She is the daughter of a mother so obsessed with films that she watched a movie on her way to the hospital to deliver a baby. Her father was a filmmaker and her brother, now a director, earns a living making fun of Bollywood's hamming actors. She is married to an editor-filmmaker husband who edits all her movies.
Judged by the filmlore dictum that you are as good as your last film, Farah Khan can lay claim to be the hottest director in Bollywood at this time. She directed the blockbuster of the year, Om Shanti Om (OSO) (Red Chillies Entertainment), beating the much hyped Saawariya (Bollywood's first Hollywood-backed film, financed by Sony Pictures) in the box office battle. The two films were pitted against each other, releasing on the same day during Diwali last year.
Saawariya was directed and produced by one of the most celebrated directors of Bollywood, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. While Om Shanti Om has emerged as the highest grosser of the year (netting in over Rs 100 crores in 5 weeks), Saawariya has been declared a flop (grossing some Rs 38 crores in the same duration).
(Update: Even though Sony Pictures maintains that they are not disappointed in Saawariya's box office performance, Mahesh Bhatt writes in his India Se column, Jan 2008, that "according to experts and insiders, Saawariya is going to lose not less than Rs 30 crores. And this is a conservative figure").
OSO, headlined and produced by Shah Rukh Khan, has been such a commercial hit that it is being dubbed as the most successful Bollywood film ever. And despite its being based around hackneyed themes of reincarnation and double role, it has won appreciation from both the masses and classes of India, a feat in iteself.
"After watching Om Shanti Om, I felt that the spirit of Manmohan Desai has been reborn as Farah Khan," said a film buff from Varanasi, referring to the one of the most successful directors of the 70s and 80s Bollywood, Manmohan Desai, who was well-known for his lost and found formula films that have now become legends of Hindi filmlore.
Writing in his column in Mint, India's top journalist and columnist Vir Sanghvi said that films like OSO have made the elite of India drop their snobbish notions about Hindi cinema. He said: "There was a time, not so long ago, when India was divided into people who saw Hindi movies and those who saw Hollywood movies... (These days) It’s entirely acceptable to want to see Bollywood and Hollywood films on the same weekend. And even when the film is an unabashed, joyous retread of Hindi film clichés and a homage to the movies of the 1970s—say Om Shanti Om—it becomes such a rage that its appeal cuts across all socio-economic groups."
The Feminine touch
In the last 100 years or so, Bollywood has produced scores of capable directors but Farah Khan, 42, is the only 'woman' director to have got nominated for the 'Filmfare best director award', India's one of the most established film honours. That was in 2004 for her debut directorial venture, Main Hoon Na (MHN). MHN, a masala potbioler headlined by superstar Shah Rukh Khan, was huge commercial hit. This year, Farah Khan outsrtipped her earlier success with Om Shanti Om.
In an industry where men rule and females just provide the backdrop, the question to ask is this: How did this 42 years old choreographer-turned-director make a superhit movie, a feat no female director in Bollywood could achieve so far?
Though Bollywood has had female directors like Sai Paranjpaye, Aparna Sen (though based in Kolkata) and Kalpana Lajmi who have made sensitive films but they mostly worked in a, if you will, a parallel universe, Bollywood's mainstream being shut off for them. They have made some important films like Rudaali (1993), Chashme Buddoor (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (English, 1981), to name a few, but they were never counted among the top directors in Bollywood. The qualification needed for getting the top billing is determined by the commercial successes of their films. In recent years, veteran lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar's daughter Meghna Gulzar (a film grduate of New York University who debuted with a commercially flop, Filhaal, 2002 ), Tanuja Chandra (Dushman, 1998; Sangharsh, 1999), Leena Yadav (Shabd, 2005), and Reema Kagti (Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., 2007) have donned the directorial hat too but they haven't tasted much success. If there was any doubt that women cannot deliver box office blockbusters in India, Farah's success has disproved it byond doubt.
But like any 21st century woman, Farah does not take the gender-tinted compliment. “I’m a choreographer, and a director. That I’m a woman too is incidental,” Farah stated. Her point is that she’s different from her male counterparts “perhaps not in directorial skills but definitely in organisational abilities”.
As they say, the devil is in the detail, Farah's shoots encompass much detailing and a woman’s touch. “I do make an extra effort to put flowers and fruits in the actor’s van...That could qualify as a “woman thing” to do...Or blaming my temper on PMS... Or coping with morning sickness while shooting a funky number like Dard-e-disco,” she told The Hindustan Times. Interestingly, Farah is expecting triplets in Februray and she was was going for checkups between shoots, at times taking four injections and then returning cheerfully to the sets. “How many men can boast of that?” she asked.
Pregnancy. Cinema. Pain. Melodramatic moments. All these are not new to Farah. In a weird sense, life has been imitating art in Farah's case.
Farah comes from a film family. Her father Kamran Khan was a successful producer of small-time films. Her mother also came from a film family, her sisters were the once-famous child artists, Honey and Daisey Irani (the former a successful film scriptwriter, the latter now a TV producer). Life was idyllic with "swank cars and plenty of homes". Then suddenly things took a bad turn. Writes Shoma Chaudury in Tehelka: "In 1973, the inevitable happened. Kamran Khan tripped in the casino of life: he made a film that was a colossal disaster. The failures began to cascade after that. The money disappeared, the houses disappeared, the cars disappeared. True to the ironies of Bollywood, the film was called Aisa Bhi Hota Hai."
The idyllic childhood turned into a nightmare. Farah's father took to drinking and never recovered. The family moved to a small space in a relative's house. While still a student, Farah began to work to help the family. She would work "at whatever she could lay her hands on: colony surveys, tuitions, teaching Mithun Chakravarty’s son Michael Jackson dance steps. One time, she won a dance competition prize to Mauritius but she had the ticket converted to money to help her mother keep the household going."
The turning point in her life came with Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar (1992) when producer Nasser Hussain took her on as an assitant director, and when the film's choreographer walked out of the project, she was asked to do the dance direction. Thus was born the choreographer Farah Khan who redefined dancing in Bollywood, making it hip and happening. Since then, she has choreographed for over 70 films, including for superhits such as 1942, A Love Story, Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and Dil Chahta Hai. She has also done international projects such as the broadway musical, Bombay Dreams, and choreography for Latin Singer Shakira for her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards.
Now a successful filmmaker, Farah does not want to do much choreography and wants to focus on film direction. Who can contest that idea?
However, Farah's critics argue that Farah's success at the box office is more to do with her being backed by the king of bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. The superstar banrolled and acted in both her films. Though Farah's talent and ingenuity cannot be discounted, there might be some merit in this argument. But only time can test the veracity of this criticism. And for that, we will have to wait for her next few projects. But more than an individual success, Farah's success can inspire other upcoming women directors to buck the trend in Bollywood . Like Farah, they too can raise money and market their films, which has discouraged many women from helming films in the past.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Weekend Today, Singapore dt. Jan 5-6, 2008. In the print edition, it was wrongly mentioned that Daisy Irani is based in Singapore. The error is regretted.