In Mumbai last December, I met Mahesh Bhatt, one of India’s most famous and successful film-makers. He told me, ‘Bollywood is part of what our culture has become. We are lying to ourselves all the time.’

It wasn’t what I expected to hear from Mahesh when I emailed him from London, explaining that I wanted to explore the world of Bombay films, or Bollywood, and requesting an interview. I had seen and liked some of his forty films, the autobiographical ones about his illegitimate birth, his unhappy childhood with his Muslim mother, and his extramarital affair with a mentally ill actress, that had made his reputation in the 1980s. Though he had stopped directing films five years back, he still wrote screenplays and supervised his daughter’s and brother’s production companies. He had published a book about his philosopher friend, U. G. Krishnamurthy. He made documentaries, but was also increasingly known for his denunciations in the press and on television of Hindu nationalists, sexual puritans and US foreign policy.

On television, he was a striking figure in his loose black shirt, which set off the remaining white hair on his shiny pate. I had once seen him shout during a debate with a Hindu nationalist leader, ‘I insist on my right to watch pornography.’ ‘Mark my words,’ he said on another occasion, ‘Hindu fundamentalism will destroy this nation.’ More recently, he had turned down an invitation to a breakfast prayer meeting at the White House, and described George W. Bush as the ‘worst villain in the world’.

Drama was clearly important to Mahesh. ‘My God died young,’ he told me, and then went on to describe how he—angered by a God who kept apart his Muslim mother and Hindu Brahmin father—had one day immersed his small statue of the Hindu god, Ganesha, in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai. When I first met him in Mumbai, on the sets of Murder, a film he had written for his brother, he had just returned from his first visit to Pakistan. It had been, he said, a profound, emotional experience. He had felt his buried Muslim self come alive in Pakistan. The visit had also stirred up memories of his long-suffering Muslim mother.

Though only fifty-five years old, he remembered his life as a long journey with clear-cut stages. In his twenties, he had taken a lot of LSD and gone ‘shopping in the spiritual supermarket’. In his thirties, when he finally made it as a film-maker, he had come to know a ‘great inner emptiness’. He felt only sadness as his fax machine spun out box-office figures from across India. It was in Los Angeles, the ‘capital of materialism’, that he had decided to renounce the ‘pursuit of success’. He had rejected his one-time guru, ‘Osho’ Rajneesh, by flushing his rosary beads down the toilet. He spoke with passion and conviction, and I didn’t feel I could ask him if the water pressure in his Mumbai toilet had been strong enough to flush away the beads.

His outspoken views had made him unpopular in Bollywood. ‘He is a self-publicist,’ one film journalist told me. ‘Ask him why he helps his brother and daughter make B-grade films. Or why he rips off Hollywood plots for his scripts.’

But Mahesh was frank about his own work. ‘I have made a lot of trashy films. Recycling old formulas, which is what Bollywood does most of the time. I guess one has to keep working.’ He said he regarded film-making without illusions, as a business like any other. ‘Don’t wait for the ideal offer, there is no such thing,’ he told a young actor, a part-time model with a gym-toned body who had come to seek his advice. ‘What will you do at home anyway, apart from bodybuilding?’

He said, after the actor left: ‘These young people probably want to hear something else. They come to me, they think I am in the business, doing a lot of work, and will encourage them. But I can’t. I can’t make Bollywood bigger than it is.’

I often went to see Mahesh at his office in the suburb of Juhu. I walked straight past the reception to his small room, where I usually found him lying on a long sofa, under a broad window with a view of shanties cowering under grimy buildings. Two mobile phones rested on his ample stomach. One of them rang more often than the other; but Mahesh picked up both at the sound and then, raising his neck from the sofa, squinted at their screens for what seemed a long time before deciding to answer.

He was brusque on the phone, except to his wife and daughter. ‘Who is this?’ he would often ask and then start saying ‘Bye, bye, bye’ at rapid intervals before ending the conversation. The door opened to admit Nirmal, his personal attendant, with tea and coffee, and the young, trendy people working at the office. Occasionally, there would be someone Mahesh had arranged to see: a Pakistani actress hoping to work in Bollywood, a Parsi musician and ballet dancer wishing to try her hand at films, a tall, arrogant-looking actor wearing a Superman T-shirt, who, I learned, was the grandson of a notorious Mumbai politician, and had acted in Murder. Soni, Mahesh’s wife, came once: a petite, shy woman, she had acted in many art-house films in the Eighties and was now trying to direct.

The door opened less often for the aspiring actors, directors, musicians, distributors, and publicists who waited at the reception, hoping to waylay Mahesh or his brother, Mukesh. They grew animated as Mahesh emerged from his room. A couple of them often trailed him, with pleading voices, all the way down to the building’s compound, and spoke rapidly and uninterruptedly until he got into his car, helped by his driver, who carried his small bag and shut his door.

There were more young men at the gate to the walled compound. I saw them every day, chatting with the chowkidar, the watchman, and the drivers of the cars parked inside, breaking off only to gaze expectantly into cars driving in. Mohammed, the driver of my hired car, said that they were ‘aspirers’ who had travelled to Mumbai from various parts of India, hoping for a ‘break’ in Bollywood. They were often found outside producers’ offices, waiting to catch the attention of the important or powerful people there.

It is how most people try to gain a foothold in what has always been a very crowded and self-contained world. India produces more films annually than any other country—up to a thousand in several Indian languages, made in Madras, Hyderabad, Trivandrum and Calcutta, as well as Mumbai. But Bombay films have the bigger audiences and their studios the most money. A producer can still make a film in India for less than a million dollars. But some of Bollywood’s recent films have cost as much as $30 million, much of the money spent on music composers, on shooting stints in Europe and America, and on the stars, who have become more powerful than anyone else in the business.

Not surprisingly, most of the aspirers wanted to be stars, not technicians. Occasionally, one of them succeeded and gave fresh currency to the dream of success. Mallika, a young actress I met at Mahesh’s office, was an aspirer when, two years ago, she left her conservative family in a small town near Delhi in order to seek a career in Bollywood. Long queues of ‘gorgeous women’, she said, preceded her at every producer’s office she went to. After a few modelling assignments and casting-couch offers, she had finally found some ‘decent work’. But then her father ostracized her after her first film in which she kissed the male lead seventeen times—a record of sorts in prudish Bollywood.

Mallika thought that he was unlikely to respond well to her next film, Murder, in which she had played an adulterous wife.

She said, ‘The film is very bold—although I hate the word. People abuse it so much in Bollywood, which is full of dishonest tight-asses. How long are they going to show sex by bringing two flowers together on the screen? India has the second largest population in the world. Do they think it came about by bringing flowers together?’

I met Mallika at the end of a long day of shooting for her. But she came into Mahesh’s office looking very excited, wearing a tight white T-shirt and low-slung blue jeans over very high heels. A preview, or what she called ‘promo’, of Murder had just begun to appear on many of India’s film-based television channels.

I had seen an unedited version of this promo at Mahesh’s office earlier that afternoon, accompanied by a film ‘broker’. A rapid succession of scenes shot in India and Thailand showed Mallika being undressed by invisible hands, making love, and walking provocatively on a beach, the camera firmly focused on her hips. The broker had pronounced the film ‘very bold’. It was likely to get an Adults certificate from the censor board. But this did not much bother the distributors who were convinced that Murder was going to be a ‘big hit’.

Mallika said, ‘I have been getting lots of SMS about the promo. It is very hot. Lots of skin show. But you tell me. You must have seen lots of films in London: what’s so bold about showing a housewife feeling passionate and saying she wants to make love? What is a bored housewife to do when she is feeling horny?’

Mallika said that film-makers from South India constantly approached her, wishing to cast her in soft-porn films. They appalled and depressed her; as did most film-makers in Bollywood. She really wanted to work abroad, in Europe or America, where ‘real’ films were made. She spoke of the work of Pedro Almodóvar and Roberto Rodríguez.

She kept brushing back thick, wavy hair from her full-lipped, oval face. On that Sunday evening, Mahesh’s office was deserted, with only a chowkidar waiting four floors down along with Mohammed, the driver of my hired car. We sat on a sofa, separated by a few inches—the narrow space into which she suddenly dropped, while still speaking of Almodóvar, two glossy photos.

They were publicity stills from Murder and they showed her pouting in a bikini and sarong. I had lied when Mallika asked me if I had seen the promo for Murder, mostly because I couldn’t work up a response. But now the photos lay on the sofa and as I looked at them I felt Mallika’s eyes on my lowered face.

She said, ‘I want you to look at them. I want you to tell me if men are going to drool over me or not in this film. I want you to give me an honest opinion.’

English in India can be a deceptive medium. Even when the language is used well, as it is by an elite minority among the country’s 200 million-strong middle class, the undertones can be confusing. Moods and gestures are harder to figure out. Irony and humour are often perceived but rarely intended. The visitor who finds most of his interpretive tools blunted can feel himself moving through a fog.

‘You should meet Mallika,’ Mahesh had said, ‘she is the next sex bomb of Bollywood. It would be an interesting story for you.’ Mahesh had many such stories for me. But, although grateful, I wasn’t always sure what he made of them, or what his true relationship with Bollywood was.

One evening, as we were leaving his office, Mahesh paused before entering his car and gestured to one of the young aspirers standing near the gate to the compound.

The man Mahesh had signalled to was tall and rather handsome and wore a black bandanna. As he walked towards us, his broad shoulders stooped, until he stood half-bowed in a silent namaste before Mahesh.

Mahesh said, ‘This is Pritam. He has been coming to my office every day for eight years now, hoping to get a role in my films. I have often offered him money for the return fare to his town in Bengal, but he has always refused. Would you like to talk to him?’

I felt Pritam lift his head slightly to look at me. I felt a small crowd at the gate watching us. I nodded.

Mahesh said to Pritam while slowly getting into his car, ‘Okay. Be here at two-thirty tomorrow.’

Driving back to my hotel, Mohammed was frantic with curiosity. He knew about Pritam. Pritam was apparently famous in these parts. He had indeed been coming to the office for eight years but had not managed to speak to Mahesh sahib for the last three. And he had never gone up to his office. Was he now finally being given his ‘break’?

I said I didn’t know. When I arrived at the office the next day—late, around four—Pritam was at the gate with the other drivers. As my car slid past the gate, his face appeared in the window. Half-bent, he accompanied the car until it stopped and then held my door open. I saw his beseeching eyes, and the sweat patches on his ironed blue shirt. I said I was sorry to be late. He didn’t seem to understand. I said that I was sure Mahesh would call for him soon.

Upstairs, Mahesh was lying on his sofa, bubbling with news. He got up as I came through the door. He said he was travelling to Delhi the next day to see Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of both the Congress party and the opposition in the Indian parliament. Some Muslim theologians had arranged the meeting. They felt that Mahesh was best placed to convey their frustration with the Congress’s failure to fight the anti-Muslim programme of the Hindu nationalist government.

Mahesh said, ‘It is a sad reflection on our politics that they can’t find anyone to approach except Mahesh Bhatt.’ We talked about politics for a while. Mahesh’s mobile phones kept ringing. A journalist wished to have his opinion on the Oscars. ‘To hell with the Oscars,’ Mahesh said, ‘I am not interested in it. Bye, bye, bye.’ Another journalist asked about the film Mahesh wished to make about the real-life con man recently caught conspiring with the police commissioner of Mumbai. Mahesh’s daughter called. Her first film was due for release. Mahesh said that she was very nervous about it.

Nirmal brought fresh coffee in styrofoam cups. A publicist from Lucknow arrived. ‘An important man,’ Mahesh said. He was there to talk about Mahesh’s upcoming visit to north India.

At around five or so, Mahesh told Nirmal to summon Pritam.

Mahesh said, ‘He told me once that he had committed a murder—his uncle, I think. I think he wanted to impress me. I want to ask him about that.’

When Pritam came through the door, his face glistening with sweat, Mahesh said, gesturing to the bathroom behind him, ‘Go and wash your face.’

Water dripped from his face and on to his shirt when he came out. Mahesh said, ‘Sit down.’

Pritam looked awkward on the small, high-backed chair, his long legs jutting out.

Mahesh said, gesturing towards me, ‘He is a writer, wanting to know about Bollywood. What can you tell him?’ It was how Mahesh introduced me to actors, producers, distributors, and others in the film industry, often exhorting them to take me behind the ‘glossy surface’ of Bollywood and reveal its ‘harder reality’.

As it turned out, Pritam couldn’t tell me much about Bollywood, partly because he had spent eight years hoping that Mahesh would introduce him to it. He hadn’t gone to any other film-maker. He was convinced that it was Mahesh who would give him his break.

‘Why do you think that?’ Mahesh asked.

Pritam smiled uncertainly and said in slow but precise English, ‘Because I know that in my heart, Sir. I know that you will take me to the summit of success. I have believed this for the last eight years and I will believe this for the rest of my life.’

Mahesh said, in Hindi, ‘But why did you tell me that you had killed your uncle?’

Pritam wiped his mouth, and leaned forward on his chair. ‘It is true, Sir. I wanted to tell you that I can be very serious about anything, even murder. I only have to put my mind to it.’

He described how he had been provoked into murdering his uncle. He seemed to have worked on the story, which came out smoothly. His father had died when he was very young. Soon afterwards, his uncles had appropriated his mother’s land and house. One of Pritam’s uncles had been particularly vicious. Pritam had seen him repeatedly assault his mother. At seventeen, he had first thought of murdering him. He had trained himself for a year, and then stabbed him to death one day. As a result of his meticulous preparation, he had left no clues for the police, who were still baffled by the murder.

His mother, Pritam said, was a devi, goddess. He couldn’t bear anyone being cruel to her. He wanted above all to look after her.

Mahesh said, ‘In that case, what are you doing in Bollywood? You have come to the wrong place. You come to Mahesh Bhatt thinking he will make you a star. Mahesh Bhatt is telling you that you are chasing illusions, that you should go home and look after your mother. Do you want money for the train fare?’

Pritam shook his head. ‘I want you to give me a chance, Sir. I won’t go home without having worked with you,’ he said.

Someone opened the door to say that the publicist from Lucknow was leaving. Mahesh said to me in English, ‘Why don’t you talk to Pritam while I meet the publicist in my brother’s room.’

Without Mahesh in the room, Pritam relaxed. I wanted to know where and how he had lived in Mumbai for eight years. He replied, looking distracted, slightly puzzled, by the bareness of the room he had wanted for so long to enter. He said he lived like an ascetic, did not drink or smoke, and ate very little. He stole whatever money he needed.

How? I asked. But Mahesh returned to his room just then, and Pritam produced from his shirt pocket a letter in Bengali from his mother. He said that it was evidence of his mother’s good heart.

Mahesh asked him to translate it aloud.

‘My dear son,’ Pritam began slowly, his eyes darting from Mahesh’s face to mine, ‘I have not heard from you for a long time and you have not sent me any money. I don’t worry much, because I know that your faith in Mahesh sahib will be rewarded one day…’

The letter went on to speak of her continued suffering at the hands of her greedy relatives. Pritam looked up hopefully at Mahesh when it ended. One of Mahesh’s phones rang just then. He picked both up and, while squinting at them, said, ‘I think you should go home and help her.’

Pritam stayed on for a few more minutes, drinking tea, surveying the room, while Mahesh spoke on the phone. I was relieved when Mahesh told him as he left that he would ‘try him out before the camera’. Pritam conveyed the news immediately to the crowd of chauffeurs and aspirers. Mohammed was very pleased on his behalf—it was the kind of break he looked for himself.

I wondered later if Pritam had written the letter himself, just as he had made up the story about the murder, in order to impress Mahesh. In its extreme, raw emotions, it sounded too much like a Bollywood film.

But I didn’t suggest this to Mahesh. I wanted Pritam to have his break. Also, I knew by then a little about Mahesh’s background, and he seemed unlikely to doubt a story just because it was too melodramatic.

His own father, a famous producer and director in his time, had lived with his Hindu wife while maintaining a Muslim mistress, Mahesh’s mother, in another part of Mumbai. He came irregularly to his second home, and didn’t stay long. As a child, Mahesh had spent many hours waiting for his father and then, when he did not turn up, consoling his mother.

Mahesh said, ‘My mother loved him intensely until her death. I always remained slightly in awe of this aloof man who would come and go away, and who had such a hold over my mother. When she died a few years back, he came to our house chanting Hindu scriptures and holding gangajal [Ganges water]. He saw my mother’s corpse and said, “Put some sindoor [vermilion, the cherished symbol of matrimony for Hindu women] in her hair. She was always asking me to put some sindoor in her hair. I want this done now.”

‘My father did something even more bizarre. I used to ask my mother, ‘Where will his corpse go?’ As it turned out, he had left explicit wishes that he be cremated in our part of town. My mother’s sisters knew what this meant. He was publicly acknowledging his devotion to the woman who loved him. My aunts showed up at the cremation. I saw them whispering, and stealing a fistful of ashes. I asked them what they had done with the ashes. They said they had sprinkled them over my mother’s grave. They were wishing for some kind of union. Critics accused me of melodrama when I put some of my background in my film Zakham. I felt with that gesture that I had made my peace with him. This is what melodrama does: it reconciles people. This is what the best Bollywood films achieve.’

My own memory of Bollywood films was different. As a child in small railway towns, and then as an undergraduate in Allahabad, a decaying provincial city, I had watched them frequently. For weeks, I would gaze longingly at the posters suspended atop electricity poles, or draped on the sides of the tonga (horse-cart) that clattered down the dusty narrow streets with understocked shops and faded signboards, announcing, through a megaphone, the latest arrival at the local cinema.

I was particularly struck by the posters of new films. They often featured men gnashing their teeth and pointing outsized guns at each other against a backdrop of exploding skyscrapers, and women showing bare arms and sometimes, more daringly, legs.

My parents did not allow me to watch these films, claiming that they were too violent. They spoke fondly of the tragic or flamboyantly romantic male actors of a previous era—Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Dev Anand. They happily let me go to films of the 1950s and 1960s, some of which enjoyed reruns in small-town cinemas, and whose mostly melancholy songs, leaking out of a hundred transistors in our Railway Colony, filled the long afternoons of my childhood.

But I wasn’t much interested in these films, where love, timidly expressed, was usually thwarted and worldly success proved an illusion, and whose songs rendered sweet the cruellest disappointment. Like many young men in India—and, unknown to me, also in Africa and the Middle East—I was fascinated by Amitabh Bachchan, although I watched most of his films after I left home to study for a degree in Allahabad.

Bachchan, a gawkily tall actor with a baritone voice, often played the role of the poor, resentful young man pitted against venal politicians, businessmen and policemen—women, apart from tearful mothers, played minor roles in his films and were often treated ungallantly. There was little in Bachchan’s own background that hinted at political discontent. Before seeking a career in films in Mumbai, he had held a well-paid boxwallah’s job in Calcutta. His father, a distinguished poet in Hindi, had friends among the Nehrus and the Gandhis, India’s ruling dynasty. But on screen, Bachchan was the ‘angry young man’ and he spoke directly to an audience that was no longer moved by the gentle self-pity of the actors that my parents liked.

For many Indians, there was much to be angry about in the 1970s and 1980s. Freedom from British rule in 1947, and the proclamations of socialism and democracy, seemed to have benefited only a small minority of the country’s population, mostly politicians, big businessmen and civil servants—people who plundered the state-controlled economy, and protected their power and privilege almost as fiercely as the British had once dealt with challenges from the natives. Bachchan first became famous around 1975, the year that Indira Gandhi responded to a mass political movement protesting against corruption and inflation by suspending India’s democratic constitution and imprisoning many people opposed to her.

In several of his films, Bachchan expressed the cynicism and despair that was particularly acute among unemployed, lower middle class men in small towns. He usually sought to avenge himself on an unjust society. Pure exhilaration rippled across the—always frankly expressive—cinema audience when, after successive humiliations, he finally exploded into violence.

This was an especially gratifying moment in Allahabad. For some years before I arrived, the university, once known as the Oxford of the East, had been a setting for battles between unemployed, and probably unemployable, young men seeking to make a career in state or national level politics. The student groups they belonged to were usually caste-based and supported by national-level political parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The rewards were few—at best, a party nomination in elections to the state or central legislature—and competition was fierce. Crude bombs and guns often went off in the middle of the campus. People like myself, who were there to acquire a degree and then apply for a job with the government, felt small and anxious and scared most of the time.

Bachchan empowered us briefly. I remember watching one of his films in Allahabad: how the audience roared its approval as he, playing a chief minister, first eloquently denounced his cabinet and then machine-gunned all its members.

A more intractable world began just outside the cinema, where the police constables waved their iron-tipped lathis and exacted bribes from rickshaw drivers and street-side vendors. Corrupt men ruled here through a long invisible hierarchy—the money passed all the way to the police officers at the top—and the best way to deal with them was to join them. But to spend three hours in the cinema—on the bare wooden seats, amid the peanut shells on the floor, the cigarette and bidi smoke languidly rising through the rays from the projector—was to partially fulfil all the fantasies the posters had nurtured. It was to shed, however briefly, our deprivations, and to embrace the heady conviction that if the world failed to yield its richness—sex, wealth, power—it would be severely punished.

As I got older, Bollywood films began to seem too long and unreal. Occasionally, late at night in Indian hotel rooms, I would come across previews of Bollywood’s offerings on television. A few glimpses of songs and dances in Swiss meadows, or at opulent weddings, Muslim terrorists in Kashmir and Pakistani villains plotting against India, and plump action heroes saving their motherland, and I felt I’d had enough.

I felt I couldn’t enter these films as unselfconsciously as I had before and I wasn’t distant enough from them to enjoy them as kitsch.

It was years later, while spending part of my time in London, that I became interested again in Bollywood films.

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