"There was a cricket ground where we used to play. That's where I first saw a grenade"

Composing, singing, producing, writing screenplays, directing, making ads ... to even being an ace cricketer, Vishal Bhardwaj excelled at everything he dabbled in. In a freewheeling chat, he talked about life, struggles, insecurities, films and much more

Neelesh MisraNeelesh Misra   1 Jun 2019 9:21 AM GMT

Translated by: Swati Subhedar

They say your reputation precedes you. This holds true when you meet someone like Vishal Bhardwaj. When I met my friend Vishal at his office in Mumbai for a 'slow' interview, initially he held back and was reticent. But when he opened up, there was no stopping him. He told me about his childhood, growing up years, struggles and creating his own space in Bollywood. The interview ended on a melodious note with Vishal playing the piano for us, a skill he has recently acquired. Meet the maverick -- Vishal Bhardwaj

Me: Do you have a Gaon Connection?

Vishal: The village where I come from is quite famous. It's called Shikarpur. The general belief here is that fools come from Shikarpur! It's my father's native village. We used to visit it a lot. But the initial memory that I have about my Goan Connection is of Nazimabaad. That's where I did my schooling.

Me: What was it like to live in Nazimabaad, which is a different world altogether? What were your dreams like? What were your aspirations?

Vishal: I was only in fifth standard when I left Nazimabaad. I didn't have any dreams per se. I was too young. I was still exploring life. But I have some fond memories. There were two cinema halls – Bharat and Krishna. I remember watching Mugle-Azam at one of these theatres. I studied at Bal Sadan. There was no internet then. I remember my friends, but I am not in touch with them. I had a friend named Layak Ahmed. I have used these names in my films. These memories, these names, these friends make me nostalgic.

Me: Then you moved to Meerut?

Vishal: Yes, then we shifted to Meerut.

Me: I feel Meerut is a fault line between two Indias. There was a time when many millionaires came from or belonged to Meerut. But I also remember when I visited Meerut, I crossed a massive caravan of bullock carts and there were farmers who were protesting. They had some demands. This is my memory of Meerut. In what ways did this city consume you or impacted your thought process?

Vishal: I was in class 6 when I moved to Meerut. I was 10 or 11. I lived here till I was 17-18, in 12th standard. These are formative years. This is when your personality evolves.

Me: How were you as a child? Were you the shy kind?

Vishal: Yes, usually kids are shy and awkward in that age. But I was way too shy. I was an introvert. I was a cricket buff. I started playing while I was in Nazimabaad, but I took it up seriously while I was in Meerut. I started playing at a stadium. I was an all-rounder. My coach Geetaraam Goyal was fond of me. Uttar Pradesh was huge then, there was no Uttranchal. That state has produced many international cricketers as well.

Me: So, for an introvert like you, was cricket an extension of your personality or did you take refuge in the game to hide behind your true self?

Vishal: No, no. It wasn't a refuge sort of thing. I was growing up and cricket helped me open up. When you are 6 or 7, you tend to spend lot of time with your family and then gradually you start making friends. Those were strange times. It was an era of gang wars. The gangsters were the biggest heros. I remember watching Gulzar's saab film Mere Apne, which had a similar plot. I think those gangsters who ruled then are mafias now. That old warm charm which those gang leaders brought to forth does not exist now. But I have seen it all.

Me: Did you witness violence?

Vishal: Yes, lot of violence. I remember this gangster named Rampal Tyagi. The character of Tyagi in Omkara was adopted from there. That Tyagi actually exists. The whole hostel was full of local gangsters. This Rampal Tyagi, who loved children, started living in the warden's house. God knows where the warden used to live! There was a ground there where we used to play cricket. I still remember that's where, for the first time in my life, I saw a grenade. The whole gang was sitting on a charpoy. They urged me to hold it. They egged us to play cricket with it! I still remember that! It's an amazing memory that is etched in my mind.

We would cross the warden's house every single day and bump in to Rampal Tyagi. We used to either walk down to school or cycle. There were two routes to reach school. One was the longer route, the shorter route passed through the warden's house. We actually had to jump the wall that would crumble often, but we preferred taking that route.

I remember I was in 6th or 7th. We reached our school at 7 am and started writing our exam. We heard gunfire at around 8:30-9 am. Then we saw 2-3 gangsters, with guns in their hands, rushing out of the main gate of our school. When we were returning, we saw that the cops had cordoned the area off and then we saw Rampal Tyagi's dead body. I had never seen a dead body before. I vividly remember seeing bullets lodged in his head and his body. He was lying on the floor and the cops were demarking his body. This is how closely I have seen gang wars. When I made Omkara, I made sure to use the Western UP dialect. This kind of language was never used in the mainstream cinema before Omkara.

When I moved to Delhi for college after 12th, I couldn't speak English and that dented my confidence. Delhi was a different world altogether. Though these two states are just 70 kms apart, but culturally they are very different. There was a general perception that a person who could communicate in English was more intelligent. This bias still exists. But back then I often used to regret not listening to my father. He wanted me to study in a convent. This stayed with me till I made Omkara. Had I studied in a convent, I would have never experienced that rustic world; I would not have witnessed things as they existed. A convent would have limited my exposure to the rich. Now I feel bad for my son who has only seen city life.

It's a different kind of experience to live in a small city. Even smaller things like rushing back home before sunset, bunking school to watch a movie, eating churan and chana jor garam, or stealing mulberries from some farm and irking the farmer – these are such great memories. This is something that the city kids will never get to experience.

There are such deep-rooted complexes in our country. Take sex, for instance. I remember this film called Blue Lagoon, which was a big hit. One obviously had to bunk school to watch that film! We, unfortunately, bumped into our uncle at the cinema hall who was aghast that we were there to watch Blue Lagoon! We felt as if we were there to watch a blue film. Absolutely nothing can compensate the charm that small cities possess and the flavour that it adds to your life.

Me: You were a cricket buff. You even played under-19. How was that experience?

Vishal: I represented UP in CK Naidu Under-19 trophy. It was a good experience, but I was also very unfortunate. But now when I look back, I feel it happened for the best. I wouldn't have reached where I am today. I don't have any regrets. I couldn't play the finals because I met with a freak accident. I suffered a bad head injury while fooling around. The year after that another tragedy hit me. I decided to repeat my 12th standard so that I could play. But they came up with a rule that if you were repeating 12th, you were not eligible to play. My close friend was Rajesh Chohan, who was the first stand bye. I still remember the match was at 9 am and at 5 am the same day he somehow managed to produce a certificate which stated I was not eligible to play that match. I was so angry and disappointed that I decided I would never play for the state again.

Because I wanted to pursue my career from Delhi university, I moved to Delhi and I got through the Hindu college. Since I was good at cricket, I decided to play for the state. Unfortunately, a day prior to the inter university tournament, I broke my thumb while taking a catch. Even that year I could not play. I was truly heartbroken. Next year, my father passed away.

Me: I want to talk about that moment. You came back home one morning after your morning practice and you saw your family was on the road

Vishal: It happened in 1984, 35 years back. It happened in May. I was back from Delhi after writing my exam. We used to live in a rented house. The landlord wanted us to vacate the house. A case was filed. We mutually decided that we would vacate it in two months. The lawyer's name was Bipin Garg and his father was RK Garg, the judge. He signed an agreement with my father that we would submit it in the court and pull the case back. But he didn't, and 20-25 goons entered our house and threw our luggage on the road. When I came back home after practice, I saw everything was on the floor. My mother and sister were looking for something. My father suffered a cardiac arrest and he died, on the road. His body was kept in our neighbour's courtyard. All the elders living in that lane gathered our luggage and kept it back in our house. The judge and the lawyer ran away because a murder case was filed. The case went on for two months, and then we all compromised. And … life goes on.

Me: You were close to your father? Tell me about the bond you shared with him.

Vishal: Yes, I was close to my father. Who isn't? My father was a poet. He wrote songs for films. That was his passion. He worked in an office for financial security, but writing poetry was his first love. It was very tough to get a break back then. He was on friendly terms with Laxmi jee, Usha Khanna, Kalyan jee, Anand jee. He collaborated with them and wrote many songs. That's how he had a Bombay connect. My elder brother played the mandolin. We had mandolin and banjo at our place. Maybe I had a knack for music. I started playing the banjo. In fact, when I was in class 5, I performed at a school function. Everyone was quite impressed as I was quite young then. It's weird, but though I am a right-handed person, I play all the musical instruments with my left hand. My left hand is very strong in music. When people ask me if I am lefty, I tell them I am musically lefty!

Me: And then you started composing?

Vishal: Yes, then I dabbled into lot of things. I was interested in both music and poetry. I got in touch with my father's friends who were directors. They would write songs and I got an opportunity to compose them first. I would compose and Kalyan jee, Anand jee would have their own compositions.

I believe back then you had two sets of friends. On the one hand you had friends like Maninder Singh and Manoj Prabhakar. On the other, there were creative friends from films and music. Were these two worlds pulling you apart? How difficult was it for you to identify your true love?

After my father's death things were tough. But then I was on my own. I started earning when I was in third year of college. Cricket, however, took a backseat. I still play though, but my reflexes are slow.

Me: Was your family financially dependent on you?

Vishal: Not really. We were on our own. We used my father's pension to get my sister married. My brother was struggling. I tried to continue playing cricket, but I realised I needed financial backing for that. I didn't want to be in a situation wherein I had to figure where my next meal would come from. There were so many issues. I didn't know where my life was headed, so I took up music professionally.

Me: I believe it wasn't easy to get a break. Did Doordarshan come to your rescue?

Vishal: Yes, Doordarshan was my best bet. Those days Doordarshan producers were more important that even biggest of the Bollywood mugals. They were the ones to decide who to commission projects to. And it was a big deal back then to be able to save Rs 3,000-4,000. I turned a producer. There was one Mr Ghoshal, also a producer. He helped me a lot. He gave me work. There used to be lot of musical shows. I worked in that department. I did some ads. I didn't enjoy doing that though.

There was one Mr Valiya and Zuber sahab had a studio. Mr Valiya once called me to his office. He gave me a jingle for a paan-masala ad. I called my friend Alok Mathur to help me out. He was a journalist with The Times of India and a tabla player. Valiya saab kept rejecting our tune, and he kept feeding us paan masala in order to motivate us! He kept saying: "Tumhari tune me wo mazaa nahi aa raha hai. Aur paan masala khaiye. Thandak milegi." We tried to use all forms of music – Jazz, Blues, Kavvalli, sufi, bhajan – and gave him some 20 tunes by 6 in the evening. He rejected them all, gave us Rs 50 and said: "Kal phir try karna." We were so angry and upset that we bought a bottle of rum with that money and abused Mr Vaalia! I decided that day that I will never do ads. I still run away from ads. When someone comes to me with an ad, it takes me back to that day and I still remember how Vaalia saab made us slog that day. He is still the same, just that he has stopped eating paan masala!

Ad business is such a fake business, specially those who run it. Except for Piyush Pandey. I have done many ads with him. His ads are different. He is a very open man. He would tell me: "If you don't like this ad, feel free to change it." At times, he would change my tunes entirely. But he gave me full freedom. I have done lot of ads with him. I really salute those who work in that industry. It takes away a lot from you. You start thinking in 30 seconds, you start thinking in loops. It makes you very fake.

Me: How do you perceive relationships?

Vishal: In Mumbai, people run around all the time. It gives strange vibes. People here are very insecure. Life here is tough. Greed and lust consume people. I have very few friends. I think, you work with people and they become your friends. But only those friendships that you strike before you turn 30 last forever and those are your real, actual friends.

Me: I have heard that you have great sense of humour. Who is real Vishal Bharadwaj?

Vishal: It's difficult to decode. If I figure that out, I will be god. I am still finding myself. Bashir Bhadra sahab once said: Abhi apne isharo par hame chalna nahi aaya, sadak ki laal pili pattiyo ko kaun dekhega. At times, we do exactly opposite of what we are expected to do. It's better that we don't figure out who we exactly are.

Me: Do you have any regrets?

Vishal: Just one. That my son studied in a school in Bombay.

Me: How are you as a father?

Vishal: I think I have been a good father. What happens is when a child is born, that very moment a father comes into being. So, if my son is 22, I am a 22-year-old father. No one is born with the talent to be a parent. Everyone is inexperienced. Probably I would have been a different father to a different son. But I have learnt from my experience that I should have been strict with him and I should have pushed him to study in a smaller school in Mumbai. He is a product of a big school. This has been a constant conflict between Rekha and I.

Me: What is the disadvantage of graduating from a big school?

Vishal: The biggest drawback is that you are far-fetched from reality. You are cut off from ground realities. Well, sooner or later, life teaches you to see things as they are, but if you continue to live in a bubble, it becomes difficult for you to yank yourself out of that zone.

Me: How did you meet Rekha jee?

Vishal: We were in the same college. She was a year senior to me.

Me: What were you pursuing? Which subjects?

Vishal: Rekha was pursuing music honours. I was doing my BA as I had secured admission in the sports quota.

Me: How did she influence your life?

Vishal: She is an amazing singer and she was like a star in the university.

Me: She was quite famous when you were in college?

Vishal: She was already a star when I joined college as she was a trained singer even then. She used to win all the college festival competitions. She didn't find me talented enough. My talent was very raw then. I have evolved with time. My biggest challenge was how to impress her with my compositions. Her only contribution to my life back then was that she was my challenge, she was the competition I wanted to win. I really wished to.

Me: When and how did you get your big break?

Vishal: The first time I worked for a film was in 1984, when I was 19. My father's friend, AV Mohan, was producing a film and my father was looking after financing. I recorded a song for that film, which was a psychological thriller. There were two songs. I recorded with Asha jee.

Me: To work with Asha jee at 19, wasn't it intimidating?

Vishal: I was scared, but I was also very excited. After this one, I composed music for a commercial film 'Bagawat ki Aandhi' that my brother was producing. Lawrence D'Souza, who made Saajan, was the director. That time films were made at a leisurely pace. Many films dragged for 5-7 years. Then my songs 'jungle, jungle pata chala hai' became a huge hit and hence began my association with Gulzaar saab. There is an interesting back story to how I got my first film. I moved from Delhi to Mumbai, I joined CBS and worked there for around 2 years. The owner RB Pandit, a very dynamic man, had a studio. Director Anu Kapoor had made a film called Abhay for Children's Film Society. Jaya Bachchan, who was heading Children's Film Society then, was present at the recording. When Mr Pandit saw pictures of the event, he was surprised to see me in the photos. When he was told I was the music composer of the film, he expressed his desire to meet me. He was thrilled when I told him I had recorded with Gulzar saab and wanted me to fix a meeting with him. He said he wanted me to produce a film on Punjab militancy. That is how Maachis happened. I inadvertently ended up pitching for my own film!

Me: You had already achieved so much, and then one fine day you had to wear a director's hat. How was that experience?

Vishal: Ironically, I tasted success and failure simultaneously. I got many films after Maachis. I rejected many of them. I composed music for many successful films like Satya and Chachi 420. But sadly, the songs became popular only after the films became hits. Besides, people started complaining that I had bad attitude. They said that I asked too many questions, I fight with directors and that I have too much ego. It wasn't being egoistic, it was just my pride. No one wanted to give a break to a young composer. I was thrown out of many films. What also went again me was that people assumed that because I was in love with Gulzaar saab and I loved his poetry, they would have to hire us a package, which I felt should have been a matter of pride. But I think they were more scared of Gulzaar saab than me. People started rejecting me and there came a stage where I felt I would have to pack up and go back to Vaalia saab! While we were having a conversation, even Gulzaar saab said I asked too many questions! While we were making Maachis, he would reprimand me. He sat me down and made me understand that I should be a story teller and I should train myself to be a writer. He felt if I wanted my voice to be heard, I would have to become a director. And for that to happen, I would have to become a writer first. That's how I jumped.

Me: You had told me once that you once went to Shabana jee with a script and she had said: "Have you lost your mind"? Tell me more about that.

Vishal: I had worked with Shabana jee in Godmother. Vinay Shukla was the director and I had composed music for that. Shabana jee liked me, she had a soft corner for me. I wrote a script and got it approved from Children's Film Society. Sai Paranjpe was heading it then. I went to Shabana jee. She was surprised and concerned and made me understand that my musical career would come to an end if the film bombed and my career as a director would go down the drain too. I was adamant. I told her I would manage to survive. And then she came on board and did the film without taking a penny.

Me: Was this The Blue Umbrella?

Vishal: No, this was Makdee.

Me: Makdee was panned by the Children's Film Society…

Vishal: Yes, it was very disappointing because I was very aggressive back then. So, I was disheartened when they rejected it. But it was an important film so I completed it on my own, and didn't tell anyone. When I showed it to Gulzaar saab and Shabana jee, they loved it. He said: "Well, it's not Pather Panchali, but it's not a bad film. It's far better than the kind of films that Children's Film Society produces. If you can buy the film back from them and complete it and release it on your own, that would be a big deal." It was a task to arrange for Rs 50 lakh in those days. Fortunately, my friend, Krishna Kotak, offered to help. He was kind enough to offer me the money. I completed the film and showed it to Sahabana jee, who had come along with kids from her society. But I gained a lot from that experience. I learnt everything about film making – not just how to make a film, but also how to release it, distribute it and market it as well. But, more importantly, it taught me how to deal with setbacks. I realised that a closed door opens up many other avenues. Now, I don't get affected.

Me: How many lives have you lived in this one life time..

Vishal: We all do, I think.

Me: It's amazing that there is a part of you who is an amazing cricketer, there is another part who is a great composer. You sing, you direct…and you excel at everything. Are you still connected to your roots? Are you still as humble as you were even after achieving so much? Are you rooted? Are you arrogant?

Vishal: I think I am.

Me: Is it pride or arrogance?

Vishal: There is a thin line. But what is pride?

Me: Feeling proud, probably?

Vishal: I am proud of myself, but not in a negative way. I don't take pride in the fact that I managed to achieve so much, but I feel proud how I managed to achieve all that. I did it on my terms. I made exactly the kind of films that I wanted to make and they were successful. I admire my intelligence. I am aware of my weaknesses, I accept them. I have a favourite jumla – a person who is foolish, and if he knows he is foolish, then he is not foolish. So, if I falter because of my stupidity, I accept my fault. I am quite stubborn. If I want something, I want it at any cost. I have that kind of passion and drive in me. I don't accept my own mediocrity. If I get to know, I don't accept it. If I don't come to know then it's a different thing. When people come and tell me that you have made a mediocre film, I disagree.

Me: You don't accept it?

Vishal: No, I discard it and then I try to excel. When it comes to creativity, mind first thinks visually. If you want to create something, you have to discard that feeling and you have to push yourself, otherwise you tend to become mediocre. It happens many times that I like a song, people like it too, we record it, people appreciate it and then if I don't find it to be okay, I discard it and record it again.

Me: Really? You did that?

Vishal: Many times, in many films. I have rejected many scenes. I have erased content worth half an hour. We had spent crores of rupees in shooting it. Your downfall begins the day you accept your mediocrity.

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