OF FACT AND FICTION — WITH KHALID MOHAMED

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Filmmaker and critic Khalid Mohamed reads ‘Faction’ with actor Rishi Kapoor who is one of the many contributors to the collection of short stories. Photo by Karan Desai
Filmmaker and critic Khalid Mohamed reads ‘Faction’ with actor Rishi Kapoor who is one of the many contributors to the collection of short stories. Photo by Karan Desai

SHIVANI MOHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH LEGENDARY FILM CRITIC AND FILMMAKER KHALID MOHAMED ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK ‘FACTION’, A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES WRITTEN BY BOLLYWOOD STARS

Special to Caravan

He is the writer and director of some fine and critically acclaimed movies, especially adept at carving out some of the most memorable female characters ever seen on Hindi screen, full of beauty and grace, depth and resilience. He knows the industry inside out, having been a film critic of repute and integrity for over 25 years and yet maintains an aura rather non-filmy and elusive.

His stories etched around personalities that lived and breathed close to him such as his beautiful mother Zubeida Begum and his grandmother formed a stunning connect with the audience owing to their authenticity and sensitivity. His last book ‘Two Mothers’ was a collection of short stories revolving around snapshots of distant memories from his life.

His latest offering ‘Faction’ published by Om Books is a collection of 22 short stories by film personalities and is rather unique in its endeavor to present a private, reflective side of these film stars that no one really gets to see otherwise. I met him recently on a misty, grey winter afternoon and was captive to his salt and pepper wisdom and utterly polite manner. Here’s a chat with the ever-intriguing Khalid Mohamed as he lets you into his world of fact, fantasy and fiction:

How did the idea of Faction come about?

I have mentioned the genesis of the idea in the book. But it actually came with Akshay Kumar. He was doing an interview and he started narrating a story of him as a kid. He had seen a love story bloom and die in front of him in a local train. I had written that down. Then 2-3 years later a friend was working on a book of short stories by journalists on Bollywood and she asked me to contribute to it. Then I thought–wouldn’t it be more interesting to interview Bollywood people and get their stories? It took me about 2 years to complete it. But I wouldn’t do it again!

You once wrote somewhere, ‘stories leap out on being provoked, prodded and encouraged.’ How difficult or easy was it for you to extract stories from film personalities who want to guard their privacy in this world of media over-exposure?

90% responded quite spontaneously. In fact some had 2 or 3 ideas and not just 1. Juhi Chawla had 2 interesting stories. Some stories could not work out. The reasons are given in the book. Some of them took some time, some I had to chase. In the sense, for instance, Ashutosh Gowarikar initially couldn’t think of anything. Then once he narrated a story at Karan Johar’s birthday party — a ghost story that happened on one of his own sets and it was perfect for this collection. So some of them took some time; others just narrated it right off.

So you made them narrate the stories and you put them in your own words. Did you add elements of your own imagination?

Many of them wrote it in their own words. Out of 22 about 5 wrote it themselves and I edited and fine-tuned them. Some I interviewed. They had to be prodded on details. For instance if someone said he was in a forest, I had to ask what kind of a forest, what was the time, the weather. I had to play upon it. I sent them copies of the transcripts. Most of them didn’t have any problems. Some wanted changes, some wanted additions. Some stories I wasn’t quite happy with as they were sketchy.  So I went back to them. So there were different processes for each individual.

Which are the stories that surprised you?

Akshay Kumar really surprised me. He is quite retentive and talks to the point. I had never seen him do this before. I mean he is an extrovert but talks business or work and rarely goes inside himself. Sonam Kapoor’s story was a surprise as she opened up. She was scared initially that her parents may not like it but then she decided to tell the story.  Deepika Padukone’s story is also fairly introspective.

So you got a ghost story, some love stories. Did you keep some balance in mind? Quite a range in terms of eras too, right from Ashok Kumar to Varun Dhawan. I wouldn’t have expected a Bobby Deol telling a story!

No, I did not have a strategy in mind. But I think we have a fair mix of themes. Surprisingly a lot of stories are on parents and parenting. Quite a few love stories. Rishi Kapoor’s love in the time of telegrams is quite unusual and interesting. Ashok Kumar had an incomplete story. I know his daughter, Bharati and she gave it to me. I completed that story and I wonder if I have done a good job.

Manoj Bajpai went to the extent of going through his own love letters. He has written it in the form of post cards to a girl he fell in love with in Paris. Many of the people I have known for many years. So there is a bond of intimacy and trust necessary to get a story out. Bobby tells the story of a secretary of the Deols who recently passed away. It has moments where all the Deol men rushed the much valued secretary to the hospital on a rainy night with a lot of action!

Do you think these stories have potential to be filmed, maybe like a TV series to the tune of Katha Sagar or Darpan of the days of yore.

Yes, I think each one of them has potential. Rishi Kapoor in fact after reading his story in print said that one could make a nice love story out of it. He is always sort of self-deprecating. Most of the stories are linear; they have a beginning, a middle and an end, which would lend themselves well to any medium. Now Ashok Kumar was someone who collaborated with Sadat Hassan Manto for film projects once. What he and Manto could have done with ‘A Calcutta Story’ featured here, tantalizes the imagination.

Any films on the anvil? The kind of work you do which is sort of off-beat, do you get producers easily today?

I want to direct a film called Rutba. The script is ready. It is my New Year resolution. I want to start it soon if I get the right cast, the right producer and a good team. I haven’t gone out into the market. My last film Silsilay which was about 4-5 years ago, I did not get along well with the producer Vashu Bhagnani. He did not allow me to make the film I wanted to. I got a bit disenchanted. I was supposed to make a film with Vikram Bhatt but again there were some creative issues.

I have almost 6-8 scripts on my computer. But I always make films with this logic that filmmaking is not my vanity exercise. I feel if a producer is investing his money  in it, it damn well get the money back. I work on the worst case scenarios. None of my films has lost any money.

But you don’t like to make creative compromises, I suppose. One doesn’t see masala in your films. The content is rich and dense.

I am open to discussion. I would say there is some masala.  I like Bollywood mainstream framework. For instance I was criticised for putting songs in Fiza but I felt they were necessary. Compromise is a strange word. I am open to discussion, debate and even argument. I am not open to unilateral decisions which I know are wrong.

Do you think the corporatization of Bollywood has changed things? Most things are seen from a commercial angle rather than creative fulfilment. Too much focus on the marketing angle?

‘Fiza’ was made with a corporate, UTV and it was a fairly good experience. Corporates have brought in more transparency for sure.

But as a viewer one often feels that the promotion really misleads. There’s this one song they keep harping on and when you go to the theatre you’re disappointed. One relies on reviews like yours. The only review of yours I didn’t agree with was ‘Lootera’ for I loved the film and you didn’t quite like it. Do you feel obliged to tone down a review if a good friend goofs up? Besharam, for instance?

Oh my God! I feel there can be disagreement in a review. You can take it or contradict it. My review is not the last word. It is not a consumer guidance report, it is just an analysis. It would be a strange world where everyone agreed with my review. I am asked to give bites on TV review shows but I will not give ‘good’ bites for a movie if I don’t like it. Well, as for ‘Besharam’–I didn’t like the movie but I honestly enjoyed watching the whole family together. Rishi, Neetu together on screen gave me a few moments of pleasure, laughter and nostalgia.

Another thing about your films and stories is that you portray women very well. You pick up a lot of women-oriented subjects. How is that?

My mother passed away when I was 2 or 3. She is just a faint memory. I grew up on her portraits and my grandmother talking about her. Having grown up in a family which was largely female and watching my grandmother who was the strongest person. I learnt a lot from my grandmother. The way she conducted her life, the way she got me out of situations really influenced me. Everything I do I do it for her. Pity she did not see many of my movies. My film ‘Mammo’ was actually based on her and her sister.

She was alive when it came, she saw it for half an hour on a VCR and was not too enthusiastic.  You know we had Farida Jalal and Surekha Sikri playing the main roles. And my grandmother was that very glamourous and mainstream movie-lover types. So she said, “Why aren’t Rekha or Rakhi playing me? Who are these women? I don’t want to see all this!”(laughs)

Did your relationship with your mother or the lack of it or the one you had with her memories lead to some angst that made you want to understand women better? Did you have troubled years growing up?

I think I had some angst. The troubled years went right upto my 40s. I was always looking for a surrogate family, maybe largely a surrogate father. My grandmother never let me feel the loss of a mother but I did not have a father. Yeah, I think I was always looking for a father figure.

So did anyone come close to that? Being a father figure?

Yes, I did have 2-3 people who came close to being surrogate fathers but it was not a good experience. Because you get disappointed in the end. Because ultimately they are not your fathers.

So are you over that void now? Does that void ever leave you?

Yeah, I am over that. That has left me. Today I find myself to be a surrogate father. I love having children around me. My friends’ kids are like my children.

How are the stories in ‘Faction’ different from your previous book ‘Two Mothers’ which I loved, apart from the fact that those were your stories and these are edited and compiled by you. Your touch would be there. I can see a similarity in the black and white covers.

Yes, they are all edited in the same style so that they don’t go all over the place. They are all stars so we have brief introductions about each one of them with a picture. The cover is accidentally black and white, not pre-meditated. They are similar and not similar as the people are very different from me. The stories though are very different and in no way close to my experiences.

You must have seen hundreds and hundreds of movies over the years in your career, critiquing movies. Tell me about some of your all-time favourite movies , Hollywood and Bollywood.

Mughal-e-Azam, Amar Akbar Anthony and Pather Panchali are all time favourites. In recent times I liked Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Ship of Theseus. In Hollywood or world cinema I like a French film ‘A Gentle Woman’ by a director called Bresson a lot. It’s my absolute must see once a month kind of film.  I like a lot of new wave French cinema from the 70s. I like American films like ‘Taxi Driver’ by Scorsese and ‘Some Like it Hot’ by Billy Wilder. I love the films of Raj Kapoor. I don’t think I would have been the person I am without having seen RK films.

Today if there was a Karan Johar film being released and an Anurag Kashyap one the same week, I would go for a Karan Johar film. Karan Johar gives me that wholesome canvas with some grand family values, some great sets, nice songs and a good time. Of course, Anurag Kashyap would give a lot of dark themes, violence and dirty words, which would be a different mood altogether but my first instinct is to go for something which would give me my money’s worth.

Of course if it were a Dev D and a lesser Karan Johar film, I would pick Dev D. I like directors who have a certain style that is distinctive. Rajkumar Hirani is very good, I like most of his work. I would definitely not see a Rohit Shetty film if I could help it because it is not my cup of tea.

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