Twenty years after class got over, the three men met and hugged each other outside a movie theatre, telling each other the story they had never told anyone: all they had touched since had turned gold.
That, of course, would have been the Bollywood version of the story of director buddies Raju Hirani, Sriram Raghavan and Rajat Kapoor. Hirani created Bollywood history with the “Munnabhai” films, Raghavan just joined the A-list with the cracker Johny Gaddaar, and Kapoor proved his point on his kind of film-making yet again with the just-released witty thriller Mithya.
But for almost 20 years after they studied at the Film and Television institute of India (FTII) in Pune, the reality was more like a 1970s arthouse movie. Armed with just their ambition and talent, they wrote scripts and planned movies and patiently heard producers say “No”.
Until now — until they ran into the new Bollywood. The three friends are now among a small group of Bollywood’s new thought leaders — audacious directors helping define the new Hindi cinema. They are being wooed to make the kind of films no one would touch a few years ago.
“This is the best time for filmmakers like us,” said Raghavan, now working on his next film with John Abraham and Aishwarya Rai. After that, he directs Saif Ali Khan. “We did not give up — but we did not know it would take this long.”
We are standing outside the box office at Fame Adlabs, one of Mumbai’s earliest multiplexes, on a noisy February evening. Director Sudhir Mishra (Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi, Khoya Khoya Chand) joins in. A small crowd gathers as the HT photographer takes pictures, and a teenage autorickshaw driver walks up to the reporter to show off his knowledge: he knows all the four directors and their films.
That is the new Bollywood — where good, intelligent cinema is also the cinema of the masses, and not labelled condescendingly as "parallel" cinema.
“After the release of the first Munnabhai, a director — I won't name him — said in criticism: ‘you broke every rule — you took an action hero and made a comedy, you shot indoors, there are no outdoors’ … but now, people have stopped believing in all these pre-conceived rules that they thought worked,” Hirani said.
Not too far away, at a small coffee shop where the movie types hang around, director Sourabh Narang takes another sip of his coffee and lists what else he sees changing around him.
“Just look at the kind of people coming in from non-traditional pools — there are doctors, lawyers, former bankers. They want to be assistant directors,” said Narang, who directed Vastushastra, is now doing a film for UTV.
“When I came to Bombay eight years ago, the profile of the assistant director was different. There was a big city focus. Now we have people from Kanpur and Meerut — and they wear it proudly as a badge,” Narang said.
But in this melee, some see the spectacle of the proverbial fools rushing in.
“It is a very slippery street. Opportunities are many. There is a temptation to rush in without proper experience or qualification,” said Milan Luthria, director of films like
Hattrick, Taxi No
. 9211, and
. “If at all we see a dip, it will be because of this.”
Young men and women, some in their twenties and thirties, are being signed up as directors. Many directors have multiple film deals from corporate filmmakers.
“There seems to be too much money around, people signing three-film and five-film deals with actors and directors. There is a level playing field to some degree,” said Raghavan, his bag slung over his shoulder. “But I hope to guard myself against getting trapped in the ‘big film’.”
Hirani is buzzing with optimism: “This a great time to make a different kind of cinema.”
Hirani grew up in Nagpur, where he did theatre and grew up on the work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and other favourites, and finally, after film school, came to the city where all dreamer and filmmakers finally aspire to come. He worked on several advertising films, began working with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, for whom Hirani made the genre-setting Munnabhai MBBS.
“Raju Hirani Munnabhai!” someone mumbles in the small crowd around the autorickshaws.
A huge poster of Mithya looms behind the three FTII buddies. One of the evening shows is on now. A young woman walks up for autographs of the directors.
That image is a long journey from many images of the past two decades, when they made documentaries — and lived through frustrating times when even if a good film was made, it had no hope of being screened.
“We all ended up doing nothing for a long time. I used to make a documentary and it used to sustain us for three months,” said Raghavan. He often watched films at the Topiwala film theatre near his home in Goregaon. Films aimed at the single-screen theatre, films that could please all, were the films being made back then. “Earlier, films were being made only for the front-benchers. Now the films are made only for the balcony viewers, as it were. Now there is no front bench,” Raghavan said. He assisted filmmaker Mukul Anand and briefly worked for the Stardust film magazine as a trainee reporter but would go and watch shoots, come back and write nothing.
“I was thrown out in four months,” he said.
Some other small film jobs and the film school diploma later, Raghavan made a short film on the serial killer Raman Raghav in 1993. It got him attention and a toe in the door, but it wasn’t until 2004, when he made Ek Haseena Thi, that he would be pampered by attention from producers.
Meanwhile, the movie-watching world had started transforming. A new kid arrived in the city. It was called the multiplex, the saviour of filmmakers like Kapoor.
At 21, after breaking up with his girlfriend, Kapoor had taken to theatre in New Delhi to fill the void. He would get before the arclights once again, years later, when he began to get work as a model during the excruciating wait for someone to help him become director.
“For about 10 years I made no money at all,” Kapoor said. “For eight years I took Mithya to every possible producer — between 1998 and 2006. They said ‘mindblowing! but can't produce it’ — and it is understandable."
Kapoor and some others like him are shooting entire films in as little as nine days, turning the entire production model on its head — in a good way. The hugely successful Bheja Fry, in which Kapoor acted, was shot over 12 nights at just 16
locations. When he directed Raghu Romeo and was short of Rs 25 lakh, he began sending out e-mails to friends, urging them to donate Rs 10,000 each, which he would return later.
“My friends got it, then their friends, and before I knew it, I was getting mails from complete strangers, from all over the world. Many gave money as well — and I had what I needed,” Kapoor said.
“After the success of Bheja Fry, I was getting a call from a producer every second day. Me — who has been going around with a script, begging people — ‘please make my film!’” he said. “Now they have woken up to the fact that you can make a film in Rs 60 lakh and still make pots of money.” And even the single-screen Topiwala theatre, near Raghavan’s former home, is turning into a multiplex.