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Death of a Filmmaker

It’s often said that to reach the top is easy, it is how long you stay there that shows true greatness. Unfortunately, we’ll never know this about Subhash Ghai; he started from the top, and it’s only been downhill since then.

Mr Ghai had always wanted to be in films. His is a story of a man destined for the show business. His star aspirations were nurtured as a dream since childhood, and grew with him all through till his FTII days, where he specialized in acting. His stint as a leading man in the India film industry started with Taqdeer (1967). The reception was unimpressive, and continued to be so for the few more releases he had. Unfortunately, he has received a much stronger response as an actor since he went behind the camera with his trademark cameos. Of course, unlike Hitchcock they lacked the charm and wit that often endeared us to the master – they were just too obvious! – and therefore almost always came across as pompous and unnecessary. But clearly, here was a man to the spotlight born.

Mr Ghai’s forte has been the narrative, the art of telling a story on the canvas of film. This is no small talent, and it is something his contemporaries might have justifiably envied him for, at least in his glory days. It is this talent that he glimpsed in himself as he was realizing the end of his acting career. He sustained himself as a writer, and debuted with a Raj Kapoor starrer Khan Dost (1976). But as is the norm, there is no fame in writing scripts and Mr Ghai realized that. His patience to be the main man paid off when he had a script that found a producer in Mr N. N. Sippy after being rejected seven times previously. With no director willing to take it up, Mr Sippy offered the baton to Mr Ghai, who obliged gratefully. With his favourite star couple of Shatrughan Sinha and Reena Roy in the lead, Mr Ghai directed Kalicharan in 1976. The film introduced Bollywood’s most famous ‘Loin’, and showcased Shatrughan Sinha as a leading protagonist for the first time. Kalicharan was a popular hit, and Subhash Ghai the filmmaker was born. This was followed by the formidable success of Vishwanath in 1978, a double – role potboiler again starring Shatrughan Sinha. Vishwanath proved his credentials as a director who knew the pulse of the audience. This has been evident in his successes, and indeed, it is the absence of this sentiment that has resulted in his fall from grace in the years to come. But we will come to that later.

What Kalicharan and Vishwanath established, and what his later films like Karma, Saudagar, and Khalnayak confirmed, was Mr Ghai’s instinctive knowledge of what would work on film, and what would not. He always had his audience in mind when he wrote a scene or dialogue, or when he created a character or a situation. His larger – than – life movies found an echo in the moods of cinegoers in the 70s and 80s, when realism in Indian cinema had taken a backseat and mass appeal had become the order of the day. Mr Ghai was intelligent enough to recognize this, and set about pursuing and refining the Subhash Ghai brand of cinema, which had just one motive – to entertain the audience at any cost. This gave birth to characters like Ajith’s ‘Loin’, Anil Kapoor’s Lakhan in Ram Lakhan, Anupam Kher’s Dr Dang in Karma, the two thakurs of Saudagar, and Sanjay Dutt’s Khalnayak. Each of these was larger then the film itself, and dominated the audience’s minds when they saw his films. His characters were outrageously unreal, his dialogue played to the galleries. Yet it worked, because he knew it would. It was not a chance. It was a remarkable achievement for a director. Even though this compromised the script itself in his later ventures, Mr Ghai’s skill in creating characters and writing dialogue for them won him a loyal audience, exactly the effect he desired. Only a Shatrugan Sinha in a Subhash Ghai film could carry off lines like

“Jali Ko Aag Kehte Hain, Bhuji ko Raakh Kahte Hain, Jis Raakh Se Barood Bane Usey Vishwanath Kahte Hain.”

Post Vishwanath, Mr Ghai had his first directorial failure in Gautam Govinda, yet again with Shatrughan Sinha. But he considered this to be a mere blip. His first two films had given him the confidence that he knew how to make a film that would work, and he was now ready to really take his place among the great filmmakers of India. However successful, Kalicharan and Vishwanath were not quite the grand films that he wanted to make. While the elements were there, the canvas was not. This was soon to change.

Karz (1980) swept the country, and catapulted Mr Ghai to the uppermost pantheon of the Indian film industry. The Rishi Kapoor-Tina Munim-Simi Garewal starrer was a revenge and reincarnation saga, with generous doses of action, romance, and drama propping a seemingly implausible storyline. Mr Ghai’s treatment of his material was excellent. Even clichéd situations and clumsy plot devises were undeniably effective, and often impressive. The film stood out for a lot of unconventional ground that it covered for a mainstream Bollywood film. From his use of flashback and a riveting background score as useful plot devices to casting a woman – Simi Garewal, superbly played – as a scheming villain, Karz was a fresh breath of air amongst its other contemporaries that were caught in the trappings of conventional Bollywood plots of the time. The film also stood out for its outstanding music. Till today, audiences continue to be mesmerized as they watch Rishi Kapoor accusingly sing “Ek hasina this, ek deewana tha” to his murderer and wife of former birth Simi Garewal, as he reveals his true identity to her. Simply put, it was all magic. For Mr Ghai, Karz was a triumph as a filmmaker. All his strengths in storytelling were on display. The narrative was superbly paced, and flowed seamlessly with its characters and the timelines of two births. The revelation of Rishi Kapoor’s previous birth is a thrilling sequence – even though it is obvious to the audience by now – and displays just how well Mr Ghai could capture his audience’s imagination. That it went on to be a huge commercial hit strengthened his belief in himself, and set the tone for the grandiose style of filmmaking that he has held on since. Epic canvases, lavish treatment, excellent songs and music, and great performances became a hallmark of Mr Ghai’s films. With Vidhata, Karma, Ram Lakhan, and Saudagar, he also added huge star casts to his film tool-kit. Mr Ghai had certainly discovered a blueprint for success in Bollywood in the 80s and mid 90s.

But simultaneously, one thing that had been the foundation of his early success made a quite exit from his films – the integrity of a strong script. Karma, and to a certain extent Hero, were exceptions to this; both were superior in treatment compared to the others that followed. Perhaps the distractions of pursuing the calling of a shrewd businessman in him had something to do with a dramatic fall in the quality of cinema he has pursued since the insipid Khalnayak. The late 90s was a period of strong commercialism in India. A rapidly growing consumer market spurred the growth of tremendous opportunities to make money, and mass media like print, TV, and film were beginning to be perceived as the road to the end of this rainbow. Mr Ghai, never a fool, saw tremendous opportunities in using his position to take advantage of this environment. From being the first director to having a film insured, to taking his production house public, he quickly made it clear that commercial gains were just as important as making good films. His natural instincts to leverage his strengths manifested more and more as a businessman, and less as a filmmaker. This was best exemplified in an interview prior to the release of Pardes (2001), his first film with Shahrukh Khan. When asked why he was aping Yash Chopra’s genre of romance in his films and not sticking to his own brand of cinema, he answered it was to cater to the NRI audience (Mr Chopra’s primary target audience), because [verbatim] “why should I make a film for someone sitting in Bihar who will pay 50 rupees when I can make it for someone overseas, who will pay Rs 200 to see it.”

I’ve come to believe that filmmaking – great filmmaking – is a highly intimate affair, where the director is involved with the film personally at some level or the other. Sidney Lumet said it as much. In his pursuit of profit, Mr Ghai forgot to be a filmmaker first and a businessman afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is really important for filmmakers in India – and everywhere, really – to be savvy and keep a tight rein on the economics of every film they are involved it, and often consider box office performance as a factor in making the film. It just should not be the first priority, that is all. Unfortunately, Mr Ghai didn’t see it that way. He stopped putting in a little bit of himself in his work, and that just didn’t work. I believe this is where his films lost the integrity of a filmmaker, and became business products that had to have returns on investment instead of an art form. I believe this is where Mr Ghai has fallen as a filmmaker, and sadly enough, I don’t think this state of affairs bothers him.

If Khalnayak was bad, and Pardes – thanks only to Shahrukh and it’s music by Nadeem Shravan– just about bearable, Taal, Yaadein, and Kisna were possibly the worst films to be released in those years. I cannot comment on Kisna, not having seen it – though extremely credible sources have things to say that would make entertaining reading here. I sat through Taal and Yaadein, wondering just that the hell was Subhash Ghai was doing. Taal is a love triangle with a plot so mangled, manipulative, and predictable, you might be forgiven in thinking that it was an extended spot for Coke, clearly the official sponsors for this disaster, and clearly not the only ones. The film was marked by an extremely weak script that resulted in embarrassingly contrived plot situations – remember Amrish Puri insulting Alok Nath in his house? – and left little that A R Rahman’s outstanding music could salvage. Yaadein was worse; possibly the most pathetic, superficial, and parochial film I have seen coming out of Bollywood from a major filmmaker. Jackie Shroff’s speech in the end of the film, meant to be a high point of drama and resolution of conflicts (pah!) was the most servile piece of celluloid writing I have been witness to in the new century. The message of the film, about family and Indian values, is conveyed in such a regressive manner that it is not possible to appreciate anything else the film offers, so repulsive is the execution. Mr Ghai took the ad placements one step further, and I remember a scene where Kareena Kapoor is holding a brand of gum high up next to her face, smiling, and talking about it being the best gum for young people. I mean, it was a bloody advert inside the film with no pretense to anything else whatsoever. Tackiness took on new meaning as well with this film, if you remember the unbelievable crocodile scene. This one really represents what Mr Ghai’s cinema has come to. In a shameless attempt to show a crocodile chasing Kareena Kapoor (don’t even ask why that happened in the first place), the sequence plays out like this: cut to a petrified Kareena Kapoor looking in the direction of a croc, and running. Cut to the croc, snarling fiercely. Cut to Kareena running. Cut to the croc still chasing. Cut to Kareena running, and her scarf flying off. Cut to croc with scarf on his mouth. She might as well be running on a treadmill, and the croc might as well be a clip from a Discovery documentary, patched together to create this sequence.

Oh my god.

Since Kisna, Mr Ghai has not made or announced any film as director. He has continued to produce films under his production company Mukta Arts, with Iqbal being the only film of note of the five that have been made since. Even the businessman in him will have told him by now that there is something seriously wrong with his films, and ironically, that might be the call he needs for the filmmaker in him to sit up, look back, and see where Subhash Ghai the director lost his way in the last decade. Or maybe not. He has been in the news in the last year mainly for Whistling Woods, a film school that aims to provide training in all aspects of filmmaking, much like FTII. Perhaps Mr Ghai has made his last film. Perhaps this is the legacy he chooses to leave for posterity. Perhaps the showman was never meant to be anything but that. It will be a sad ending, and it will not be how he would have penned it.

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