Fuelled by his zealous love for world cinema, filmmaker Hardik Mehta stood in queue for a whopping seven hours to see the Japanese film Shoplifters at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI). This year, his first feature film, Kaamyaab about a 65-year-old character actor’s comeback from retirement — with his 500th role — which premièred in the India Gold section at the 21st edition of MAMI.
A Werner Herzog fan, Mehta believes in making a feature film like a documentary and vice versa. His National Award-winning documentary Amdavad Ma Famous exemplifies this philosophy. “A lot of first-time filmmakers think of children or the elderly as protagonists,” says Mehta adding that he wanted to shine a light on sidekicks like the henchmen of the 80s-90s films. His film is a mainstream effort with an Asian treatment about the fringes of Bollywood. “I romanticise the old world. I wanted to shoot Kaamyaab in Mumbai’s Dadar Parsi colony,” he states. Mehta travelled in BEST buses for a peek into the life of the everyman. He once saw Ramesh Goyal, who appeared in Sarfarosh with Aamir Khan, arguing with a bus conductor. “That made me want to know more about these actors,” he says adding that the leitmotif of his debut is waiting for one’s moment of glory at the twilight of their career. To that effect, Mehta ensured that his film is populated with character actors – the late Viju Khote, Liliput and Birbal. Even Avtar Gill plays himself.
He’s also made a conscious effort to incorporate his film with a heavy dose of Bollywood trivia. Mehta elaborates with his favourite nugget, “The line, ‘Hum jahan khade hote hain…’ synonymous with Bachchan was actually spoken by late Bob Cristo in Kaalia.” He goes on to opine, “[The] Indian audience, especially the diaspora has indelible memories of Bollywood. While watching films on loop on TV, we revelled in the nostalgic predictability of doctors saying, unhe dawa nahi, dua ki zaroorat hai.” After the release, Mehta wants to compile a list of such references in the film.
Stroke of luck
Mehta admits everything has been conducive for the success of his filmy journey. Getting actors’ uninterrupted dates for instance, for both Kaamyaab which stars Sanjay Mishra and his next too, Roohi Afza with Rajkummar Rao and Janhvi Kapoor, was a big advantage. Manish Mundra, producer, Drishyam Films, gave Mehta the opportunity to make his first film, entirely his way. “I am elated I could, in turn, make many first-timers a part of Kaamyaab – the lyricist, editor and the DOP. All of us in our early 30s putting together a film about a 65-year-old was wonderful,” says Mehta adding that getting the music right for his films has always been imperative; it helps nurture stories. “When we were shooting, Roohi Afza, the actors would ask about the mood of the scene. I would play soundtracks as references for everyone. I carried a portable speaker with me everywhere,” he reveals.
For Kaamyaab, Mehta didn’t aspire to cast legends like Amitabh Bachchan or Naseeruddin Shah. “Sanjay Mishra has essayed many supporting roles and can shoulder a film on his own,” he explains. At the film’s première at Busan International Film Festival, when the actor was asked about his groundwork for the film, the sporting Mishra quipped, “I didn’t need to prepare. I just played myself.” Mehta earnestly adds that Mishra, adept at straddling incongruous worlds like Golmaal and Ankhon Dekhi, imbued Kaamyaab’s protagonist with authenticity.
Art and craft
Putting into perspective his passage into filmmaking, he mentions that working on Lootera as AD helped him understand what ‘craft’ really is. Working as script supervisor on Queen taught him how an actor can interpret what’s written differently. “Continuity supervision places you at the intersection between the director, cinematographer and the actors. It gives easy access to big directors. Then, I co-wrote Trapped,” Mehta reminisces.
He believes that reading non-fiction can expand our sense of the world and help us tell better stories. Spellbound by themes of immigration and mixed ancestry, Mehta rounds up the conversation with a recommendation – Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.