'Even spending 10 minutes in the same space as him is so enlightening'
The dark side of Mumbai: Tariq Khan on directing Mahesh Bhatt and tackling big issues
The latest slew of Bollywood releases have traversed dark territory: there was the shaky, uncomfortable experience of Pihu, and now there is Tariq Khan's directorial venture Dark Side of Life: Mumbai City, which follows seven people dealing with mental health issues and dark realities.
This is an important story to tell: quoting a chilling statistic about India, Khan says: "Every year, 140,000 thousand people commit suicide in India". (Wikipedia gives approximates figures of suicides in India as 230,000 in 2016, with 828,000 across the world that year. That's more than a quarter share for India, which has 17.5 per cent of the world population.)
"It is not that people are cowards ... we must pause to think and reflect on why so many people are committing suicide."
One of the sub-plots in the movie is about budding singer Prince - played by Avii, the son of the producer Rajesh Pardasani. Khan denies charges of nepotism in casting the producer's son: "The film was shot, already 40 per cent or more, when I spotted Avii doing a street play for his college. There was no interest then and he was only focused on pursuing extra studies in the US as an IIT topper.
"Even when the thought came to me to cast him, I had to convince him and his mother, in fact, even though Mr Rajesh was producing the film," insists Khan.
Avii's character Prince lives with his Muslim landlord (played by famous director Mahesh Bhatt) and he chose to make the characters of two different faiths to highlight an issue in society: "We cannot deny the fact that there is discrimination. Houses are not given out to Muslims. Even famous actors, such as Emraan Hashmi, have faced difficulties. The film has so many plots and incidents, everything that is there... happens around us in real life."
Khan is referring to a 2009 controversy when a housing society in the upscale suburb of Bandra would not allow Hashmi to register a flat in his name. Incidentally, it was Bhatt - he plays the landlord in the film - who supported Hashmi's cause during that time.
Directing the director - on working with Mahesh Bhatt
Mumbai City's team are promoting the film as the acting debut for Bhatt - and this is definitely being treated as one of the movie's "USPs". While Bhatt made his first film way back in 1970, the acclaimed director-producer has acted in bit roles and appearances in the past, and as recently as in last month's Helicopter Eela. So is the casting of Bhatt a strategic pivot for Khan, and has the movie been scripted accordingly? "Actually, no... my initial thought was Saeed Jaffrey, then Kader Khan... both of them are no longer with us... that's why I thought of Bhatt sahab next," Khan says.
Bhatt told us at the launch of the trailer that acting is more difficult than being a director, and he let Khan take charge. The director concedes that this was how it worked during the film's shooting. "He would come to the sets and it was like, 'I am here. Tell me what to do'. He just submitted himself."
We ask him whether Bhatt taught him a trick or two about directing, and Khan says, in full reverence: “Even spending 10 minutes in the same space as him is so enlightening. The energy that he brought even for my project... I had to think ahead to match up, and that itself was a great learning for me.”
The pattern of using sub-stories in a tangle, reflecting different lives with one theme, became popular with Anurag Kashyap’s Life In A Metro, which turned out to be a sleeper hit. With no stellar cast, but following that winning format, Khan is hoping to get second-time-lucky with a serious story after having made his directorial debut with 2009 slapstick flop comedy Ek Se Bure Do. Mumbai City also stars Kay Kay Menon, Nikhil Ratnaparkhi, Deepraj Rana and Allisha Khan, among others.
As part of the promotion, the team hung a dummy on a giant movie poster at a busy arterial road in Mumbai, surely to startle people. Whether this shock-and-awe will translate to the screen once the film's released remains to be seen.