Far too often, and for far too long, Jagmohan Mundhra, the crossover director who passed away in Mumbai on Sunday, was a victim of perception. At times he was hailed for his guts and gumption in making films that ranged from the evocative Kamala to the provocative and international headline grabbing Provoked; but he was also berated, not entirely unjustly, for films like Night Eyes, Eyewitness to Murder, Open House and Halloween Night. If some were too keen to hail him as a genius, others were equally enthusiastic in dismissing him as nothing more than a purveyor of sleaze. The reality lay somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the soft-spoken man who had no airs of an international filmmaker, was never taken at his real worth. Not all his films were driven by market considerations, though he was not always oblivious to the reality that cinema is commerce too. Strong of convictions, Mundhra was a man who blended style with substance, both in his cine craft and the way he carried himself.
For all his attainment, Mundhra was almost lost to the film world. An IIT, Mumbai product with a PhD from Michigan State University, he was initially happy with his world of teaching in the the U.S. Eventually dissatisfied by the prospect of spending the rest of his life an engineer, he enrolled himself in evening courses in filmmaking. Soon, he had taken a cinema hall on lease in Los Angeles. That in turn brought him in touch with Indian filmmakers and stars like B.R. Chopra, Dev Anand and Sanjeev Kumar. It was following the screening of Kumar's Pati, Patni aur Woh that Mundhra got to meet the star, who invited him to try his luck in Bombay. The result was Suraag, where Kumar played a crucial role. The film paved the way for a career with controversy and misconceptions as signposts.
The reel of Suraag was seized by the Customs authorities, who contended that it was a foreign film as it was shot abroad. Mundhra later had to buy his own film at an auction for two lakh rupees. It was another matter that he went on to make a profit of some 50 lakhs on it. Suraag, though, did not make him an overnight celebrity. That honour went to Kamla, a Shabana Azmi-Deepti Naval starrer based on a series of stories in a national daily. Mundhra got relief from the courts, which ruled that a newspaper report does not carry copyright over real life stories. However, post-Kamla, his career did not go the expected way. And contrary to expectations, Mundhra strayed into making films which appealed to baser instincts.
Films like Night Eyes and the rest catered to an audience that watched films for sexual gratification. And Mundhra was almost dismissed as a soft porn peddler without as much as a second thought. The director, though, was made of sterner stuff. Taking the criticism in his stride, he came back to his first love: issue-based cinema centred on violence against women with films like Bawander, the Nandita Das-starrer that got lesser acclaim than it deserved. The Saathin tale told the world aloud that Mundhra was back.
Soon enough came Kiranjit Ahluwalia's story in Provoked where Aishwarya Rai was presented in a deglamorised role for the first time. It is here that Mundhra's directorial instincts came to the fore. Rai was never accused of having the best dialogue delivery in town and Mundhra smartly kept her dialogues to the minimum in this tale of a victim of marital violence. What is more, his camera angles made sure that Rai's beauty was never an impediment to narration. Soon followed Shoot at Sight. This was based on the London police's secret order in the wake of terrorist bombings in the city.
Mundhra, however, also lapsed into less laudable ventures with Naughty@Forty. That, though was not supposed to be his last hurrah. He was planning to make a film on a Scheduled Caste family of Madhya Pradesh which was saddled with the dog of an upper caste family as it had strayed into its house.
Clearly, Mundhra was a man who challenged stereotypes. Whether it was making arty films or being bold enough to try his hand at so-called soft porn to make a fast buck. In retrospect, the volume of his work may not compare favourably with many of his contemporaries, but his two innings tallied two different scores. As a sensitive filmmaker, he won over the cognoscenti, the discerning. As a man with an eye on box office, he pleased the masses. Either way, he was sure of his target audience. He would need no brownie points from posterity.