Back in 1993, he started off his career by directing the cookery show, Khana Khazana. Later, he helmed films such as Jayate (1999) and Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (DPMLY; 2000), which didn’t do too well. However, in 2013, Hansal Mehta’s career took off when he won a National Award for his film, Shahid (2012). The film-maker blames himself for his downfall, and says that at one point in time, he felt that he was “creatively dead”. Here, he talks about his roller-coaster journey in Bollywood, and more.
Your career didn’t really take off for a long time. Did that affect you?
From DPMLY till before Shahid, my courage — as a film-maker — was on the decline. I was losing confidence to fight for my convictions. It took me time to understand why I was failing. It (my career) deserved not to take off, since I had no conviction, If I hadn’t failed in all those years, I wouldn’t have found my voice the way I did.
Have you ever analysed your failures?
I blame myself. I should have hung on. I didn’t. I did some terrible work after Chhal (2002). Neither did I make money nor did I get anything as a film-maker. My self-esteem was really low. I had lost the respect of my peers. For my survival, I was willing to make whatever people wanted me to make. DPMLY also left me in debt, and repaying it took a toll on me. I can’t pardon myself for the kind of work I did. Although Woodstock Villa (2008) didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, Sanjay (Gupta; film-maker) supported me at that time. He gave me the job of the head of his production firm. That saw me through a difficult time. But creatively, I was dead.
So, film direction was never planned?
I had thought I would set up a production house. While working on the [cookery] show, I did everything from costumes, editing, mastering of the tapes, and even the delivery of the tapes in a bus from a studio in Mahim to Worli. Except lighting and cinematography, I did everything else, single-handedly.
How did you end up directing a fiction series on TV?
The same GEC I was associated with was doing a show called Love Stories. After a few episodes, there was some problem, so I had to step in as a producer. They asked me to give them some stories, and then I set out looking for a director. But I couldn’t get a director within that budget. So, the channel said, “We thought you are going to direct.” Then, I was like, “let me try.” I remember Shefali Shah was the actress. I felt like I belonged there.
In 1993, I was completely directionless after having failed as an entrepreneur. I was disillusioned. So, I went to Australia on an assignment with a video rental agency, which exposed me to a lot of Indian films. They also had a lot of equipment, camera, lights, and editing tools. Being a tech freak, I started tinkering with them. I would shoot weddings and edit stuff, randomly. When I came back to India, I started shooting local sports events and selling the footage to the organisers [of the events]. That’s when I proposed two ideas to them: one was what we today call a sting operation, but it was meant to address common people’s issues. The other idea was that of a cookery show, as when I was living alone, I used to buy recipe books and cook. I had no plans of making a film or directing a fiction project. I had no idea. I hadn’t learnt the craft at all.
Mehta's Shahid won the National Award in 2013.
Did you direct any more episodes for that show?
When that episode came out, a lot of people said it was beautiful. Around that time, I made a lot of friends. I became friends with a new music composer; we were friends of bankruptcy. His name was Vishal Bhardwaj. At that time, I had asked him to get me actors, writers and stories. He gave me five or six stories, and I picked out one, which he told me was written by him. Since he didn’t know much about screenplay writing back then, he went to Gulzar saab to get some guidance. So, I made an episode based on that story… it was called Highway. Later, I retold that story as part of [an anthology film] Dus Kahaaniyan (2007). But the original one was purer.
Was that the turning point?
That episode (which was written by Vishal) changed my life. Khaana Khazaana and Highway are the two turning points. The first one to call me the next day (after the Highway episode went on air) was Subhash Ghai. He told me, “You should make films.” And that just stuck with me. Today, too, I tell him, “You put that idea in my head, and ruined my life.” People like him, Vishal, Ashish Vidyarthi and Manoj Bajpayee pushed me into film-making.
What made you move to films?
It was all thanks to Vishal...Jayate (his debut Hindi film) was produced by RV Pandit who also backed Maachis (1996). Vishal introduced me to him and Gulzar saab. I edited all the trailers and promos of Maachis. They liked my work, so the producer took a liking to me. He felt I had potential. As Vishal and Gulzar saab put in a good word for me, I got my first film. It was a dream.
You admit that you did “terrible” work after Chhal (2002). When did you realise that?
The day Woodstock Villa (2008) released, there was a clearing of all the clouds in my mind. My wife, Safeena Husain, who was running a small business, supported me a lot. So, on May 31, 2008, we left the city and moved to a village outside Mumbai. I lived there for three years. I lived a life of near-retirement. I was gardening, cooking and posting recipes online, besides blogging on passionforcinema.com. That helped me reconnect to the world, and rediscover myself.
What urged you to come back?
I would have continued living in that village if I hadn’t come across the news report about Shahid Azmi. I read the article in 2010, and I was like, “This is a film.” If I have a temple somewhere, I will put his picture there. He changed my life. Shahid Azmi’s death gave me a life.
Was it difficult to make a return? When I came back, I went back and spoke to the same people who had approached me when I was in the village. But they didn’t even hear the full story [of Shahid; 2012]. Eventually, Sunil Bohra, my friend from distressed times, said, “let’s make it. I will get Anurag (Kashyap; director) on board too.” I remember, at that time, at a film festival, Anurag had told a journalist, “Hansal brought me to the industry.” And I said, “He got me back to the industry.”
Like your last film, your next two projects are also based on the lives of real people. Perhaps, that’s why they call you the ‘biopics expert’.
These are just labels. I don’t want to be typecast. So many people have made biopics. Aligarh (his next film) is biographical but an inspiring and disturbing story. Simran is again a complete departure from the kind of films I make. But I have noticed a pattern; all my better films have had a common man play an uncommon hero.
“My biggest blockbuster story has been Sanjeev Kapoor. I discovered him in a kitchen. And the rest is history. He is a huge brand now.”
“While I was making …Jayate, I was tempted to take on an established writer. Then this one time, at Manoj’s (Bajpayee) house, a young guy was peeping in from outside the door while Manoj was asleep. He asked me if I was Hansal Mehta, and said he was a writer and had come to meet me after watching Highway (TV episode). I asked him if he would write my film. That was Anurag’s (Kashyap) first stint as a writer, even before Satya (1998). haven’t had the time for it.
Read: Hansal Mehta to make a biopic on Sanjay Gandhi