Filmmaker Hansal Mehta has two movies out in a single week. On September 11, Omerta, loosely based on the Pakistani terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh and starring Rajkummar Rao, will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. On September 15, the Kangana Ranaut-starrer Simran, about a divorced housewife who becomes a robber, will be released in theatres. Mehta has also served as the creative producer of the upcoming ALT Balaji web series Bose: Dead/Alive, starring Rao as Subhash Chandra Bose.
Mehta’s career was resurrected with the biopic Shahid in 2013 after a series of indifferently received films, including Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000), Chhal (2002) and Woodstock Villa. Mehta didn’t respond to a question about the row over the story and scripting credits of Simran, which the film’s original writer Apurva Asrani claims were unfairly shared with Ranaut, but he did reveal his journey before and after his debut feature Jayate (1999), which was never released.
‘Simran’ in India and ‘Omerta’ in Toronto in the same week. How does it feel?
It is a wonderful time to be making movies. I have two of the best actors and collaborators one can have: Kangana and Rajkummar. Simran and Omerta are both very special films.
I am very excited about Simran. I think it is a cracker of a film, very entertaining and one that I am proud of. For once, I have made an entertainer where my protagonist is not dying. When you will leave the theatre, you will have a broad smile on your face.
How did the ‘Simran’ script evolve from being a crime drama to a slice-of-life comedy?
Since 2014, I had been trying to work with Kangana. The subject did not materialise. In 2015, I approached her with another subject on the sets of Tanu Weds Manu Returns. That too did not materialise.
Then, I was in the US attending a film festival and I read about these petty crimes committed by very ordinary migrants. I shared these articles with Kangana and she said, let’s do it.
In all my films, the scripts evolve over a period of time. It was always a migrant story right from the beginning, but then we added humour and took an intimate look at migrant life. Gradually, the script changed. The Gujarati community became a part of it, which is relatable to my whole cultural background. The crime is part of the character graph.
This is your first film with Kangana Ranaut.
Yes, she is a very, very intense collaborator. I respect her intelligence a lot. As an actress, she surprises you constantly. She is very well-prepared but she also has spontaneity... one of the finest actors of our generation.
What was working with writer Apurva Asrani like?
I don’t want to answer this and invite controversy. One answer leads to 20 other things on social media.
According to a report, the Central Board of Film Certification did not appreciate Ranaut’s ‘colourful language’ in ‘Simran’. Is this true?
That’s the sad part. It is an unsubstantiated report. If the censor board does something, I will be the first person to protest. Remember, I spoke out when the Aligarh trailer got an Adult certificate. The CBFC asked for some audio cuts and I complied. I cannot complain about that because they are bound by outdated guidelines.
If the guidelines are the issue, does a change of guard help?
No. I have always maintained that we tend to focus too much on individuals. I have been making films for almost 20 years and I have seen different chairpersons. Each had his own personality, political leaning and cultural background. Asha Parekh was the chairperson during Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! Leela Samson was the chairperson during Aligarh. But for how long should we focus on the person?
The real job is to get a fresh set of guidelines. A new Cinematograph Act should be drafted immediately.
‘Omerta’ has an out-and-out unsympathetic character Omar Sheikh as the protagonist.
As a filmmaker, you seek challenges. After Shahid, Citylights and Aligarh, I wanted to break free from my filmmaking habits. Those kind of films I could make easily. They were tragedies. With Simran, I have tried to make a happy film.
In Omerta, Sheikh is unsympathetic, but the film is a character study. A study of evil as a human characteristic. We are studying a mind that conspires to destroy. A man with a family and a normal life and yet he starts a journey of destruction which he can justify to himself. Through this character, Omerta is also a study of the times we are living in.
‘Omerta’ is your fourth film with Rao.
Five collaborations, actually, if we include Bose: Dead/Alive. It is difficult to describe our relationship. He and his family are close to me. I still keep telling him that I feel grateful that he came to my office one day when I was casting Shahid. Without Rajkummar, there would be no Shahid, and without Shahid, I wouldn’t be here today.
How did ‘Bose: Dead/Alive’ happen?
Ekta Kapoor and her team had been working on the script for Bose: Dead/Alive for a year and a half. Rajkummar was cast after that. I was brought in as creative producer in March. The show has been directed by Pulkit, a young and very enterprising director.
The trailer fuels the conspiracy theory that Bose did not die in a plain crash in 1945.
I am not supposed to be discussing the script or telling you what we are trying to say. We are delving into the various theories around his death and through these theories, we are looking back on his life. It is like a political thriller, in a way.
Are you also attached to ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ adaptation?
Yes, but I am under contract to not speak about it as well. A new director, Vijay Gupte, is making it.
How did you become a filmmaker?
The journey was a bit of a ride. I am an accidental filmmaker. I had a very ideal childhood, nothing traumatic, and I was a computer programmer. My life became abnormal when I decided that I want to enter the filmmaking business.
I always loved cooking, so I pitched a food show to Zee TV. That’s how Khana Khazana began with Sanjeev Kapoor. He is my first success story.
I would also edit to make ends meet. I made friends with Vishal Bhardwaj and Manoj Bajpayee. At that time, Zee TV was commissioning short films. I had no experience of making fiction but I did, and somewhere it appealed to people emotionally, so they asked me to make movies. I thought that was a very far-fetched idea. But today, Simran is my 14th film and I still wonder, how did I start making movies? And that too, so many?
How did you sustain yourself?
I used to do odd jobs. I worked in television, made commercials, and somehow survived. It was not easy. I had to cope with failure, but the good thing was that I did not stop making films. But after Woodstock Villa, I decided that that was it. I wanted to leave for a few years and reinvent myself. Then, Shahid happened.
Your career before ‘Shahid’ is rarely discussed.
I made Jayate, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! and Chhal, three very interesting films. But they were ahead of their time. There was no audience at all, no right platform.
Today, I would like to make Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! again. I wanted to make that film on a Super 8 camera. But Manoj had become a big star after Satya and the film became a proper feature. And with that film, my romance with migrants began. If you notice, a lot of my films deal with the migrant issue, stories of outsiders and aliens in a different space. Be it Ramchandra Siras in Aligarh, Praful Patel in Simran, Deepak Singh in CityLights or Ram Saran Pandey in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!
But you are a Mumbai native.
I was born in Bombay. But now, I live in Mumbai.