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Meet the masterful Vijay Bhatt — birth anniversary special

On the prolific producer-director’s 110th birth anniversary (12 May), we revisit, along with his granddaughter Pauravi Pathak, his incredible career that began in the silent era and extended all the way to the 1970s.

Sonal Pandya

Born in the Jain pilgrimage city of Palitana, modern-day Gujarat, filmmaker Vijay Bhatt rose from humble beginnings to found Prakash Pictures, famous for films like Bharat Milap (1942), Baiju Bawra (1952) and Himalay Ki Godmein (1965).

Along with elder brother Shankar Bhatt, Vijay Bhatt came to Bombay in the 1920s. He studied at St Xavier’s college and got a degree from the International Correspondence Schools, London, in electrical lighting and traction. But films were always the calling for the two brothers.

Filmmaker Ardeshir Irani, director of India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931), guided them, especially Vijay Bhatt, by selecting his scripts and helping him with the art of scripting a screenplay. Eventually, the brothers set up their first production company, Royal Film Company, which made silent films like Kalo Bhut (Black Ghost) (1932). With the advent of the talkies, they adapted and started making films like Alif Laila (1933) and Nai Duniya (1934) under the banner Royal Cinetone.

Vijay Bhatt on set

In 1934, Vijay Bhatt founded Prakash Pictures with the film Actress. The banner flew high over the next four decades producing classic mythological films and social dramas that connected with audiences. Despite his myriad contributions to Indian cinema, there hasn’t been much appreciation for the man and today's generation has little knowledge of him and his films.

Vijay Bhatt’s granddaughter, Pauravi Pathak, hopes to correct that. She created a website dedicated to him in 2002 when she could not find anything about him online. “Whenever I used to search about him on Google, nothing came up except some DVD photographs of Baiju Bawra and Himalay Ki Godmein. Only two films. I was appalled that how come [there was] no information whatsoever. I said, ‘I have to do something.’ It took around one-and-a half years to put [the website] together.”

Through his films, Vijay Bhatt was instrumental in giving that big break to artistes like Meena Kumari, Jeevan and Manoj Kumar.

Jayant in Mala (1941)

Vijay Bhatt cast former police officer Zakaria Khan in Prakash Pictures’ first Gujarati film Sansar Leela (1933). Khan changed his name to Jayant for the big screen and went on to act in films like Madhumati (1958) and Leader (1964). His son Amjad Khan became Hindi cinema’s most iconic villain with his role as Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975).

Meena Kumari with Bharat Bhushan in Baiju Bawra (1952)

Vijay Bhatt rechristened a promising young child artiste, Mehezbin Naaz, acting in his film Leather Face (1939) as Baby Meena. That young girl went on to become Hindi cinema’s leading actress, Meena Kumari, who returned to the Prakash Pictures fold with Baiju Bawra (1952). The film won two Filmfare awards, one for Best Actress for Meena Kumari and another for Best Music Director for Naushad. The composer, known for his expertise in classical music, was able to show his range and at the same time appeal to the popular audience.

Vijay Bhatt also gave breaks to actor Manoj Kumar, who stepped into Rajendra Kumar’s shoes in the hit film Hariyali Aur Raasta (1962). Suraiya, the popular singer-actress, acted as a child artiste in Prakash Pictures’ Station Master (1942) and sang on the soundtrack for music composer Naushad.

The actor Jeevan, known for playing the character Narad Muni in over 60 films, was first inspired to play that character in Bhakta Dhruva (1947) when Vijay Bhatt had no one to take on the part before the film was to begin shooting. The next day, Jeevan showed up on set as Narad Muni and the rest, as they say, is history.

Pathak would like audiences to remember Vijay Bhatt by the values that were portrayed in his films. Those values, she feels, are missing in today’s films. “In Ram Rajya, it’s all about brotherhood, as usual the story of Ram, stand by your convictions, your parents and everything. [Vijay Bhatt] was like that in real life also. If his elder brother asked him to do something [even at 83], he would go and get it. He wouldn’t ask us to do it. He was like that, my brother has asked me to do it, so I will do it. Those values he followed in real life. We have seen that,” she said.

Vijay Bhatt and his ambitious Ram Rajya remake

The website has a detailed biography about the late filmmaker filled with family photographs and information. Pathak got much of the information about her grandfather from her father, Arun Bhatt (who wrote Himalay Ki Godmein), and her mother, who preserved the documents and photographs over the years.

The family has saved some memorabilia from Vijay Bhatt’s career. For instance, a certificate issued during the screening of Ram Rajya at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, had become brittle, so they got it expertly restored from The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, using the latest techniques.

Pauravi Pathak was around 18 when Vijay Bhatt passed away on 17 October 1993. But she remembers the funny incidents that he would share with his grandchildren to make them laugh. “In Baiju Bawra, for example, when the tears come out from Shankar Bhagwan’s eyes in that song, [art director] Kanu Desai had made this whole set and they made the statue in such a way, in POP [plaster of paris], that the eyes had two holes, and there was a person behind on a ladder near the eyes, and he used to pour water from the pipe, but in the camera it looked like Shankar Bhagwan is crying. We all used to laugh, what an idea!”