Decoding Mahesh Bhatt: A Life In Films

Most of Mahesh Bhatt’s intense films have been deeply personal and autobiographical.

6 min read
Mahesh Bhatt the prolific filmmaker is cool about being identified as Alia Bhatt’s dad.

“I would kill her with an axe!” he had snarled on being asked on a TV interview, “What if your wife had an affair with someone, the way you did with Parveen Babi?”

The words re-dredged here may not be exact, but Mahesh Bhatt – who turns a year older – was Bollywood’s pioneer of quotable quotes which have ranged from the despicably chauvinistic to the sensationally self-flagellating.

The wife referred to in the axe-rated piece was Lorraine Bright renamed Kiran. They had fallen in love, married young when he was 20, divorced and are parents of the feisty actor-director Pooja and son Rahul.


A post shared by Shaheen Bhatt (@shaheenb) on

Subsequently, Bhatt married actor Soni Razdan, converting to Islam since the divorce had taken a while to come through. Soni and he are the parents to Alia and Shaheen.

In the midst of his chequered private life, he had yelled out loud, “I’m a bastard!” in an interview to Stardust, to let the world know that his mother Shirin Mohammad Ali wasn’t formally married to the film producer-director Nanabhai Bhatt. All’s fair in love and life, was the credo of the rebel, often without a cause. Like or loathe him, he made sure he wasn’t ignored. Bhatt is a paradox: complicated with knots and yet as see-through as translucent fabric.

Salim Khan, as a solo script writer after his split with Javed Akhtar, collaborated with Mahesh Bhatt on Naam, Kabzaa and Jurm. At a college event, a crowd of students had rushed up to the the quote-confectioner, for autographs. Salim Khan was ignored then, provoking the director to remark pungently, “See, straightspeak makes me a celebrity. That’s the way to be.” Salim Khan recalled the incident at the time, for me, with amusement, admitting, “Mahesh is always right when he says the wrong things. Simple!”

Mahesh Bhatt with Rajendra Kumar, Kumar Gaurav, Sunil and Sanjay Dutt during the making of <i>Naam.</i>
Mahesh Bhatt with Rajendra Kumar, Kumar Gaurav, Sunil and Sanjay Dutt during the making of Naam.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

I’d see the Khan and Bhatt gabbing non-stop, at Helen’s former home at Somerset House, off Breach Candy. Bhatt was dealing with a drinking problem. Salim Khan enjoyed his Scotch in maharaja-sized pegs. Their collaboration, came to a halt over let’s call it ‘creative differences’. The last time I saw Bhatt at Somerset House he had gone on the wagon (permanently) and was sniffing the fumes from an empty Johnnie Walker bottle, grinning, “There’s no ban on inhaling the scent Scotch, is there?”

Today, Bhatt is in a state of semi-retirement from active filmmaking. Kitted in his uniform-like hang-loose denim shirt and jeans, yesterday’s man of tell-all-tales isn’t exactly smelling the roses though. He scans and approves scripts, champions social, political and film industry causes. Bulwarked by his business-savvy brother Mukesh Bhatt, he’s the mentalist behind their film production banner Vishesh Films. And appears to be cool about being identified as the father of Alia Bhatt by the now generation.

Given his score of nearabouts 47 films of varying quality – excellent originals, rip-offs from Hollywood screwball comedies and slick-chic thrillers as well as la-la-land musicals – which have been directed at jaguar speed -- he’s been one of a kind. A significant filmmaker but alas he’s not in the league of the greats, meaning a creator who will be canonised as a legend. Unless, you take into account the fact that he has exhibited troubled passages from his life on-screen, as a means of cathartic therapy. His best works have been frankly autobiographical.

On occasion they have been hurtful to other characters who crisscrossed through his period of self-discovery. Indeed, the spirit of Parveen Babi presides like Banquo’s ghost over Bhatt’s breakthrough story of a dangerous liaison, Arth (1982), which was redesigned into Woh Lamhe (2005), to be helmed by Mohit Suri.
Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Mahesh Bhatt’s&nbsp;<i>Arth.</i>
Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth.

Think Mahesh Bhatt and you think Arth right off, enhanced by the lacerating performances by Shabana Azmi as the cheated wife and Smita Patil as the emotionally fragile other woman. Intuitively or perhaps cleverly, the husband enacted by Kulbhushan Kharbanda, came off as spineless. Bhatt had the balls to be self-deprecating.

The ‘self’ has been Mahesh Bhatt’s identity point. The experiential dramas of being reared by a single mother -- sacrificial and stoic -- elevated the somewhat labyrithine plots of Janam (1985) , rescripted next with the background of communal riots for Zakhm (1998). If the director still yearned for the days of innocence and romance that were, gratifyingly he gave precedence to the girl he had loved and lost, in the song-stacked Aashiqui (1990). Advertently or not, if he had sought to justify his own trespasses and quirks, these films would have been a pain the Bhatt oeuvre. They aren’t.

Anupam Kher, Rohini Hattangadi and Soni Razdan in Mahesh Bhatt’s <i>Saaransh.</i>&nbsp;
Anupam Kher, Rohini Hattangadi and Soni Razdan in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh. 
In the memorable category, Saaransh (1984) figures more than prominently: a retelling of the tragedy faced by a aged couple of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park neighbourhood, who lost their son to a mugging in New York. Reality bit hard in Bhatt’s detailing of the middle-class Maharasthrian milieu which he was familiar with during his growing-up years. Plus there was Daddy (1989) focused on a daughter coming to the aid of her estranged father lost to alcoholism.

The biggest cash-earners from his film cabinet, have been the dark-shaded Sadak (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver rejigged, 1998), the feather-light romcom Dil Hai Kai Maanta Nahin (the 1991 retake on Hollywood’s vintage road movie It Happened One Night) and Hum Hain Raahi Pyaar Ke (1993,‘inspired’ by the classic oldie Houseboat). Plus, the imperilled campus saga Sir (1993, with shades of the Raaj Kumar melodrama, Bulundi) flew at the ticket windows.

Mahesh Bhatt was reportedly instrumental in introducing Vinod Khanna to Osho.
Mahesh Bhatt was reportedly instrumental in introducing Vinod Khanna to Osho.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

A devotee of Osho for a spell and a bhakt of philsopher U G Krishnamurti, who knows when and why the sweet smell of commercial success, catalysed Mahesh Bhatt’s indifference, an ennui towards the daily grind of movie-making. He was replaced by Vikram Bhatt, it is said at the behest of Aamir Khan for Ghulam (1998), substantial sections of Duplicate (1998) had to be ghost-directed by Shah Rukh Khan with producer, Yash Johar’s son Karan, serving as the sounding board.

Stories - sweet and bittersweet - during his make-hay-while-the-sun-shines stretch abound, More than anyone else, I suspect Pooja Bhatt could some day author a biography or a biopic on her dad of paradoxes, who has mellowed to a degree today.

Can any journalist claim to know him? Speaking for myself, I’d say he possessed a compulsive order for acceptance and praise. When he wouldn’t be garlanded with wah-wahs, he could get vitriolic. Gnashing his teeth, he once told me:

Reviews are like trash to be swept away. I was at the airport lounge the other day, someone had littered the place with pages of a newspaper. One of the pages had your review about my film (Sadak). A sweeper binned the page right before my eyes.

Frankly, I laughed out loud, thank you very much. Mahesh Bhatt can get away with vivid, simile-strong squelchers. Which is why years later at the book release of the Aashiqui girl, Anu Aggarwal, I laughed again when he stared at me right in the eye, and said from the dais, rather fondly, “Oh, there’s a critic who didn’t always like my films. I’m glad to see him here.”

Right, Mr Bhatt. Live and let live. Always.

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!