I meet Pooja Bhatt at lunchtime at a suburban five-star hotel in Mumbai's Bandra. It is a rainy Tuesday afternoon and Pooja is dressed in a bright pink Poncho and black trousers. Her light brown locks look freshly blow dried and she looks ethereal with her fringes falling lightly on her forehead.
Bhatt is promoting Chup: Revenge of the Artist, her upcoming film directed by R. Balki, that turns the lens on film critics. Bhatt plays a criminal psychiatrist in the film which also has Dulquer Salmaan and Shreya Dhanwantary in lead roles. Bhatt, known best for her performances in the 90s films Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, Sadak and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi among others, had taken a break from acting and got full-fledged into film production.
And then, after a 21-year hiatus, Bombay Begums happened in which she starred in a sassy role and brought the issue of menopause to the forefront. For someone who was once told that she was no good as an actress because of her lisp, and will have to undergo surgery in order to make it in the industry, Pooja Bhatt has come a long way.
Excerpts from an interview
You've had a very non-conventional journey as an actor...there have been intermittent breaks, long hiatuses and then you completely stopped acting altogether until you made a comeback. Was being an actor ever your first choice?
I'm a Bandra girl, which means we are taught to be grounded and level-headed given that we grow up in the sparkling bubble of the limelight. So while I grew up in a home where I had the privilege of watching all stars around and surrounding me, it was not taken for granted that I would grow up to be an actor. I wanted to be an architect. For me, architecture was where my heart was. But I started modelling when I was 15 and a half and by 17 my father offered me Daddy. It was only because of the fact that it was in the role of a 17-year-old girl. Even then I was not convinced and took some time to say 'yes'. Because somewhere I had realised early on that showbiz is not for sissies. I've seen times when my father was actively into filmmaking and we had no money in the house. He used to struggle to make a name in the industry. His first four films were box office disasters until Arth was released. In that film, Shabana Azmi's home was actually our home in Bandra. So much cost-cutting!
There was a hiatus from the age of 25 after you produced the film Tamanna, a film on female infanticide.
Yes, through that film I saw an India I was not earlier exposed to, especially having grown up in the high-profile suburb of Bandra and I got a lot of positive feedback for the film. I followed it up with Dushman and decided to replace myself with Kajol. I just didn't want to continue acting that time. Dushman was followed with Zakham, again another hit from our stable. That was also the time when my father, Mahesh Bhatt, said goodbye to direction. So there was no point for me to act anymore because my father, a filmmaker was no longer going to be actively involved. So, after that, I continued with production only. I made Sur with Lucky Ali, and the music of the film did exceedingly well.
And then came Bipasha Basu-led Jism which changed the game completely.
Yes. Also at the time, I held on to being an independent filmmaker. Raised my money on my own; if it was a loss I paid back my distributors on my next movie. I made sure even with a flop film nobody lost money. Learned the importance of managing a budget, making a film in a low cost and much more.
Tell us about your character in Chup.
The reason I like this film is that it is out of the box and there is no reference point here. I'm the criminal psychologist here and I know the co-dependence of the film artist on the critic and vice-versa. Back in the day, I used to always speak from my heart and used to draw a lot of flak for it. Why be so honest, people would ask me. When I was growing up, I used to often wonder why are people agreeing with me in private and backstabbing me later or taking a different stand in print media. Just because in those days, for print journalists or film critics, there was the vamp, there was the good girl and then there was this person who had the vulnerability and the innocence but still spoke their mind. So me and Manisha Koirala were the two who said hey, we bled openly. You know our hearts broke openly. We did not try to put on a mask. So to me personally, the role of a critic is very important because otherwise all of us actors and directors and filmmakers at large would be in a rut.
What are the things you are going to hold on to when you look back at the last 30 years of your life?
I worked hard and proved myself. 21 years later, life gave me the opportunity to do Bombay Begums. And that was a privilege. I felt like I was reborn. So to me, to be a working actor in these times is a blessing.
In the recent past, have critics done their job?
There are a whole lot of people who have decided before the first flicker of the shot that the film is bad. They come with an agenda. The worse is to get paid only to catch an artist each and every time he or she fumbles. I think that's just being too mean.