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December 22, 1997


Pritish Nandy

Sultan of Sham

Mahesh Bhatt There is no sounding off opportunity he will not grab. There is no photo opportunity he will not hijack. There is no controversy he will not drop into, with his big, fat toe planted firmly into his big, fat mouth. And last week was no exception, when he suddenly took off on yet another ugly, unfortunate slanging match. This time against the students of the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India, better known as the FTII.

Bhatt's ire could have been easily ignored by the media as yet another example of his intellectual churlishness and obsessive greed for headlines. But this was not easy to do because, by a curious coincidence, Bhatt is chairman of the FTII Governing Council. He coaxed, cajoled, begged the information and broadcasting ministry to give him the job. Or that is what the officials claim. He promised to set things right, given a chance. To revive and revitalise the Institute which has, over the years, produced some of India's finest motion picture talent.

But the moment he had the job on his CV, Bhatt did what he is best at. He bit the hand that fed him.

The talent he promised to nurture -- till death did them apart -- was suddenly seen as no more than cobblers. Obviously, in Bhatt's casteist lexicon, the cobbler is the most worthless of all artisans and by describing the FTII students as cobblers, Bhatt was trying to point out how utterly talentless these young men and women are. Strange, coming from a man who has himself claimed from every rooftop, in every interview that talent counts for nothing in showbiz, what matters is the ability to make money, Big Money. ''I am not here to make good cinema,'' Bhatt has thundered again and again before admiring journalists and caressing cameras, ''I am here to make big bucks.''

Mahesh Bhatt Yet, suddenly, to show his contempt towards those young strugglers who called into question his not exactly outstanding stint as chairman of the FTII, Bhatt has chosen to describe them as cobblers. Whether it is apt or not, it is certainly not a very original line. Every upper caste demagogue uses it at election time. Particularly in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is written, as they say, into the script of modern Indian politics and Babu Jagjivan Ram (one hears) lost an opportunity to be prime minister of India for the precise reason that India never forgave him for starting his life as a cobbler.

But Bhatt did not stop at caste invectives. He stepped into his next argument with the effortless grace of a ballerina with two left feet. Artistic talent, he declaimed, cannot be manufactured on an assembly line. Surprise surprise. If the FTII is just another useless assembly line, why did Bhatt go down on all fours to become the chairman of its Governing Council? Why did he not start his own gurukul where he could have polished his own Eklavyas and Arjuns instead of wanting to head an institution that polishes devils and dims diamonds, to quote his most memorable line since Anupam Kher went to collect his son's asthi from a customs officer in Saraansh?

Bhatt does not stop at this either. He goes on to describe subsidised education for good cinema as a luxury in a nation where so much of the population does not even get drinking water. This is the most ghisita pisita line in the industry and we hear it ad nauseum, whenever there is a problem that no one wants to tackle. How can environmentalists protest against air pollution when millions of Indians are floundering below the breadline? Why should we waste time on planning highways when eight out of every 10 Indians do not have a roof over their heads? Why should we worry about promiscuity and AIDS when little girls are sold for 10 bucks during famine in Kalahandi? Why fight against animal torture when every fourth Indian dies from from malnutrition, every sixth Indian is killed for her gender?

If Bhatt's argument is correct, we should have no space programme, no computer literacy, no classical music, no poetry, no human rights commission, no power plants, no railways, no elections, no Internet, no sex till we first resolve India's drinking water problem. Even the most dim-witted politician would baulk at this rhetoric but Bhatt-like Murphy has found the classical law for doing nothing at all. Even Fermi could not have propounded a more majestic theorem to defend an indefensible argument.

Mahesh Bhatt But that is not all. Bhatt concludes with his final pearl of wisdom. ''I do not believe in organised training in cinema,'' he says. Nor do we, frankly. As a nation, India does not believe in organised training in anything. That is why more than five out of 10 Indians drop out of school and less than two ever get to study anything beyond the three Rs. But is that something we should be proud of? I agree that organised training rarely produces genius, particularly in creative professions, but it certainly creates a bedrock of talent, a resource base for industry, a certain basic level of marketable skill that can earn people a livelihood. In a country of such numbers, surely that is a commendable goal.

We all know that every Indian Institute of Management product that comes off the assembly line is not going to be a Bill Gates or a Jack Welch. Every catering school student is not destined to be a Paul Bocuse. Every fashion institute does not produce a Shahab Durazi. The odds are identical for the FTII. Every graduate coming out of its portals will not be a Govind Nihalani or a Naseeruddin Shah. But what does that prove if it proves anything at all?

No great genius comes off the assembly line. That does not mean every assembly line in the world must be dismantled. By that argument, because Shakespeare and Rabindranath Tagore never went to school, we must shut down all schools. Because Raja Ravi Verma and Maqbool Fida Husain never formally learnt art, all art education must forthwith stop. Because Amir Khusru and Pavarotti never went to music school, all music schools must close down. Because Mata Hari never got AIDS, no one should wear condoms.

No, I have nothing against Bhatt. He is a friend of mine. I have nothing against popular cinema either. It has a right to exist just as good cinema, too, has a right to exist. For decades now, good literature and the comic book have lived in perfect truce. So have Vivaldi and Michael Jackson, Bhimsen Joshi and Bappi Lahiri. But you cannot kiss the arse of popular taste, on one hand, and pretend to swear by great art on the other. It sounds flimsy and foolish, false and phoney.

By walking the razor's edge, Mahesh Bhatt has, in recent times, become a virtual metaphor for bad films and worse pretensions, fakery and prejudice, downhill talent and uphill ego.

Maybe he should just stick to making what he is best at. Clones and desi copies of Hollywood blockbusters. The ones, he claims, earn him huge bucks and vast acclaim. He should also stick to discovering what he perceives as major talent -- from Madan Jain to Rahul Roy to Mukul Dev to Rajiv Mulchandani. Cast in some of the most unremarkable films and television serials India is ever likely to see.

But then, Mahesh Bhatt's claim to fame has never gone beyond his first few films. Sensitive if not exactly well-made films. Arth, Saraansh, Naam, Janam. Films I have loved and enjoyed in their time. After that, his big mouth and shameless pursuit of headlines have ensured him his place in showbiz as the Badshah of Bullshit, the Sultan of Sham.

Mahesh Bhatt with his wife Luckily, FTII will survive him.

So will all those as yet faceless young men and women who see themselves as part of the future of Indian showbiz and are ready to fight for what they see as their right to learn, to discover, to create an opportunity for themselves. Some of them may be, yes, talentless. A few of them may even be trouble-makers. Some of them may be frustrated. Do you blame them, given the way showbiz treats them? But to write them all off as cobblers or useless assembly-line products shows up Mahesh Bhatt for what he has become today.

A symbol of the very system he so despises.

Pritish Nandy

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