MUMBAI—He has shown his mettle, though his films have been oftener flops than hits, and he candidly confesses that if a film flops, there IS something that was missing! Son to famed cinematographer Pravin Bhatt (just retired after a huge innings) and grandson of classic filmmaker Vijay Bhatt (”Baiju Bawra” et al), director Vikram Bhatt’s innings still include “Raaz” (the biggest hit of 2002 and the film that brought back the horror trend and branded Bhatt as well!), the perennial laugh-riot “Awara Pagal Deewana,” the hits “1920,” “Raaz 3” and “Haunted 3-D,” and ‘90s successes like “Fareb” and “Ghulam.”
As for the last two, he grins and admits that those were the days when everyone flicked ideas and scripts from Hollywood and quips, “Now copyright laws have taught us to write! But as an industry, we still do not invest in writers. Scripts are called and treated as properties abroad. Over here, we pay stars a crore or two as signing amounts but do not want to shell out Rs. 10 lakh to develop a story, because the question that looms tall is ‘Which star will do this film?’” Nothing but candid, Bhatt spoke his mind in perfect as well as rich English, slipping into Hindi once in a while when India-West catch up with him at the Sun’N’Sand Hotel here.
Bhatt’s preoccupation with horror boils down to branding, which he said is “in” today. “To be frank, whatever you do is forgotten,” he declared. “My daughter Krishna has just directed her first series for the web, but she does not know who Manmohan Desai or Prakash Mehra are. (Mahesh) Bhatt-Saab is now making ‘Sadak 2,’ but the present generation cannot identify with ‘Sadak’ as they have never watched it.”
“My idea is to make money with what people like, which is actually brands,” Bhatt went on. “When we shop online, we too opt for Flipkart and Amazon. No one asks David Dhawan why he makes only comedies, and no one wants to know from Abbas-Mustan when they will leave making thrillers. So I am fine with horror. Yes, the present generation from a few metros consider my films ‘un-cool,’ but that’s only because my films don’t have priests reciting from the Bible in English, as in a Hollywood horror film! Instead, I have a Hindu priest reciting Hanuman Chalisa, Vishnu Sahastranaam (which I read every day) or the Gajendra Muktistotra. They are most welcome to watch ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Conjuring!’”
And Bhatt thundered, “You cannot laugh at my God, or at anything Indian. The youth does not know the power inherent in these holy texts. They enjoyed “Raaz Reboot” until the mangalsutra sequence and then found it ridiculous. Do they even know the power of the mangalsutra? But I cannot feed their ignorance! We don’t respect our own culture in these metro cities because there is no English in it. But in Rajasthan, people would remove shoes outside the auditorium where my ‘1920’ was being screened because the Hanuman Chalisa is recited in a sequence.”
Bhatt is, however, pleased that he has been “relieved from the jail of immortality” as he calls it. “I am not INTERESTED in becoming a great filmmaker! Why should I think of how many people will cry at my funeral? What does it matter when I am gone? Look, we all spend so much in being miserable in this life just so that we will be remembered! Why? At the end of it all, you are a picture on the wall!”
He went on with singular passion: “How many people know who built the Grand Pyramid? But thousands visit it every day. My grandfather spent his later life being miserable because he never got national honors when he had made so many classics and also the ONLY film that Mahatma Gandhi ever watched – the 1943 ‘Ram Rajya.’ But I don’t want to be like him; I don’t want someone else to tell me whether my life was worthwhile or not!”
The overwhelming advantage this approach also has, said Bhatt, is that it puts on him the burden of delivering for the audience, and start being bothered about their interest. “They should enjoy a film, and my producer must get his money back, which happens only when you are not bothered about your own greatness. What is the use of someone who makes great cinema for himself and his producer loses 20-25 crore in the bargain?” asked the filmmaker.
But why has he never made a laugh-riot like the perennial “Awara Pagal Deewana” again? “A lot of people ask me that,” he replied. “Maybe I can make one now. But comedies need an ensemble cast with at least one star and a producer who can handle it all. I cannot! Also, I always want to be self-sufficient, and make a movie whenever I want to, not only when a star agrees. I don’t want a situation wherein ‘murga bolega to hi subah hogi’ (the morning will break only when a cock crows)! I want NOT to lose the liberty of walking into a producer’s office with a script and a budget.”
Even in earlier times, Bhatt largely made thrillers. So why does he think producer Firoz Nadiadwala trusted him with such a big comedy? Wryly, Bhatt grinned and said, “Let’s just say that it is a pleasant mistake Firoz made!” But he insisted that these are happy times when people only endorse good stories that are well-told. “Stars alone are rejected, as we have all seen in 2017 unless the STORY is good. But good stories do not necessarily need stars,” he pointed out.
And let us not forget that Bhatt has worked with some of the biggest stars, like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan and others. So “1921” is one such beautiful love story that he wanted to tell. “It is a love story with a horror element, not the reverse,” he said. Then why give the impression that it is a part of the 1920 franchise? “It has some common points, but is sufficiently dissimilar,” he explained.
“In any case, ‘1920’ is a damaged franchise: the third part, ‘1920 London’ had to be forcibly released, almost incomplete because my production partners let me down!”
A horror film, however, is always a director’s medium, he feels and explained why. “The poor cast does not even know which ghost is coming and how, as it is all done in post-production and they have to shoot and express in front of nothing! There is another reason why stars do not do horror films: they do a film to enhance their stardom. Bipasha Basu declared that I was not going to show her as possessed in ‘Raaz 3,’ as actors don’t want to do something that does not show them in full form, or depicts them in an ugly manner. I understand from where they are coming. In this case, however, I told her to hear the story first.”
Today, Bhatt is in one more happy space: he does not need to make films to fulfill his creative needs. “I am not feeling genre-stuck,” he said. “God’s been kind. I am doing so much else. I have done so many web series, written a book called ‘A Handful Of Sunshine’ that is a romantic novel, and am directing a show for Star Plus. I will launch on my birthday, Jan. 27, my first OTT called ‘VB Theatre On The Web.’ It’s like an online multiplex where you can select what to watch. You pay only for what you choose to watch. Like for about Rs. 20, you can watch all episodes of Krishna’s debut movie, ‘The Untouchables,’ a courtroom drama with an emotional base. I am also making my debut as an actor in it.”
But he is clear that the digital medium will never be a competition for cinema, as it is not time-bound and is very personal. “You may watch ‘Maya,’ India’s first series on BDSM, which I made for the web, on your phone, but you will not want to be seen watching it in a movie hall!”
Bhatt, however, feels that web series have a great future in India because watching films has become expensive for the youth, and TV has never connected with them. “Indian web series is fighting for attention against the American fare that had completely usurped our youth, but, luckily, the youth seems to be liking our homespun counterparts,” he said.