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The Interview: Hansal Mehta

As John F Kennedy famously said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” It seems Hansal Mehta is a believer of the same. Mehta made films like Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?, Woodstock Villa, Raakh, […]

As John F Kennedy famously said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” It seems Hansal Mehta is a believer of the same. Mehta made films like Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?, Woodstock Villa, Raakh, Shahid, Citylights, Aligarh and Simran. But it was only after Shahid that everything changed for the better. Each of his films told a different human story. He carved a niche for his films and made it to the list of most promising directors. This 2.0 version of Hansal Mehta was extremely busy before the lockdown. He was working on a film titled Chhalaang with Rajkummar Rao, and a web show based on Harshad Mehta’s meteoric rise and fall. Mehta talks about how he has been dealing with the current lockdown and his future plans.

How is the lockdown treating you?

Even before the Janta Curfew was announced, my family and I moved to this village between Pune and Lonavala. It started as a vacation, but then we decided to stay on. There was no buzz about a lockdown at the time, but terms like social distancing were being discussed. We felt it was important to isolate ourselves. This is the very place where I came up with the idea of Shahid when I was on my sabbatical post Woodstock Villa. On one level, it feels like déjà vu. Exactly 10 years later, I’ve a chance to look back at my work. Not all of it has been great. I’ve made six or seven films and two web shows in the last 10 years. It’s been a busy decade. Now, I’m working toward my 3.0 version.

Is the lockdown helping you be more creative?

Creativity is uncertain. It can’t be scheduled. You need to be in the right environment. It is like lightning. It just strikes. Before the lockdown, I had completed the shoot of Scam 1992 (on Harshad Mehta) and a major portion of the show’s first cut. Now, I’m reviewing the material, looking at the edits and making notes. I was supposed to start a film in April. It’s a fantastic script. But this period has given me more time to polish it. My writer’s team is very active. We constantly discuss the script over video calls. I’m developing another script for Anubhav Sinha’s production house, which I will be directing as well. I’ve also been wanting to work on some ideas, but I haven’t put down on paper yet.

Do you think the coronavirus will have an impact on the themes in our films?

Yes, it definitely will. Right now, it feels like we are living in George Orwell’s 1984 and it is scary (I’m also reading the book right now). This lockdown will test your patience because it is not a holiday or a sabbatical. People will oscillate between a gamut of emotions. It is important to observe, experience and let them pass rather than fight it. It is an extraordinary phase that will be written about for decades on how a pandemic affected the entire mankind. People are putting their health on the line to report important stories. Just like World War I and II gave us amazing war movies, I hope this pandemic, a world war of sorts, will also lead to stories about the health professionals, who are the real heroes.

How did you adapt Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu’s book, The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away, for your web show Scam 1992?

It was a challenge to dramatise the book because the story is not written as a piece of fiction. My writers, Sumit Purohit, Saurav Dey and I, began working on the show toward the end of 2017 and it took almost two years for an in-depth research of India’s financial system. The funny thing is back in the day, I was a fresh computer programmer on an assignment initially in Australia and then Fiji Islands. When I returned, the entire Harshad Mehta success story had crashed. I was curious, so I did read a lot about him. Everyone loves an underdog story.

How was it to recreate the ’90s for the show?

The show begins in the late ’70s and moves to the ’90s and 2000s, almost spanning over four decades. It was fun recreating the ’90s, but it was a nightmare to shoot in the city. Mumbai has changed a lot over the last 30 years. My team did a fantastic job with the costumes, the hairstyles and getting those locations and cars of the bygone era.

Chhalaang is your sixth collaboration with Rajkummar Rao. How has your association been?

Sixth, really? I’ve lost count. We have a very special bond. Chhalaang is a new chapter. We’ve attempted something different again. It is a social comedy against the backdrop of sports, where Rao plays a PE teacher. For the first time in our collaboration, Rao is not going to jail or die(laughs). A talent of his calibre cannot be ignored. Rao is in for the long haul and he can carry a film on his shoulders. He is the best actor of his generation on his way to becoming a star.

Despite rave reviews, getting people to the theatres for Aligarh was not easy. If it was released today, would it do better, given the response Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan got?

Aligarh came at the right time, and some films are made for posterity. It paved the way for LGBTQ stories and films like Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan. It allowed mainstream film-makers to explore the theme further. Independent cinema and mainstream cinema always feed off of each other. You introduce new talent, new theme, new stories and challenge mainstream cinema storytelling.

When our films release after the current situation, do you think there will be a huge influx of big and small films?

We need to just wait and watch. When the theatres reopen, the footfalls will be less. We will have to maintain some sort of social distance. The fear of the virus won’t disappear. Since theatres were the first to close, they will mostly likely be the last to open. In this grave situation, thinking about any film’s release seems futile. Post the lockdown, we will know how much the world has changed, how we move on from this, and take life as it comes.

Shahid and onwards, the kind of films you make or started making completely changed. How was that process?

Your work will always have some reflection of your own personality. Film-makers discover something new about themselves after every film, but that was not the case with me. I took a long sabbatical after Woodstock Villa and that’s when I conceived the idea of Shahid. I found stories that I felt passionate about. I rediscovered myself and found my voice. I could look at all my past creative failures and learn from them. How honest was I to my craft and to my soul? I realised that I actually did bad work and the only way forward was to change for the better.