There are very few film directors in Bollywood who are not only critically acclaimed filmmakers but are also commercially savvy entrepreneurs. Prakash Jha is one of them.
From Hip Hip Hurray (HHH, 1984) to Apaharan (2005), Prakash Jha's cinematic journey has been long and varied. Jha, who made his directorial debut with HHH, a movie featuring youngsters focussing on sports, has wowed audiences with his politically sensitive films like Gangajal (2003) and Apaharan in recent years. Both the films have been commercial and critical successes.
But Jha is not the one to rest on his past laurels or limit himself to the director's chair. Today he is charting a different path, shaping a new future, not just for Bollywood but also for his home state, Bihar.
Jha, who has recently floated his own production house, Prakash Jha Productions, after more than three decades of independent filmmaking, was in Patna when I spoke to him. "We are building multiplex cinemas in Bihar and Jharkhand," he said. "We have just started building four. We have acquired 16. We intend to build one multiplex in every district which is totalling about 30."
Writing, direction, production and now distribution--Jha has done it all with a great impact.
From Bihar to Bollywood
Prakash Jha was born on February 27, 1952, in Patna, Bihar. After finishing school, he migrated to Delhi. In 1970, after graduating from the University of Delhi, he moved back to his native place to work on family farms. But the love of cinema drove him to the learning portals of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune in 1972. Ever since he came out of the film school, he has spun celluloid dreams. He has been working independently since 1974.
Jha began his career as a director with Hip Hip Hurray (1984), starring Raj Kiran and Deepti Naval. He got instant recognition with this film. His next film, Damul (1985), further strengthened his reputation as a director. Damul's theme was socioeconomic and political exploitation. It depicted the caste politics of rural Bihar. This announced the arrival of a new voice in the offbeat movie genre. The movie bagged six National Awards and a couple of international honors, which added to his prestige.
Post- Damul, there was no looking back for Jha. The following years, a number of films came from this talented filmmaker and he started making sensitive films keeping an eye on the commercial elements of cinema. These included Parinati (1986), Bandish (1996), Mrityudand (1997), Dil Kya Kare (1999) and Rahul (2001). Apart from features, he has made 42 documentaries till date. He also contributed to the genre of Hindi sitcoms on Indian television with his comedy series, Mungherilal Ke Haseen Sapne (1990), which became very popular.
As the art film movement began to wane in India in the 1990s, Jha tried to change track and make a place for himself in the mainstream movie world of Mumbai. His first commercial venture, Bandish (1996) failed at the box office despite having stars like Jackie Shroff and Juhi Chawla in the cast. An undeterred Jha mounted another ambitious project, called Mrityudand (1997). The film, a tribute to women, had reigning superstar Madhuri Dixit in the lead role. Set in rural Bihar, it featured two protagonists, played by Dixit and Shabana Azmi, who challenge the social mores designed and controlled by the male order. Jha's gamble paid off this time, as the film got both public and critical appreciation. He had made a place for himself in mainstream Bollywood. His next few films, Dil Kya Kare (1999), Rahul (2001), Apaharan and Gangajal cemented his position in Bollywood as a leading filmmaker.
Over the years, Jha's ouevre has been increasingly dealing with political issues, especially set in the backdrop of Bihar. While Gangajal depicted the good and bad elements of the police force in Bihar manipulated by its wily politicians, Apharan explored the complex relationship between a father (Mohan Agashe) and son (Ajay Devgan), set against the backdrop of a thriving kidnapping industry in Bihar. His next directorial venture, Rajneeti, will again deal with a similar theme. "It is a take on the India democratic system, loktantra as we call it," he told me. The film is in pre-production stage and shooting is expected to start in Januray 2008.
Founding a production house of his own has marked a new beginning for this filmmaker. He intends to produce 4-5 films every year under his banner. "I will make evey kind of film which I think will work," he said.
The first film to come out of his stable is Dil Dosti etc. (2007) which has has been helmed by a debutant director, Manish Tiwari. Does it mean his production house will promote new talent?
"Yeah, I am quite open to it," he said in affirmation.
Speaking of Dil Dosti Etc, he said, "This was a first time director Manish Tewary with a cast of small time actors and it works very well for its cost."
The response to this new film has been good. "It is doing pretty well in most of India. Apart from the eastern territory which is Bengal and Bihar, the film is doing extremely well in Delhi, Jaipur, Indore, Bombay, Mysore, and the first week collections have met our expectations," he told India Se.
As a filmmaker, as Jha has changed gears, so has the filmmaking scene in an ever-evolving Bollywood. More and more corporate houses and even Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood. What does he make of this transition?
"I don't think the variety of films is likely to change very much. The Indian market is also in transition. You didn't hear a few years ago like weekend collections of films, films recovering their cost in one week in India. So, the full texture of marketing is changing rapidly. That is what is attracting the western studios," he said.
So, is Jha afraid of these changes? Will he work with the Hollywood studios if given a chance? "Given a chance, I think, means if there is a subject which is acceptable and there's a market for it, then why not?" he said.
But Hollywood's studios have this reputation of limiting a director's creativity. Will it not upset him? "I don't know. I haven't dealt with them. And if marketing begins to dictate your content, then so be it," he said candidly.
For such a fearless filmmaker, nothing can come in the way of achieving greater success.
A version of this piece appeared in India Se (Nov. 2007). Khoya Khoya Chand, directed by Sudhir Mishra, is Prakash Jha Production's next release.