Pooja Bhatt returns with her wild ways
The actress on the verge of a comeback makes a case for adult content in Bollywood #PoojaOnPointbrunch Updated: Jul 09, 2017 00:07 IST
A teeth-chattering ride on a dirt road off the Mumbai-Pune highway lands us in front of a nondescript iron gate with a humble ‘beware of dogs’ sign. The gate opens to quaint cottages; we spot a swing hanging from a tree, a huge bed under the canopy of the sky and a huge birdcage. There are dreamcatchers, bells and mirrors everywhere. The place is edgy, quirky and bohemian, just like Pooja Bhatt, the lady of the house.
“There are dogs inside,” the guard warns us. And we spot six of them…and a familiar face. Pooja’s ex-husband, Manish Makhija, fondly known as Munna or remembered by his screen avatar Udham Singh. He looks completely at home, playing with the dogs.
“We have German Shepherds, gifted by a friend, and the rest are street dogs we have adopted,” Pooja says, ushering us in. Dressed in her favourite colour, black, the actor-turned-producer who kicked the bottle last December, is looking absolutely ravishing.
“You know, we never really got divorced on paper,” says Pooja about Manish, her husband of 11 years, with whom she had amicably broken up three years ago. “I don’t believe that a piece of paper can decide your relationship status. We made a choice to get married, to stay together, to end our marriage and to remain friends. We had no obligations in our relationship other than when you hold each other’s hand, you never let go of it. You need not live in the same room for that.”
That is Pooja Bhatt, as unconventional and unorthodox as ever.
Back to the future
Today, at the age of 45, Pooja is making a comeback as an actor. “Yes, for the lack of a better word, you can say that!” she laughs, lighting a cigarette. “I am acting in a film based on Abheek Barua’s City of Death. It is a dark story that sifts through many layers of Kolkata. I play Rita Brown, a 46-year-old Anglo-Indian woman. This is going back to my own roots: my grandmother was Armenian Anglo-Indian and lived in Kolkata,” she says.
Unlike many other actresses, Pooja celebrates her age. “It is important to age gracefully and embrace your body as it changes with time,” she says. “The problem is that we are obsessed with youth, especially when it comes to women. So, when a heroine goes beyond a certain age, she is made to play the mother of her male co-star.”
“We are obsessed with youth, especially when it comes to women. So, when a heroine goes beyond a certain age, she is made to play the mother of her male co-star.”
Maybe this explains why she has opted for a heroine who is comfortably in her 30s for Jism 3. “India has a fascination with older women as well. India loves its next-door bhabhis and aunties,” she quips. “Also, we need the character to have certain maturity and life experience to pull off the deep dialogues.”
Apart from producing and directing the third film of the Jism franchise, Pooja is contemplating making Sadak 2.“It will not be a remake of the original and no, I am not in talks with Alia to reprise my role,” she says. “The story will start from where we left it. It is difficult to imagine Sadak without Maharani (played by the late Sadashiv Amrapurkar), but it would be incomplete without Sanjay Dutt.” And of course Pooja herself!
Pooja is a delight to shoot with. She even suggests a towel shot for the Brunch cover. “I am okay with everything as long as it is done artistically,” says the actress, who created quite a storm way back in 1993, when she posed naked for Movie magazine with her naked body hidden under a thin layer of paint.
“It was not a publicity stunt,” she says. “I was shown Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover (August 1992) in a painted bodysuit and I loved the concept. There was nothing vulgar about it, and I was shooting with the late Jagdish Mali and Dinesh Raheja – people I completely trusted. My friend Anna Singh painted my body, and we had great fun shooting it.”
Pooja admits that she really enjoyed doing photo shoots. “There was so much scope to experiment. Since we didn’t have easy access to international brands to source clothes and accessories for shoots back then, and innovation was the key. I remember during one shoot, we wanted a Marilyn Monroe look, but we couldn’t find a similar dress. So, we just cut some golden strips and pasted them on! The pictures looked stunning. You could hardly make out what was happening inside – there were tapes and glue all over!”
“People are uncomfortable with women taking charge of their own destiny, especially their physical destinies. There is no denying the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, and Bollywood is a patriarchal industry for sure.”
But because of her bold photoshoots, Pooja was accused of tarnishing the image of the Indian woman. “People are uncomfortable with women taking charge of their own destiny, especially their physical destinies – be it painting her body, be it having a baby, be it to have sex, be it to not have sex,” says Pooja. “There is no denying the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, and Bollywood is a patriarchal industry for sure.”
So a strong, opinionated and vocal woman like Pooja made people in the industry uncomfortable. “Back then, the perception was that heroines are to be seen, not heard,” she says. “I was even told, in no uncertain terms, that if I wanted to make it big here, I would have to learn to keep my opinions to myself.”
But threats made no difference to her: Pooja had never planned to become an actress to begin with.
“This was not my dream job,” she says. “I wanted to become an astronaut or an architect. Films happened by chance. When I was growing up, people like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kumar Gaurav would regularly drop by my house. So I understood very early on, among other things, that this is a very high-stress business, and was not meant for sissies.”
Still, Pooja’s father, director Mahesh Bhatt, managed to trick her into acting at the age of 17 in the film Daddy (1989) by telling her he would cast Twinkle Khanna if Pooja did not do it!
“Daddy gave me credibility. I didn’t want to be known as a star who starts acting after seven-odd movies. I wanted to be known as an actor first and then become a star.”
“It was an author-backed, serious role and I was thrown into the pit with actors like Anupam Kher and Manohar Singh. But I pulled it off,” says Pooja. Whatever little delusions she had left about the industry vanished as soon as she started shooting for Daddy. “I realised that there was nothing glamourous about this industry. What is glamorous about shooting in the sun the entire day? People think, oh it must be so romantic! But, while the hero is holding you passionately, you are more concerned about your makeup melting and your hair getting frizzy.... Kahe ka romance? There is no room! ” she laughs.
But Daddy gave her credibility, both the critics and the audience loved her. “I didn’t want to be known as a star who starts acting after seven-odd movies. I wanted to be known as an actor first and then become a star. With Daddy, I tasted blood. Then came Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991) which became a rage, and then Sadak (1991), which became really big. I remember, Sanjay (Dutt) and I were having a chat when we were told that somebody had stabbed somebody at the ticket counter queue. We couldn’t believe people had become so crazy to watch a movie, and our movie at that!”
There was no social media back then, so you had to actually step out on the streets to get the reactions to the films. Pooja says that it is an illusion that the fans today have come closer to the stars just because they can follow them on instagram or on twitter. “Do you think the stars are really themselves on social media? It is a well-planned image building strategy where even the so-called personal tweets are often measured, sanitised, and PR approved. When we started off, things were far more real and spontaneous. Going for a media interview was like sitting on a shrink’s couch. We would often pour our heart out to them,” she says, as she continues the tradition.
Woman on top
At 21, Pooja pulled a shocker when she decided to turn producer. “People forget that I am the granddaughter of a man named Nanabhai Bhatt who had made more than 150 films,” she says. “Mahesh Bhatt came after him. So, filmmaking is in my blood. It was a natural progression. To be an actor, you have to be self-obsessed, but when you are a filmmaker, you get a macro view. For me that is a bigger turn on.”
Once again she faced the wrath of the industry. “People said, ‘You little starlet, you want to play with the big boys of Bollywood?’ I said, “I most certainly do!’” she recalls.
“We were given a table at the very rear because no one thought we were important enough to get a seat in the front. No one thought a 24-year-old woman producer could be worth anything.”
It was certainly not easy. “I still remember, the year was 1999, and both my films, Dushman and Zakhm, had multiple nominations at the Screen awards. We walked home with 11 trophies,” she says. “But we were given a table at the very rear because no one thought we were important enough to get a seat in the front. I was wearing a Donna Karan linen suit, which had cost me an arm and a leg, but I don’t think anybody even noticed my outfit! No one thought a 24-year-old woman producer could be worth anything.”
Pooja started her career as a producer with sensitive films like Tamanna, Zakhm and Dushman, but soon she was seen venturing into adult content with films like Jism, Paap and Rog. Why this shift?
“When you are embarrassed to talk about sex, you equate it with porn. The problem with most people in our country is they have sex in their minds rather than where it should be.”
“My first production was Tamanna. At the age that Alia (Bhatt; Pooja’s half-sister) is today, I made a film on female infanticide. It won a National Award. But the audience hardly came to watch the film,” says Pooja. “Then I made Zakhm. Again, a sensitive movie based on my father’s life. It was a box office disaster, despite stars like Ajay Devgn, Nagarjuna, Pooja Bhatt and Mahesh Bhatt. Then I made Jism. The business of Jism was more than the collective business of Zakhm, Tamanna, Dushman and Sur. India pretends concerns, but watches something else. At the end of the day I want people to watch my films. I am not interested in making movies that only ten people will watch and will get critical appreciation at some festival. I am a commercial filmmaker and I make no bones about that.”
Still, even Jism, made 14 years ago, was a path-breaking film. “It was the first true adult film of our times,” she says. “When you are embarrassed to talk about sex, you equate it with porn. If you are open to it and realise the simple fact that if two people hadn’t had sex in the first place, none of us would have existed, your approach to it will change. The problem with most people in our country is they have sex in their minds rather than where it should be.”
“The definition of a b***h nowadays is that you know your mind and are unafraid to state it,” says Pooja. “By that logic, I am certainly a b***h.”
Jism was about a strong woman and her sexual needs. “The definition of a b***h nowadays is that you know your mind and are unafraid to state it,” says Pooja. “By that logic, I am certainly a b***h. For I certainly know what I want. More than that, I know what I don’t want. And so did my protagonist.”
Even today, India is not ready for Pooja Bhatt. Her web series on women and orgasms, titled Oh! has been stalled. But knowing her, she will not give up. Good for us. We need her.
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From HT Brunch, July 9, 2017
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