THERE COMES a point in life — and he says he reached this point a few years ago — where one feels that structuring happy endings on the screen is not enough, says Mahesh Bhatt, as we settle down for a freewheeling chat in Dubai Mall, where he was assisting daughter Pooja in the shooting of her latest film.

“You need to contribute in the real world. And if you cannot do anything concrete, you can at least try to mitigate some suffering, scale it down… help avoid conflict,” he points out.

Known for his outspoken views, the veteran Bollywood filmmaker — best remembered for ‘meaningful’ films such as Arth, Saaransh, Janam, Naam — has also had a string of controversies dotting his 30-year-plus career. But he has moved on undeterred. It’s not easy — or even politically correct — in these times of mistrust and Islamophobia, for anyone to speak out so brazenly, and so openly, as Bhatt does.

Neeyat (intention) is the most important thing,” he asserts.

“None of us will be able to make it without the other,” he says, as the topic shifts to the relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours of South Asia — India and Pakistan.

As he delves deeper into India-Pakistan relations, he says his friends in the media often rap him for his unease with any anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Yes, he maintains, he does indeed have a problem with jingoism of any kind. “I am not going to be moved by this fashionable word that you keep using — ‘national interest’. It’s very easy to love humanity, but why is it so difficult to love a Pakistani, or an Indian?”

On a visit to Pakistan, Bhatt had said to the Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif: “I love you for loving Dilip Kumar.”

Now, here’s the background: Dilip Kumar had confided to Bhatt that no politician had ever bestowed him with as much respect and affection as Sharif had done when he visited Pakistan during his premiership.

Bhatt cites another example. His driver on this trip to Dubai, a Pakistani from Swat, keeps on thanking him for visiting the ailing ghazal king, Mehdi Hassan in Pakistan.

Bhatt is peeved at the media’s “insensitive approach”. “Hatred sells,” he rues. “Immediately after 26/11, Pakistani human rights lawyer Ansar Burney went to donate blood for the terror victims in a Mumbai hospital — but nobody covered the event.

“What was selling (then) was the Pakistani killer, and not the Pakistani man eager to donate blood.”

Hasn’t 26/11 severely undermined the efforts of peaceniks like him? “We’ll have to dismantle the mental cages we have created,” he points out.

“Pakistan too has to root out such mindsets within its own establishment — kind of hostile towards the Indian interests. India must also do the same.”

What about the Indian Muslim — where does he stand today? “Unfortunately, at the same place where he was in 1947,” replies Bhatt, as he refers to the Sachar Committee Report, according to which, the minorities have not got a fair deal. Bhatt also points to Prime Minister Mammohan Singh’s statement where he said that the minorities were the first claimants to the resources of the country.

“Post-9/11 has not been a very good time for minorities in my country also. Islamophobia blew from the West and reached my country at a time it was being ruled by the right wing.”

With Barack Obama at the helm, does he see an end to Islamophobia? “Obama seems to at least unashamedly accept the fact that Islam is a part of the American story. I wish we had an Indian prime minister earlier saying the same thing. We Indians too need to realise that Islam is a part of the Indian story. I think Obama will be able to take the edge out of what has been unleashed on the Muslims.”

The talk then veers to the Liberhans Commission Report on the Babri Mosque demolition — which has recently been presented to the government of India. “I am happy the report is out now; whether it’ll invite punitive action or not, I think they (communal forces) are ashamed enough.”

Bhatt’s last directorial venture, Zakhm, was returned to the Censor Board because of alleged pressure from right wing groups as the film dealt with the 1992 riots in Mumbai. “Zakhm was a very bold film, made at a time when the NDA was in power. People said I had demonized the right wing. I told them I had not demonized the right wing, I had projected them the way they are. The joke is that they gave me a National Award for the film.”

He believes the worst thing to have happened to India is Hindu fundamentalism. “I am certain that what will destroy India is not Islamic fundamentalism, or any outside force, it’s the cancer within — the Hindu fundamentalism,” he iterates.

Finally, we shift to Bhatt, the filmmaker. “I don’t think I am going to dabble in cinema myself. I’ll now play the role of a guide to my daughter. The page has turned.”

(This article first appeared in the Khaleej Times newspaper on July 10, 2009. Below please find the web link of the article)

Mahesh Bhatt

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