A pregnant lady told me that she is proud that Rang De is the first film that the child inside her has heard
Eureka Forbes’s loss is clearly the gain of Indian cinema. Rakeysh Mehra’s roller-coaster life and its myriad experiences translated into a path-breaking movie that has shaken up a cynical nation and become a new rallying point for today’s self-obsessed and materialistic youth. This maverick, award-winning film-maker has gone from being a sportsperson, to ace salesman, to advertising man and, finally, into making films. His is a fascinating story of playing for high stakes, repeatedly driving himself to the brink (even financially) to pursue his passion - that is why he alone could have picked himself up from the rejection of Aks at the box-office and still gone on to make Rang De Basanti, a movie that most people believed would not resonate with India’s materialistic and cynical youth. But Mehra, 43, managed to shake up a whole generation of Indians and the film is credited with infusing a new vigour into social activism. From the public campaign to get justice for Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo to increased public participation in civic elections, everything is credited to the magic of Rang De… As Mehra goes on to explore the crowded by lanes of Old Delhi in his next film, he will either have to cope with the high public expectations in everything he does or learn to ignore it. It is probably safe to bet that he will do the latter
ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. You are from Delhi, aren’t you? Mehra: Yeah, born and brought up. Studied at Bal Bharti Air Force School and Shriram College. I came from a service family -- not defence services, my father was in the hotel industry. I was born and brought up in old Delhi; we are attached to old Delhi -- that was my village; I am very attached to it. I was not a very bright student; I was definitely a sports person. I managed a first division, not the 90 percentile. But I used to swim for Delhi; I was a captain for Delhi University and represented Delhi and the North Zone in swimming and water polo.
ML: When you were growing up, did you always know that you wanted to be in a creative field? Mehra: Actually, I wanted to get into the defence services, maybe the air force and wanted to become a fighter pilot. But I didn’t get into it and life didn’t take me that way. But, coming from a middle-class family, you want to contribute to the family earnings pool as soon as possible. It is an automatic process -- you study, you earn, you get a job and it adds to the family’s gross income. The love for movies happened through my father. He was an ardent movie fan. He knew all about each and every movie, the technicians who shot it, the songs, the character artists -- he was like a living encyclopaedia. My first job… Well, I tried for Hindustan Lever and other companies from Shriram College; I wanted to get into the hotel industry and reached the last stage of interviews for the Oberoi Management School, but didn’t finally make it. That, I feel, in retrospect was a huge turning point. Because, otherwise, I think I would be running a hotel today. I loved the hospitality business. We grew up in a hotel. Since dad was a manager at Claridges, which was once run by the British and has that old school culture. My dad had quarters in the hotel; so we actually grew up in a five-star hotel. And the pool was our playing field.
ML: What about old Delhi? Mehra: Old Delhi was always there. It was the parental home, so weekends, vacations, festivals, Diwali, Christmas… everything was at Old Delhi. You flew kites there. It is a crazy place and nothing has changed there in the last 400 years, except maybe colour TV and mobile phones. People still live, talk and eat the same way that their grandfathers used to. So going to old Delhi was like going back in time and from there to go to school in New Delhi was like living in two different worlds. That is why I think I always had a split personality at that point of time.
ML: You said, you started working; was it straight to movies? Mehra: No, my first job was as a salesman. The easiest job I could get was with Eureka Forbes … selling vacuum cleaners. At that time, only the very rich had vacuum cleaners -- the Birlas and the Modis possessed them. I am talking about 1983. I vividly remember that my salary was Rs418, but the good thing was that, for every machine you sold, you got a commission, and the slabs increased. So, if you sold five machines it was barely Rs100 a machine, but if you sold above nine up to 12 it was higher, and if it was above 22 machines, it used to be nearly Rs800 a machine. If you calculated, you could take home around Rs30,000. I worked there only for four months and I remember that in the first month, I was understanding the job and building my muscles to carry that box around in DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses. In Delhi, it can be a funny sight, wearing a tie and lugging a suitcase. But, in the next three months, I earned a lakh of rupees.
ML: Really, how? Mehra: Well, I figured out that if I got to every housewife, I’d go old in the business. But I figured out that those who really need hygiene are hospitals and the vacuum cleaner had a reverse function -- a blower -- which I figured you could sell to tent houses who supply to weddings. When the carpets and tents came back after a marriage, you could just blow the dust off. So when one tent house bought it, it was easy. I just had to say, Sardar Tent House bought it, so Malhotra Tent House would buy five. Again when I said, the Railway Hospital bought it, another hospital bought it also. The other category was the Mrs Modi and Mrs Birla, etc. Those days, you could actually go up to their doors and ring the bell. But you had to begin somewhere. You had to have one person buy it and make a call and there had to be references and then it was easy. It was a small club in Delhi. Once you were able to say Mrs So-and-so bought X machines, then she would buy X+1. So they would buy one for the Delhi house, the farm house, the Bangalore house. Frankly, at the end of three months, I was bored with the job because it was just selling more machines and it was also tiring, I guess.
ML: But you were making a lot of money. In 1983, a lakh of rupees was big money. Mehra: Yes, but it was only money. But yes, it was incredible. The family had never seen that kind of money. The gross family income, at that time, was just a few thousand rupees. But I realised that I wasn’t growing.
ML: What did your family say when you quit? Mehra: The family was fine. They never asked me any questions. They never interfered with us; they would only guide us not to do the wrong thing and they always went to great lengths to support what we did. I remember we had a lakh of rupees and I told my friend we must do some business. We decided to become exporters. We started garment fabrication -- basically we became tailors. So we found this factory that had closed down and that fellow had around 150 machines. This was at Khanpur. So we took over the factory and began to fabricate garments. There too, I had great fun for around 18 months. We called our company Super Garments.
ML: Did you make any money? Mehra: No, we lost all the money. I lost everything we made, but I had great fun. We had a bike between us and a rickshaw and at times we were handling 200 tailors working for us and they came from MP, UP and Rajasthan. Then, one evening, I was having a drink with some friends. I was around 23. A friend said, “I am starting an advertising agency, would you like to join me”? My instinct told me, it was a good thing to do. I have never gone logically in life; I always go with my instinct. I said, “What is it about”? He said he had an account -- Swaraj Mazda was coming to India and we had to help launch it. He said he wanted me to be the client servicing guy. I said OK, it sounds good. When I was in school, I used to work in an advertising agency during summer vacations. It was called Graphic Arts and they had the Congress (I) account. And basically my job was the chief peon. I had to take the artwork and go to the press and I saw how at three in the morning you could sometimes get a better placement for your ad at no extra cost. So it was a lot of excitement and used to fetch pocket money when I was in school and it paid for one’s trip to Manali.
So, coming back to this friend, I said, “When do we start”? And he said, “Tomorrow”. I said, “No, give me a day, I have a business going”. Next, I went to my partner, woke him up in the night and said, “Listen, I am joining advertising. I am signing all these cheques and you do whatever you want to”. He said, “Let me sleep, come back in the morning”. He didn’t say anything. He was a cool guy. He is my best friend even today. He stuck with the business and he is now one of India’s biggest exporters. We still talk to each other at least once a week.
ML: So, was advertising interesting?
Mehra: Yes, the first day of advertising was very interesting. I asked my friend, “What am I supposed to do”? He said, “You have to go to Mumbai, record a jingle and put up hoardings all over the country”. I said, “Great” and went to Mumbai. I had heard about Pankaj Vinod Sharma. I went to his house at Worli and said, “I want to record a jingle”. He said, “OK, it will cost you Rs4,000 for the writer, studio, etc”. So, in the next three days, we recorded a jingle. It was very interesting. Then I met a hoarding contractor called One-Up Sites. I had noticed that most of the sites were One-Up, so I thought he must be good and went to him and negotiated to put up the sites all over India. The jingle also worked well. We played it to the Japanese and they liked it also. It was a hit. So it was very exciting. I began to learn a lot on the job. Since we were small, everybody did everything -- everyone was creative, everyone was in servicing… you did whatever had to be done. The Japanese also liked me and they sent me to Japan to understand the Japanese business culture. I learnt how every 17 seconds a car rolled out, and that if a meeting was scheduled at 7 o’clock, and you didn’t come at seven, still the meeting promptly started at seven. I learnt about punctuality. I worked at a petrol pump, a dealership and at an advertising agency -- Dentsu --it was part of the orientation programme of around four months. In Japan, I understood scheduling, discipline and this business of honour.
ML: What next? Mehra: Well, I came back to Mumbai, back to the agency. It was called MCS -- Media Communication Systems. Then, one day, I had a difference of opinion during a presentation and I had to leave the job on principle. I wanted something done in a certain way and it wasn’t happening. So I left. Then, I looked for a job and got a job in an agency called Ulka, in servicing again. I got to work on Hero Honda.
ML: So, your experience with Japanese culture helped? Mehra: Hero Honda was Punjabi culture! It was the complete antithesis; it was the Munjals from Ludhiana who used to make cycles. So it was more a Punjabi company rather than a Japanese company. But the great thing about Hero Honda was that it was a step-down model and a four-stroke engine. It was a tried and tested model worldwide and was the first model they introduced around the world. The bike was selling itself, and marketing and advertising was almost redundant. We were struggling to catch up with production; there was hardly any selling to do. We were doing four commercials for Hero Honda. The client wanted the commercials on air on April 1. Once again, I came to Mumbai, found out the best guy and it was someone called Prahlad Kakkar. I went to his office and said, “We are going to Delhi to shoot four commercials”. He said, “Get out, I am very busy”. He was a dude; he was the biggest even then. I told him, “You have to do nothing; we will organise everything. You just direct it”. He said, “Cool, if that is the way it is, I’ll do it”. So he came along, with the cameraman and his team. That is when I got a taste of organising a shoot. The first day, Prahlad went for a ride on the bike and came back in a Maruti van. He had fallen, dislocated his shoulder and broken his forearm. So the shoot had to stop, but I had to deliver the commercials and it was only the second day of the shoot. So I told Prahlad, “You direct Vik (Vikas Shivaraman was the cameraman) and tell him what you want and we will go out and shoot”. So that is what we did --we shot without a director and got the commercials on air on 1st April. I remember Prahlad had come for a presentation and he was late going to the airport. So I put him on a bike and got him there on time, because he would never have reached in a cab. So while leaving, he told me, “you don’t belong to Delhi, you belong to Mumbai”. And he ruined my life!… the words kept echoing in my ears.
In the process, the client wanted a strategic film. Research showed that Hero Honda was a very economical bike and we needed to depict that. So the creative guy wrote the campaign “fill it, shut it, forget it”. It was written for print and hoardings. We just took that and shot it. We simply put a guy on a bike, had a girl and three supers. My boss had taken me once to a restaurant called Bali Hai and there was a band playing there. I got them, and told them to do a jingle and we had a sound track. We did it for Rs30,000 and it was a big hit; in fact, it was the most successful film for Hero Honda ever -- to date.
ML: What next? Mehra: Now, I was thinking: what to do. I wanted to get into commercials. Another six months later, I went to my boss and said I was leaving. He said, “I’ll double your salary”. He offered me a house and a car. I said I was still leaving. So I said, “Give me a commercial to make”. He said OK. He said, “You want to go to Mumbai, I’ll organise it”. So he gave me a commercial for Beltech Televisions. I came to Mumbai with a creative guy and began to work on it. I went to Vikas Shivaraman, who had shot Hero Honda. We still shoot together; he is one of my favourite cameramen. We had Louis Banks doing the music. So that is how we started. But the first five years were very rough; there was no work at all. And we were working out of the steps of Everest Building, outside Prahlad’s office. But, I must say, the family was very supportive. They never said, “Why are you changing jobs just when you are getting comfortable”? I lived out of PGs (paying guesthouses) then and, when the money ran out, we used to go back to Delhi for some home comforts. I made good friends in the PG; we were 15 of us in two rooms -- from films or advertising.
ML: What was the next phase of your life? Mehra: So that went on. By then, we had one cabin in Everest Building, we could afford that much. It was my first office. By then, I had moved to Shivaji Park and I went to Delhi to get married. When I came back, my landlady threw us out of the house. Then I went to work and my partner (who was a director), who had come with me from Delhi said, “We have to part ways”. So the choice was that one person walks out and the other keeps the company. The person who keeps the company kept the debt too. By then we had debts of Rs16 lakh. We talked it over and I decided to keep the company. He was concerned, but I said, “It is better that way”. In 11 months, we got rid of the debt. What I did was I approached several directors and created a panel of nine - Prahlad Kakkar, Kunal Kapoor, Mukul Anand, Vikas Desai, a couple of cinematographers and some more directors who were doing documentaries and features. I put together a show reel and told agencies, “I have a panel of directors”. They said, “Why should we give work to you and not the directors directly”? I said, “I am going to produce and I will make sure that your deadlines are met and costs are met, etc”. Directors were all very supportive and they also got freedom to do their job without going to the boring meetings and worrying about budgets.
ML: When was this? Mehra: It was the early 1990s. I think 1991. By then, I started looking at the kind of work they do around the world and talking to people in advertising. Meanwhile, I was also writing the scripts for my films. They were Ujala and Awaaz. They were more like screen plays. That is when I was certain that I wanted to get into films. Advertising is not what I wanted to do. I joined a production unit of a film and worked for two weeks. I still remember it was a Bachchan (Amitabh) film. But I didn’t like the way a shot was done.
ML: So, all along you wanted to make your own film? Mehra: Oh yes, absolutely. Even when I came to Mumbai, I knew sub-consciously, that I wanted to do films. But there was nothing planned about my life; I went with whatever came my way. Although the two-week stint didn’t work out, Ashok Mehta (who is my mentor) stopped me when I was walking away from the Film City and heading back for Delhi. He stopped me and talked me out of going… he even gave me his hat. I used to go and visit him, he used to shoot for all the top directors and I watched their work. I had my production house then, but work was sparse. But my panel of directors used to leave a lot of work for me. So I didn’t even know when the transition happened and I started shooting. Then, Hero Cycles offered me a commercial, but they had only Rs2.5 lakh for it. But the story-board was fantastic. The creative director said, “You direct this”. I did, and spent Rs14 lakh on it. It was from my pocket; I didn’t care. I even asked my wife to help me. She was in Rediffusion then and her income was running the house. She agreed to take time off work and helped me. We got a production team and went south to shoot it. We went wild shooting in Nagarhole. That commercial worked -- it was for Tribe (a brand targeted at teenagers) -- and we got a lot of awards for it and it stayed on for a year. That was in 1995. We became a hot name and we did 44 commercials that year.
ML: You were directing then? Mehra: Yes, I started shooting full time by then. I had tasted blood and realised this is my calling. One of the commercials we shot was for Dhara (a brand of edible oils). I met Dr Kurien (best known for the success of cooperative milk federation in Gujarat) then and we got talking after he watched the commercial and he began to tell me about Amul. And what a man, and what a story! I said, “Hey, this is my hero in life”. At that point of time, I wanted to leave everything and join Amul. I was so inspired. So, for the next eight months, I gave up advertising. I went to Amul, stayed there for two months and made a documentary for them; it also happened to coincide with their golden jubilee. I went to Mudra and told them, “I want to do this documentary” - it was Mamuli Ram. I told Mudra, “Give me whatever”. They gave me Rs16 lakh, while I spent Rs44 lakh. What a learning experience it was about how India became self-sufficient in milk. The film was well received.
ML: Did you then move to films? Mehra: Not yet. A friend who gave me my first break -- he had the BPL account. And he told me that I want you to direct Amitabh Bachchan. Those days, films stars didn’t do commercials and certainly not a superstar like Bachchan. Those days, he was an enigma. AB Corp had started and was doing great. I said, “I can’t shoot these commercials, because I can’t see Bachchan selling anything”. I told him that, the first time I met him. That was in 1995; today, after Kaun Banega Crorepati (a very popular quiz show) everything has changed and he is a more accessible person. In the first one, he actually talks about the process of him getting into doing a commercial. The second is about walking through the characters of his films and none of the ads showed him selling anything. We got along well and then he talked me into doing some videos for AB Corp. We started working on that. Over the course of time, we started working on techniques and getting in motion control, got in foreign dancers, shot with Bally Sagoo, etc. It worked out beautifully, it was magical. Now, I knew that we could do anything; we are limited only by our imagination.
ML: Did Aks happen soon after that? Mehra: No. Not right then. Because we were to do Samjhauta Express, Abhishek’s launch film. I developed the script, where the hero is a hardcore terrorist. It was all based on research. Jaya Bachchan felt that it would be my first film and his first film, so we could work on it and learn. During that time, I researched on terrorist camps and the Mandal agitation (against caste-based reservations in education). I worked on it for two years. But people thought we can’t have an Indian hero as a terrorist. At that time, the Tiger Hill incident was on the verge of happening. And although I argued that we did not need to feed on hatred, nobody listened. Anyway, 45 days before we were to start shooting, the film was pulled off. I remember being so upset that I burnt the script. In fact, I said I don’t want to do films anymore. Anyway, around then, Aks happened. I gave the script to Mr Bachchan and he really liked and said, “Let’s do it”.
It was a really bad time for him then -- it was 1999. The good part was that he was not a busy man then. We had no money and there were sharks out there who used to loan money at ridiculous rates like 48%. We put all our money and even Mr Bachchan invested his money and didn’t take the artiste’s fees.
ML: Was it bitterly disappointing that it didn’t do well? Mehra: We loved the film. It is not a mass film and it was not supposed to be released like other commercial films. In retrospect, we could have worked on the screen play, but it is recognised. There are Aks blogs on the Internet and people still want to talk about Aks at meetings of cinema people. So that is very refreshing.
ML: So how did Rang De Basanti happen? Mehra: Well, I wanted to do a film called ‘Young Guns of India’. It was basically on the armed revolution between 1915 and 1932, which was based on Kartar Singh Saraba and how Chandrashekar Azad took the movement forward with Bhagat Singh, Bismil, Ashaak, etc. These guys were always big heroes for me. They were larger than life and it became a natural choice to do a film around them. The strange thing was they all died at the average age of 23 and they were all poets or writers. For them to pick up a gun was most intriguing to me. They believed in empowerment and were not willing to negotiate it. I worked at this script and it was called the Young Guns. I put the script through a test through a market research company. It was to check the aspirations of today’s youth because I wanted the lingo of people to be contemporary. There were 40 questions that looked at everything from clothes, aspirations, relationships and we found that nobody identified with anything patriotic. In fact, there was complete alienation with the concept of Bhagat Singh and some of them had not even heard of Azad. Asked what they would be doing today, they felt they would rather head a bank or launch products to rival MNCs. It was very commercial.
ML: When you planned the movie, did you expect to change people’s way of thinking? Mehra: No, in fact, I decided that people in Mumbai were too commercial and I would go to Delhi. There, the people got fed up even at the concept. They were more aware of Bhagat Singh, but weren’t interested. So Delhi also broke my heart and I thought, “Oh hell, I had worked on this for four years and nobody seems to want to watch the movie”. Then I decided to re-work the script and the change happened in the form of the English woman wanting to do a movie. So I started with showing today’s youth in the film having fun and then getting into acting in the movie for some stupid reason. And slowly the two characters begin to overlap and the past and present merge. Every time they merge, there is a spark and they become one in spirit if not in thought. It took me three years to write it. So I worked on it for seven years in all. A lot of my own experiences became part of the film. There was the anti-establishment factor I saw during the Emergency, then the Mandal Commission, then Tiananmen Square had a huge impact, and Rang De was a combination of all these . It was a very enjoyable screenplay to work on.
ML: What about the production, was that smooth? Mehra: We set up a company, but there was a lot of confusion with the partners and the money didn’t come. There was a difference of opinion about how to do it. I wanted to do an Indian story and they wanted it in English. I wasn’t comfortable with that. We also had differences over casting and I didn’t want to compromise on that. We even had a foreigner playing the role of the Indian girl. After a while, I realised that I wanted to do everything sincerely. So again we parted ways and again I kept the losses -- this time it was Rs1.82 crore. At the end of it, I basically had Aamir (Khan). But somehow we went with our belief. UTV stepped in. I wasn’t doing ad films then… I only did one commercial for Pepsi with Amitabh Bachchan and the small kid.
ML: So were you stunned by the response? How has your life changed after Rang De? Or were you confident that the film will be a major path-breaker? Mehra: It has been a huge turning point and the kind of response I have got from all over the world and pockets of India is very humbling. A pregnant lady said that she is proud that this is the first film that the child inside her has heard. I have had reactions from people in air force who have lost someone in their family; the police commissioner had a screening for his entire staff and their families. We got a good response from Cannes, even though it was not officially released. The film is clearly bigger than all of us.
ML: What happens next? Does it put pressure on you to do something different every time? Mehra: Well, this is a turning point. But I can’t even begin to tell you how many people believed in it and waited for it to happen. It was a collaborative effort; I was only a part of it. We had so many people waiting… Atul Kulkarni waited, Kunal Kapoor waited, the cameraman waited. AR Rahman kept giving me time. Aamir waited for four months, he was very patient.
Next, I want to attempt a comedy -- it’s a black comedy. I am not going to put myself under pressure to try and live up to its success.
ML: But this is it, you are certain this is what you want to do in life. You are not likely to drop it and go off to do something else? Mehra: (laughs…) Well, as I said, this is my calling. I love what I am doing and I can’t tell you how much I love making movies.