Interview Hindi

Hansal Mehta: Never felt entitlement or that I am a great filmmaker

On his 50th birthday filmmaker Hansal Mehta spoke with about making a film on a real-life villain, his inspiring equation with Rajkummar Rao and how he survived the darkest phase of his career.

Suparna Thombare

Filmmaker Hansal Mehta has been making films for almost 20 years, and with every film he proves why he is one of the most relevant directors of our times. With a repertoire that includes films like Shahid (2013), City Lights (2014) and Aligarh (2015), Mehta's consistent body of work is only just coming together.

The director refers to this successful phase as his "second innings". Before his successful turn in the recent years, Mehta went through a string of failures, including Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), Raakh (2007) and Woodstock Villa (2008), pushing him to the edge where he almost quit films and battled with alcoholism.

Speaking about that dark phase of his life, Mehta says, "It's difficult, a very difficult time to navigate. When I look back, I realise that what kept me going was that I never stopped finding stories. I might have failed, but I kept polishing my craft. And I never saw anything as small or big. I did television. I did all kinds of things. And of course, I did Khana Khazana, which kept me going."

He also has a word of advice of upcoming filmmakers who are likely to go through a low patch while building their careers as a director. "Lots of young filmmakers who come to me, I tell them... they are very selective. They come with a sense of entitlement. I will make only this kind of film with only this kind of actor and this kind of producer, and I will do nothing else. I keep telling them don't feel so entitled," he says.

"I have never had that sense of entitlement that I am a great filmmaker and I should get this. I've never felt that way. I still feel very inadequate and I feel very small. And I'm willing to do anything, even if it is lifting lights on the set, lifting the camera or staying in sub-standard conditions. I am ok with that as long as I am getting to make my film and getting to polish my craft. So my focus is on that. And because I kept my focus on that I've survived all these years. There have been many dark phases where I took to alcohol, and later realised that alcohol was not the solution," Mehta adds.

The director, who celebrates his 50th birthday today (29 April), is once again gearing up to show his cinema to the world. And this time it is a film based on the life of Omar Sheikh, a British-born terrorist, who had links to various Islamist militant organisations. Playing the extremely dark and repulsive character is the director's favourite actor, Rajkummar Rao. 

In a candid conversation with Cinestaan, Mehta speaks about Omerta and gives us an insight into his filmmaking process. Excerpts.

How do you make sure that a real-life villain like Omar Sheikh is not glorified?

You make unpopular choices. As an audience we have become used to expecting justification for the act of the protagonist. I don't. In Omerta I consciously stayed away from justification. It's almost clinical - showing you the man as a clinical psychopath. 

We had built in a few of these layers, where he is profiled racially, where he faces descrimination, where he is angered by the way his community is treated in general and at the work place, in his place of study. But I felt that it would have justified all his [acts]... nothing can justify his acts. As we were shooting, we eliminated some of those things. 

Most of your films are character-driven. Would you say that you are more of a character-driven filmmaker than a plot-driven one?

Definitely. In this second innings definitely. But also Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was a very character-driven film. Yes, I am driven by my characters. I love following them and their journey and through them the plot.

For me, both are important. Now that you have said it, I realise that may be I am driven more by the characters. I don't really analyse my work in that manner. I just have a screenplay, I have a story, go on the set instinctively and organically follow whatever I can — whether it is the story, an event or the character. Then when you have an actor like Rajkummar in your film you end up following him and his interpretation of the character. And it becomes character-driven.          

There are very few director-actor duos that consistently make great cinema. What is it about your creative equation with Rajkummar Rao, apart from the personal rapport?

I think they are both intertwined, the personal and the professional. And because of that there is an understanding when we are working. He has some of the qualities that I would want to see in my wife. He is understanding and if I am dissatisfied, he senses it. 

Was there any time when Rajkummar said no to doing something? Because as an actor he is known to push himself beyond limits. 

No. In fact, in the torture scene in Shahid. It was initially just him and the cop, and he was supposed to be sweating profusely. When I went on location I told him to take off his shirt. So he took off all his clothes and just sat there. He was completely naked. I said there is no need, don't do it. But he said, 'No, I feel completely exposed at this moment', and he did that. There are times when he pushes himself really hard. 

Even in Omerta, I used to tell him there is no need to be this mean person in real life. Why are you like this? What's happening? Cut off. But that's him. He does not cut off (from the character). Even in Aligarh as Deepu, he was so deeply into that. His discipline and focus on characterisation are exemplary.  I derive inspiration from that. And I think it's the mutual inspiration we provide each other with that becomes food for our films.

Watch the complete interview here.