Cinema

My first break: Jagmohan Mundhra

Film Director Jagmohan Mundhra. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

How it happened

I had a passion for filmmaking since the age of 12 but there was no support at home as I was a good student! After completing my engineering from IIT Mumbai and Ph. D from Michigan State University, I started teaching in California. I was well settled but somewhere I was feeling incomplete so in the evening I started attending short term courses in filmmaking. I learnt everything from editing to direction and cinematography.

After that I started going to American studios with my resume. They said a Ph. D should not direct a film and an Indian can't make a film about American sensibilities. In the meantime, I had a business idea. At that time there was no cinema hall in Los Angeles that would show Hindi films. I took a theatre which was undergoing redevelopment on lease and refurbished it into an 800-seater which will only show Hindi films. It didn't cost much as the theatre had to go down anyway in five years. It was called Meralta and the first film we showed was “Julie.”

The film earned 15000 dollars on the first weekend. Soon the place became a hit and I started getting calls from Indian directors to showcase their films. Dev Anand came with “Des Pardes”, Satyajit Ray with “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” and B.R. Chopra premiered “Pati, Patni Aur Woh”. Sanjeev Kumar who was the lead actor in the film stayed back in Los Angeles to consult doctors about his mother's illness. I helped him out. One day I shared my dream of making a film with him. He said why don't you come to Bombay? I said I don't know anybody in the industry. He laughed and said ‘you know me'. Next day my table was full of business cards

. I sold the theatre, chucked my cushy job of a professor and headed to Mumbai. I Indianised the script I had and called it “Suraag”. It was about an American Indian who comes to India to for a week to marry. This was a common practice those days. Incidentally, the girl gets kidnapped and a huge ransom amount is demanded. Now the boy gets in a dilemma as to whether he should pay such a sum for a girl he hardly knows. Parikshat Sahni and Shabana Azami played the couple and Sanjeev Kumar essayed the role of a professor in criminology, who helps Sahni. As I was familiar with American locations, I shot the film in the U.S.

How did it feel

I completed the film and decided to do the post production and dubbing in India. Those days films shot outside India were imported by NFDC and then released in theatres. However, I didn't read the fine print in the law that stated that NFDC could import only completed films. My negatives were seized by the Customs Department. In the early ‘80s red-tapism was at its worst and nobody realised that a film which is shot by an Indian and has Indian actors could be allowed to be dubbed in India. The film remained stuck with the Customs. I was told the only way out is I buy it during the auction, which the department holds for such goods. I bought my own film for two lakh rupees. It was a bizarre feeling.

How life changed

The film finally got released in 1982, did reasonably well but as the costs had gone up I could make only 50 lakh rupees. One day Shabana Azmi took me to a Vijay Tendulkar play and I got the idea of “Kamla”. I had just made a crime thriller but my inspiration had always been films like “Garam Hawa”. I shot the film on a shoe string budget. However, when the film was ready, a newspaper which had broken the Kamla story filed a case for copyright violation and libel and got an injunction.

I contended that the inspiration had come from the play and I attributed the screenplay and dialogues to Vijay Tendulkar but they didn't agree. The case went up to the Supreme Court and ultimately it got released. The film didn't do well and once again I lost so much money. I was a bit disillusioned. By that time I had a daughter and had to do something to make the ends meet. I went back to the US.

At that time home video market had just taken off. The industry needed content but Hollywood filmmakers were taking it as a competition and were not ready to sell the rights. I used it as an opportunity to make films for the video market. One of my films erotic thrillers, “Night Eyes”, did really well and my career got going. I mastered the art. However I got an image which became hard to break. It took me a decade to come out of it with “Bawandar”. Now after making a series of thought provoking films, I am returning to psycho thriller genre with “Apartment”.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 7:16:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/My-first-break-Jagmohan-Mundhra/article16372017.ece

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