Mahesh Bhatt is invariably described as a ‘maverick’. And I wonder why. Is there a sly putdown buried inside the adjective? A suggestion he may not be the sort of person to be taken too seriously? And yet, after having known him over the years (and worked with him to create one of India’s longest running soap operas, Swabhimaan in 1998 ), I can say the Bhatt I know is intense, passionate and intellectually evolved enough to take nothing all that seriously, least of all himself!
As a path-breaking filmmaker who readily confessed to cannibalising his own fascinating life, over and over again (perhaps unable to come to terms with his traumatic childhood, raised by a single mother), Bhatt likes playing to the gallery and shocking the naive with throwaway comments about being a ‘Bastard child of a Muslim mother’. Forty years ago, that statement generated shock and awe. Today, we live in a world where anything goes. And Bhatt is better known to this generation of film fans as ‘‘Alia Bhatt’s father.” It is, of course, Bhatt’s forte to turn even this description around as a badge he owns—which he indeed does.
This ‘Daddy’ phase is dipped in déjà vu for his contemporaries. But with a charming twist. I remember Bhatt slipping effortlessly into the role of the equally indulgent and proud father, when Pooja Bhatt (Alia’s half-sister) debuted in Bollywood, with a film titled, Daddy. Unlike Alia, who is low-key and soft-spoken, Pooja was a spitfire who was expected to ignite the silver screen and stay there, thanks to her mentor being none other than ‘Bhatt Saab’. Nobody bitched about nepotism back then—it was smoothly taken for granted. Pooja’s career didn’t quite pan out as planned. But that’s another story. Today, it is Alia who is on top of her game, and it is good to see how gracefully she and Bhatt are handling her immense fame and popularity. There is nothing bombastic about Bhatt’s praise for his talented daughter. And he is uncharacteristically subdued when he discusses her future.
I remember Karan Johar talking to me about a ‘young, talented, plump’ girl called Alia, just before he signed her up for Student of the Year. We discussed the possibility of doing a book about her dramatic weight loss programme before filming started. It was a year that not just transformed Alia’s silhouette dramatically, but also changed her future forever. It is to Bhatt’s credit that as an established filmmaker of repute himself, he shrewdly left the launch of his lovely daughter Alia to Karan Johar—and look how that trust paid off! Perhaps even Bhatt had not realised Alia’s acting potential at that point. I spoke to him a couple of times at that time, but those were entirely different conversations, around social/political issues that concerned us both. Not once did he push Alia’s name into the chat. And I liked that. Bhatt has let his children chart their own paths—standing by them, sure, but not overwhelming them. This is hard for a parent, given the invasive levels of scrutiny. He is sensitive enough to figure there are three other kids in the family, who also need his support and encouragement. I can’t wait to watch Bhatt playing what may turn out to be his stellar role—Grandpa Bhatt! Of course, he will spin a movie out of the experience. Not for nothing is he Bollywood’s most loved cannibal.