With Scam 1992 and Chhalaang, Hansal Mehta ushers in a new wave of thought-provoking, entertaining content

Karishma Upadhyay
·6-min read

In Scam 1992, when a young, bright and ambitious Harshad Shantilal Mehta (Pratik Gandhi) steps into the ring at the Bombay Stock Exchange as a jobber he is in awe but also cocksure that success isn't very far. In a profession that is not welcoming of outsiders, he soon begins to rise up the ranks. As his dreams come true, he moves from a cramped chawl to a small flat in the distant suburbs of Mumbai and eventually into a sea-facing penthouse with the city at his feet. Mehta fits seamlessly into filmmaker Hansal Mehta's universe. Like Ram Saran Pandey (Dil Pe Maat Le Yaar!!), he finds opportunities where none existed. Like Shahid Azmi (Shahid) is a man trying to fight against a brutal system. Like Professor S Siras (Aligarh), he is an outsider looking for acceptance. Or, like Praful Patel (Simran) whose seemingly ordinary life becomes extraordinary.

The director's next feature film Chhalaang that released on Amazon Prime Video reunites him with regular collaborator Rajkumaar Rao. But it's nothing like the films and web series they have made in the past. Written by Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora and Zeishan Quadri, the film has Rao playing Montu, a disinterested PT teacher in a North Indian government school desperate to impress new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrratt Bharuccha). If the trailer is anything to go by, the small-town romance quickly devolves into a sports drama when Mr Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) is hired as Montu's boss. This is undoubtedly Mehta's more 'mainstream' fare in over a decade.

Born in a Gujarati home in Mumbai (Bombay then), Mehta grew up learning classical music and listening to stories about the famous playwright Vijay Tendulkar from his grandfather. After studying computer engineering, he moved to Fiji to work for a couple of years. His journey towards films started with the unexpected hit Khana Khazana for Zee TV that launched the television career of chef Sanjeev Kapoor and spawned a whole new category in Indian entertainment. After almost a decade of working in television, he made his first foray towards long-format storytelling with Jayate, a film about medical malpractice. The song-less film, starring Sachin Khedeker and Shilpa Shirodkar, didn't make it to theatres but received rave reviews at the Indian Film Festival.

In the late 90s, Mehta got what the media at the time dubbed to be his 'big break'. The film was the black comedy Dil Pe Maat Le Yaar!! (2000) starringManoj Bajpai, Tabu and Saurabh Shukla (also the co-writer). The misadventures of Ram Saran Pandey, a migrant from Jaunpur in Mumbai snowball into a full-blown tragedy. Though, the film didn't work at the box office, Mehta, along with fellow directors like Anurag Kashyap and Nagesh Kukunoor was seen as someone changing the language of Hindi films. After a few decades of mostly escapist, masala films, these directors told stories that were more political and infused with heavy doses of realism that, at the time, was called 'edgy'.

Mehta's sophomore offering Chhal (2002) was one of the many underworld action thrillers that Bollywood was churning out at the time but it had a distinct cinematic voice. It was after this Kay Kay Menon and Prashant Narayanan starrer that his career went off the rails for a few years. In the same year, he had the sex comedy Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai? (2002) release that the director, in retrospect, calls a tasteless debacle. It was followed by a spate of middling or worse, utterly forgettable films like Anjaan (2005), Raakh: A Poem Masked in Blood (2007), Woodstock Villa (2008) and one of the ten films (High on the Highway) in the anthology Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) kept Mehta busy in the Noughts.

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Frustrated with himself and everything that was happening around him, Mehta quit both films and Mumbai to help his social entrepreneur wife Safeena Husain in a new venture from their home in Lonavala. His self-imposed sabbatical from movies lasted five years until the death of Mumbai-based activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi drew him back. Produced by Anurag Kashyap (who has also co-written Mehta's Jayate), Shahid (2013) is a searing but quiet film about one man's fight against systemic injustice. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival to much acclaim before traveling to several others and won Mehta the National Award for Best Direction.

There were multiple reasons why Shahid is a landmark film in Mehta's career. It triggered his very successful collaborations with actor Rajkummar Rao. This was also the first in a series of films where the filmmaker brought stories of real people to reel but instead of focusing on overachievers, Mehta's invested in those that asked uncomfortable questions. But more than anything else, Mehta had finally found his cinematic voice. The stories that he's told since have been hard-hitting but also deeply human; meditative but the quiet desperation is always lurking under the surface. Mehta once again explores the dreams and despair of a migrant in Citylights (2014), the official remake of the British-Filipino hit Metro Manila. While it wasn't a perfect film, it does make you think about a stratum of society that doesn't get enough screen time in Bollywood.

With Aligarh (2015) that chronicled the life of Aligarh Muslim University Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was suspended after he was publicly outed as a homosexual, Mehta once again explored themes of equality and finding your place in society. Bajpai, who the director reunited with after a long gap, played the 64-year-old Siras with a melancholic reserve that won him a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor. The deeply moving film advocates for gay rights but does so without being loud or militant.

Simran (2017) starring Kangana Ranaut was the first film where Mehta didn't have one of his regular acting partners in the lead. The controversy surrounding the writing credits of this film generated more interest than the actual film did. In the same year, he fared a lot better with Omerta, another real life story of a cold-blooded terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh. Once again, Rao slipped seamlessly under the skin of the character to give us a glimpse into a ruthless mind.

One of the hallmarks of Mehta's storytelling has been to do so without judgment or like most other Bollywood biopics, resorting to hagiography. Based on Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu's 1993 book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away, the web series Scam 1992 on SonyLIV strikes the impossible balance between acknowledging the genius of Harshad Mehta while also not losing sight of the devastation he caused. The 10 part series has made all the right noises thanks to its taut story telling, but also because Mehta has populated this world with an incredible supporting cast.

In recent interviews, the 53-year-old has talked of the start of Hansal 3.0. During the lockdown, not only has he added finishing touches to both the show and Chhalaang, he has also added in two commercials. The last time, Hansal reinvented himself he gave us films like Aligarh and Shahid, I can't wait to see what Hansal 3.0 will bring us.

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