Return of the Showman Subhash Ghai

Filmmaker Subhash Ghai on his recent OTT debut and five-decade-long career in Bollywood.
Actors Sanjay Mishra (left) and Amol Parashar from 36 Farmhouse
Actors Sanjay Mishra (left) and Amol Parashar from 36 Farmhouse

Very few people would know that filmmaker Subhash Ghai was the challenger to Rajesh Khanna in the Filmfare Talent Hunt held in the late 60s. Even fewer people would know that he was part of the ensemble cast in Khanna’s career-defining film Aradhana (1969). And that he was the lead in Umang (1970) and Gumrah (1976), before giving it up all to become a director instead. A Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) alumnus, Ghai—after spending five decades making cinema for the big screen—debuted on OTT recently with 36 Farmhouse on ZEE5. Produced and written by him, it features an ensemble cast of Sanjay Mishra, Vijay Raaz, Amol Parashar, and Barkha Singh.

“It’s a story of two societies—poor and elite. We have touched upon the migrant theme against the backdrop of a pandemic. The film is light-hearted as there are colourful characters who add comic relief to the plot of a murder mystery,” says Ghai about the film. Just like many other filmmakers, the Covid lockdown fuelled his creativity. “During the lockdown, I wrote many stories, scripts, poems, music, and participated in social causes. People asked me if I was writing a story on the pandemic. I felt one can write many tragedies on the current situation but I decided to write a comedy,” says Ghai, who often cameos a la Alfred Hitchcock in his own films.

Ghai is nostalgic about his five-decade-long stint in the industry. For the Nagpur boy, the memories of his first day in Mumbai, post the FTII stint, are still afresh. He says, “I had my diploma from FTII and wanted to see a film shooting, but the gatekeeper didn’t allow me. He asked me if I knew any famous person and when I said no, he asked me to go back. I was disheartened and thought that I would never make it big.”

But destiny had other plans for Ghai, who in a few years, came to be known as Showman, successfully taking the mantle from Raj Kapoor. With his directorial debut Kaalicharan (1976), Ghai proved that he is here to stay. The Shatrughan Sinha-starrer blockbuster managed to set the tone for his future endeavours—unexpected plots, elaborate sets, foot-tapping music, and colourful villains became the hallmark of his movies. “While I struggled to become an actor, opportunities to write came my way and I decided to take those up. One day when I narrated a script to producer NN Sippy, he liked my narration so much that he offered me my first directorial venture. I was shocked! It was an opportunity of a lifetime and I took it up with Kalicharan,” he recollects.

Ghai has had a long innings as a producer, writer, and director. “I was never away from showbiz. In the 40 years of my career, I’ve given at least 35 hits and as a director, I’ve made 19 films of which 14 were hits. With God’s grace, I opened a film school (Whistling Woods International) to teach young talented kids. In 15 years, the institute has given so many successful actors and directors.” He recollects how his progress as a filmmaker has been a fulfilling journey. “My movies speak of my progress as a person and as an artist. I’ve evolved during this time. I am a great student of life and I learn something new every day.” Ghai’s forte lies in exploring myriad subjects—be it the family drama Ram Lakhan (1989) or the coming-of-age sports drama Iqbal (2005). “All my films are different from one another. We made Iqbal on a small budget and that was a game-changer. I would always do new and challenging things—to the max, it will be a flop. So what? At least, I’ll be happy,” he confesses.

With his OTT debut, he has another feather in his cap. He says, “It’s a different medium. Just like the format for documentary, feature film, and short film is not the same, writing and directing for OTT is also unique. You have one interval in cinema halls, but with OTT you can take 10 intervals. Thus, the content has to be more engaging. I have made 36 Farmhouse on the cinema platform and added two songs.”

Ghai deciphers his magical connection with his audience. “We have to show every perspective. A human being has all shades and as a filmmaker, we cannot ignore any. It’s important to narrate a film for every kind of person sitting in the audience.” Putting an end to speculations around him working on a sequel to Ram Lakhan, Ghai says, “I will never remake any of my films, but we might sell rights of the film to other people. I never watch remakes and I already have 110 film ideas to work on.”

Indeed, a showman, who hasn’t slowed down with time.

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The New Indian Express