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The very public Mahesh Bhatt’s most private interview ever

I am a bastard child to a Muslim mother, what do I know about being a father, he says

brunch Updated: Jul 29, 2018 12:51 IST
Kausar Munir
Kausar Munir
Hindustan Times
Mahesh Bhatt,daddy issues,personal
From Arth (1982) to Zakhm (1998), Mahesh Bhatt has regularly used his personal relationships as fodder for his films (Prabhat Shetty)

I’m waiting at Mahesh Bhatt’s home for my afternoon appointment with him. He’s three minutes late and enters apologising profusely. If I didn’t know him better, I’d think the enfant terrible of Hindi cinema was patronising me. But he wasn’t. Not today, and not that day four years ago when I entered his warmly-lit cabin for a possible lyric-writing gig. Sitting beneath a radiant portrait of Tagore, he surveyed my face as if searching for something and found a resemblance with a man he cursorily knew. The man I reminded him of happened to be my father. Trying to play it cool, I informed him that my father had died just over a year ago. He reached for my hand, I hesitated; he didn’t persist. He simply narrated his brief but beautiful memory of my father.

“As you grow older, you tolerate more things in yourself and extend the same to your parents”

Soon I reached for Mahesh Bhatt’s hand with teary-eyed gratitude. Not just because he shared this memorable story about my father, but because of the gentleness, generosity and grace he told it with.

I’ve found the thought to thread this chat with, ‘The Father Figure’.

“But I don’t know what a father really is,” he says. “I never really had one. I have no worthwhile memories of my father, therefore no idea of what a father’s role should be. I am the bastard-child of a single Muslim mother, of Shirin Mohammed Ali.”

But your name is Mahesh Bhatt. Shirin Mohammed Ali surely didn’t give you that name?

Bhatt with his mother, Shirin Mohammed Ali, who was a Gujarati film actress

“I remember asking my mother what the meaning of my name was. She said, I’ll ask your father, he’s the one who named you. So, I waited until the next time he came around and said that Mahesh meant ‘Maha-Eesh’ the God of gods. But as a child I didn’t like this angry God who beheaded his own son. I’d have much preferred to be named after Ganesha. I used to sleep with a little Ganesha under my pillow as a child, he was my favourite deity. Just like Ganesha’s father, my father was a stranger to me. He was absent.”

Sons and love

From Arth (1982) to Zakhm (1998), Mahesh Bhatt has regularly used his personal relationships as fodder for his films. Dysfunctional relationships have often been at the centre of his best work. But for him, the most important motif of all remains that of the ‘absent’ father.

“I couldn’t be the son that my mother dreamed I would become,” he says. “I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. I was never good at school, couldn’t get a job, I was a disaster when I tried to do things the way the world wanted me to. But I came into my own when I stumbled upon my autobiographical idiom – where I got to say things the way I wanted to. To be able to talk about the ‘hidden’ things, about what I was embarrassed, about who I really was. So, all my dysfunctional relationships, beginning from my absent father, have helped me become who I am.”

Bhatt’s parents Shirin Mohammad Ali and filmmaker Nanabhai Bhatt

His absentee father, Nanabhai Bhatt, may have been the filmmaking pioneer in the family, but the formidable ‘Bhatt’ name as we know it today was established by Mahesh Bhatt. One could say, in the end, Mahesh held up the family name and made his father proud.

“I made peace with my father much before the end, because I saw in him my own inadequacies,” says Mahesh. “As you grow older you tolerate more things in yourself and are forced to extend the same tolerance to your parents. Life humbles you, and the ‘holier than thou’ attitude that you take in your youth doesn’t hold good anymore.”

“I started out being a scared father. I didn’t have one so I didn’t know how to be one!”

Are you alluding to your own inadequacies as a father, particularly towards your son Rahul? I question. He takes his time to answer. Mahesh Bhatt rarely, if ever, takes time to answer.

“There was a wound there... I left home when he was around three and he felt I had abandoned the family for another woman. And this was a grievance I couldn’t deny him because it was true,” he says. “The father-son bond even though in tatters was never fully broken, so when the David Headley crisis happened, the family came together. Sunny (Rahul Bhatt) realised that the father he thought wasn’t there, had never really left. Slowly we began rebuilding our relationship and I urged him to use his anger against me to fuel his goals. And he managed to do that. He is now a fitness guru. He trains all kinds of important people, but not once has he used my name or connections to promote himself. Nor has he ever tried to use my guilt to his advantage. He’s an entirely self-made man and I’m very proud of that.”

And what about him, I wonder. Is he proud of you?

A smile shines on his face. “Sunny is a man of dignity.

He means what he says. And he said to me, ‘they don’t make men like you anymore, sir’. To hear that from a child you’ve wronged feels good.”

His absentee father, Nanabhai Bhatt, may have been the filmmaking pioneer in the family, but the formidable ‘Bhatt’ name as we know it today was established by Mahesh Bhatt ( Prabhat Shetty )

Daughters dearest

When Mahesh Bhatt walked out on his first marriage, he not only left behind a ‘wronged’ son but also a ‘wronged’ daughter. But that’s a phrase he never attaches with Pooja, his oldest child. The phrase that he does attach to her is ‘favourite child’.

“Sunny [Rahul Bhatt] said to me, ‘they don’t make men like you anymore, sir’. To hear that from a child you’ve wronged feels good”

“Pooja is quite like me in some ways. It is impossible for her to not speak her mind,” he says with admiration. “But there’s something else that binds me with her more than any of my other children: the bond of struggle. She has seen the father she loved and thought had an enormous talent roaming penniless on the streets of Bombay, looking for work. This and other such moving images will always remain in our shared history. Even today Pooja gets very moved by the emotional heat I radiate. Very moved…”

Mahesh Bhatt (centre) with daughters Pooja, Shaheen and Alia

Then who among the Bhatt progeny can possibly contain the constant churning of their father’s feelings?

“Shaheen.” His older daughter from his second marriage to Soni Razdan. “At the age of 15, she was the mother I never had. I mean in terms of emotional wisdom,” says Mahesh. “My mother loved me unconditionally, but Shaheen understands me unconditionally. Her journey into the dark wilderness of depression has given her an amazing depth of understanding. It’s evident in her writing. She has the capacity to process complex emotions and the courage to cope with them. I pose to her a difficult question and she is the only one who can give me a clear pointed answer.”

“Brand Mahesh Bhatt has found a new lease thanks to Alia”

And what do you give her?

“Hope,” he answers almost reflexively. “The fact that I was able to cope with the tumultuous ups and downs of my life gives her hope. It inspires her to believe that she too will be able to overcome her difficulties. And that makes me very happy.”

I come to the inevitable question. How does it feel to be known as the father of India’s brightest new star, Alia Bhatt?

“I’ve already had the experience of being a star-father when Pooja came into the movies. But Alia’s success is phenomenal and it’s totally her own doing. She ventured all by herself into this very tough business and has surprised me with her own toughness,” he says almost in awe.

Bhatt’s first wife Lorraine Bright became Kiran Bhatt after marriage

Surely the infamous Bhatt genes have some part to play?

“On the contrary,” he insists, “Brand Mahesh Bhatt has found a new lease thanks to Alia.”

Soni Razdan and Mahesh Bhatt with daughters Shaheen and Alia

And what about Daddy Mahesh? What’s his equation with Alia?

“Alia is graceful enough to concede to me that she doesn’t allow herself permission to venture too close to me,” he says cryptically.

I look confused.

“I can be overwhelming,” Mahesh explains.

No argument there.

“When Alia says to me that sometimes it takes her two days just to prepare to come and see me, I know what she means. I can often be too much to take. Too much to bear,” he reveals. “But now, according to her, I’m getting calmer. So she’s getting more comfortable with my outpourings.”

My kids: Their own people

(From left) Pooja, Rahul, Alia and Shaheen Bhatt

While speaking about each of his children, Mahesh Bhatt’s voice sounds almost reverential.

Respect, more than love, seems to be the abiding emotion there. I could be wrong.

“You’re not wrong,” he says thoughtfully. “I started out being a scared father. As I said earlier, I didn’t have one so I didn’t know how to be one. But somewhere along the way I learnt to respond to their needs. Like today I’m uncharacteristically wearing white, because you wanted it for your pictures. So I figured the best way to be a father is to respect my kids enough to let them be who they are. And for me to be the kind of father they want me to be. I’ve tried to be emotionally faithful to each of my children.”

Definition of father

A man who respects you enough to let you be yourself; is there for you in the way you want him to be; is emotionally faithful. Source – Mahesh Bhatt.

I’m tempted to ask if any man has ever fit this definition of father in his life, but I don’t. Mahesh Bhatt has called U G his friend, philosopher, guide, beloved, companion, soulmate, mentor, guru etc.

But never a father-figure.

It strikes me that in the course of this chat, he often refers to U G as his “old man”.

Bhatt’s conversations are peppered with repeated references to philosopher U G Krishnamurti who he calls his “old man”

PS: Almost every chat, major or minor, I’ve ever had with Mahesh Bhatt has been punctuated with constant references to the renowned philosopher U G Krishnamurti.

The next day he mails me a picture of himself and UG.

The line below the picture reads: “The father I never had. You helped me arrive at this”.

Mahesh Bhatt with author Kausar Munir

Author bio: Kausar Munir is an award-winning lyricist who has penned songs in movies like Padman, Secret Superstar, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Dear Zindagi, amongst others. She is also a scriptwriter, and is recognised as one of the brightest young talents in Bollywood today.

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From HT Brunch, July 29, 2018

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First Published: Jul 28, 2018 21:54 IST