful Hindi film till date in the US and UK.
If you overlook the Mukul Anand box office turkey Trimurti, and more recently Prakash Jha’s Rahul, which Ghai produced, he has had only two flops (the last one being in 1981) of 14 films as writer-director in his 25-year-long career. Compare it to Spielberg who has had nine flops, he reminds you. But as screen writer-friend Kamlesh Pandey says, “His films just fall short of being great. In fact he jokes about the producer in himself taking over the director.” That has been the common complaint with Ghai. It is said that he begins every new film with the intention of experimenting and setting a new trend, until the economics doesn’t quite work the Ghai way. He reverts to playing safe. Ghai is a businessman to the bone. Of course one can now justify this play-safe method as a feeling of responsibility for Mukta Arts, his film making company that went public recently. He plays it so safe that he got himself insured recently for a mind-numbing Rs 18 crore under the LIC Jeevan Shree policy, making him the largest policy holder in the country (followed by Bharat Shah at about Rs 15 crore and Govinda at Rs 10 crore). Of course the premium will be paid by the public limited company.
Thus it is not surprising that the first preview of Ghai’s movies usually takes place at his own home for his servants, and then for a bunch of housewives, to gauge audience reaction. He aims to please the majority, and thereby targets the lowest common denominator. “Ghai’s a very simple dal-chawal guy at heart. He is a great people manager and handles the media as well as stars with finesse,” says Pandey. He cashes every opportunity for promotion and publicity. His casting of Sanjay Dutt as the anti-hero for the first time in Khalnayak coincided with the actor’s incarceration under TADA as well as a strongly rumoured affair between Sanjay Dutt and his leading lady, Madhuri. And then 42 political parties called for a ban on the Choli ke peeche song, the Mukta Arts website proudly informs you. Ghai uses every trick in the book, and writes some new ones along the way, to stay at the top of the heap.
Much has been said about his amazing ability to discover new leading ladies, the so called ‘M’ brigade—Madhuri Dixit, Meenakshi Seshadhri, Manisha Koirala, Mahima Choudhury. But even here one can’t miss the business logic. He signs them on cheap, but to his credit takes the risk, and uses his innate ability at promoting and turning them into superstars. He makes them sign contracts that binds them to Mukta Arts for a fixed number of years, which ensures that he continues to benefit from their superstardom a few years after they have hit the big time. The talk within the industry is that Mahima Choudhury is the first heroine to have defied him and broken a Subhash Ghai contract. So it is no wonder that he has flattering things to say about all his leading ladies except Mahima. “She is brash and aggressive,” Ghai says.
Madhuri Dixit remains his favourite actress, long after she ceased to work for him. “Madhuri played her innings very well. She was a star for more than 12 years,” which is more than the average life span of any heroine in the film industry. “She has performed her best and always lived with dignity. She has proved that she is a combination of a good woman, good actress and a good dancer,” he adds in her praise. “For two years I worked really hard on her!” Ghai also harbours a certain fondness for Manisha, whom he literally discovered in a hotel lobby in Delhi. She had heard that he was looking for a fresh face for Saudagar and had landed up with her mother at the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in Delhi. The reception had orders not to let anyone up so she hit upon an unusual way of attracting his attention—she began sending a rose every hour to him. “There were 16 roses, one after every hour,” Ghai fondly recalls, “and I was wondering who was sending it. And suddenly I saw her. She was at my door and I said, ‘Okay, you got the role’. It was a novel idea. I wouldn’t have thought about that.”
The very patronising Ghai is very proud of the fact that his leading ladies continue to hold him in high regard. “Meenakshi, Manisha and Madhuri stand up in respect when they see me even today. It’s very heartwarming because they don’t have to get up from their seats, but they still do,” he says, then adds with a philosophical tone, “if I expect too much, it’s my fault. I cannot blame my actresses, whether it’s Manisha or Mahima.” And then of course, there is the constantly swirling rumour about his libido and the women he works with. “All my heroines look best in my movies,” he pompously states. “I’m very excited about my heroines. I want to portray them the best. I pamper them to such an extent that the media always tries to arrest us for a scoop… gossip that we were in love and all that…”
“Actors are puppets. They live on borrowed glory—they speak borrowed lines… The credit or discredit of an actor’s performance should go to the director.”
Tales of his amorous exploits at his infamous Madh Island bungalow are legendary in the film industry. Many of them allegedly are said to emanate from Ghai’s lips, during parties and lazy afternoon Scotch sessions with ‘trusted’ friends. And in the highly promiscuous world of the Mumbai film industry, it is not considered immoral either, just business: I can make you a star. What can you do for me? And for Subhash Ghai, the talk is that, most newcomers have been willing to do more than change their names.
When asked Ghai says, “It amuses me that I am the most attracted person as far as gossip is concerned.” And then goes on to add, “You will always be respected only once… after your death.” He reiterates that envy and jealousy are natural among his competitors because he is a self-made man. “I am just a lone man who rose from zero to whatever I am today,” he offers in explanation. “I know that I have to concentrate on my job and get better everyday. People who don’t know me and have heard about me or known me through the media might have a different interpretation of Subhash Ghai and I understand their problem. Because many girls and boys come up to me and say, ‘Sir you are so different from what we hear, you’re so down to earth. We thought you must be something…’ I say, ‘What did you think I am some huge elephant or what?’ Now look at all the boys and girls in Mukta Arts… they love me and we behave like friends with each other!”
Whatever the truth, Ghai, in the great tradition of the great Bollywood Lotharios, maintains a very happy family life. Wife Rehana who he renamed Mukta and Ghai share a blissful married life. Mukta these days is quite depressed, he says, because they have lost one of their two dogs. “I’ve never seen my wife so miserable as I’ve seen her in the past few weeks,” says the concerned husband. So he tries to come home early, which is 9 p.m. He ritualistically spends at least three waking hours with his wife before he leaves for work. “We do yoga together every morning,” he informs as he eats his fruit breakfast. “Today we fought, then compromised a while later… phir thoda masti kiya…” Ghai is romantic too. His Saudagar song ILU ILU, a rage at the time, came from a term of endearment to his wife. The couple go for a vacation every year for at least a month, usually after the release of his movie. “I don’t think that she has any complaints. And if at all she does then I see to it that I compensate,” he says. “My wife always knew that she married a film man. A film man means 24 hours of work. So whatever comes back is a bonus. But I take care of my wife…”
His tastefully decorated living room has a perfect view of the sunset. A carefully placed wooden park bench faces the large wall-to-wall sliding glass windows where he spends many an evening looking for inspiration. During the photo-shoot for this article he stares dreamily into the sea and mentions, “I love this view. That’s why we cannot shift from this flat. My wife wants a bigger flat. But I’ve been here since Hero, for 20 years. So if I’m making money, I’m keeping it for the film institute I am setting up.” Some say it has got more to do with the well-known Ghai love for superstitions. Ghai, however, denies it as vehemently as he does about his obsession with the letter ‘M’ when it comes to the women in his life. “I am a very progressive man. I am not obsessed with ‘M’. This has happened just by chance. Otherwise I would have named Ash ‘Mash’!” But she was already a brand as Miss World Aishwarya Rai, which his other heroines weren’t. And Madhuri was purely lucky that she had a name that would draw this man’s attention. Would he have taken a chance with her if her name were Aditi instead? He insists, however, “Pehle bhi aisa kuch nahin tha! It is just like that. Now, I just happened to get married on the 24th of October and I was born on the 24th of January, and producers said that 6th is a lucky date to release my film. I said fine, okay.”
And there is another ‘M’ waiting in the wings as well—his 21-year-old daughter, Meghna. She has completed her Business Management in London, and Ghai proudly states that she works for UK-based e-tailer cdguru.com (in which, I later find, Mukta Arts has a 10 per cent stake). On paper, she is also the director of his company, and he’s glad that she will take over the business development of the company someday. “She’s a very clear-headed young girl. She is not interested in directing, writing or acting,” he says. But he knows that she is the future of Mukta Arts.
Ghai’s other pet project these days however does not have a name starting with ‘M’. His film institute Whistling Woods has been a dream he has cherished for 20 years. “We will create actors, directors, writers and technicians for Mukta Arts and the industry,” he declares. “We want our boys to be trained so they can be competent enough in the international market. We should be able to make a good English movie from India and sell it abroad. Abhi sirf local ki baatein karna achcha nahin hai, we have to compete in the international scenario. I hope to make it the biggest institute in Asia, if not in Asia then in South Asia.” With its affiliation to British and US institutions, it will definitely be bigger than Pune’s FTII.
Ghai, in his characteristic style, has decided that this institute will be the best medium to impart his 25 years of experience and create stars—“10 Subhash Ghais and 100 Shah Rukh Khans”. In all his years as a director, this is his most concrete move to fight against the star system, which he says, has irked him since he started out as a director. Contradictorily, he himself has created stars, and even touts himself as the ‘star-maker’. In fact, it is this star-maker image that draws inexperienced young wannabes into his fold.
In his opinion, young successful actors “are very impatient. Acting has to help you grow as a human being. But the moment you call someone a star he’s stuck there. It cannot be that one or two of your pictures have run successfully and within one year you’re asking for two crore rupees…” He conveniently blames the media for over-celebrating success. Then adds as an afterthought that if there were enough talent in the market, there would be no place for mediocrity in Hindi cinema. Reason enough to spend his life’s earnings on the film institute which will come up on a 20-acre estate near Mumbai’s Film City by next year.
So the Svengali who hand-picked his heroines will now churn them out by the dozen. Whether the Mumbai film industry will be able to absorb so many actresses whose names begin with an ‘M’ is the question. But that should not curb the enthusiasm of the ever-so-flamboyant Subhash Ghai.
This article was first published in the July 2001 issue
Image courtesy: Ashima Narain