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Faces of India
Rakesh Mehra

Romola Butalia talks to film-maker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra about his work, his life, his dreams...

Aby Baby was the hot sell-out that created a new avatar for Amitabh Bachchan. The man behind the two music videos, Eer Beer Phatte and Kabhi Kabhi, is film-maker Rakesh Mehra, whose BPL commercials turned the spotlight on him. One fine day, soon after Mehra directed Bachchan for a commercial, Bachchan called him up inviting him over. Mehra heard the songs for the album and chose the two he would visualise. The story-line approved, Bachchan, as he is wont to do, and anyone who has directed him will vouch for, placed himself in Mehra's competent hands. And Mehra delivered a refreshingly original music video.

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So who is Rakeysh Mehra? Inside a dilapidated old building in Tardeo was the comfortable office of Flicks Motion Picture Co. Climbing the improvised wooden stairs in the hall led to a room where Mehra spent every morning between 10 and 2 in splendid solitude, ideating, planning, catching up on whatever needs attention. The rest of the day was spent in constant interaction with others and in execution of plans.

A wild mane and a shaggy beard, eyes that convey a remarkable lack of subterfuge, the open, communicativeness that comes with a rare confidence in himself, a healthy self-esteem and a complete lack of hard sell were the impressions gleaned in an evening of free-wheeling discussions. Mehra said, "A major weakness is that I can't write." But sitting there telling the story of his life, Mehra painted a picture impossible to erase, because he told the story as it was, without emotion, without judgement - with utmost simplicity.


Mehra was one of three siblings. Neither of his parents were educated beyond class 9. Recalled Mehra, "I don't know how my mother managed because it seems to me our school fees was more than my father earned, and yet she provided the most delicious meals I can remember, and gave us the best possible education." School was Bal Bharti Air Force School, college was Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University where Mehra received a sports scholarship for his prowess in swimming.

In class 9, as part of vocational guidance, people from different professions came to talk to the students. The man Mehra remembers as making a vivid, powerful impression on him asked the students to sell him the pen in his hand. Mehra did just that and was rewarded with, "Son, you should join advertising." That simple statement became a reinforcement.

During college Mehra worked part-time in an advertising agency as the general factotum who delivered the blocks, went to the press with the positives, got friendly with the foreman at 3 a.m. to change the positioning of an ad. "I didn't attend client meetings, I was a glorified peon. I had a bike and my petrol expenses were paid."


After college Mehra's first job for 6 months was that of a door-to-door salesman with Eureka Forbes, when he made a record number of sales. "Those were good days. I made a lot of money. But it was tough work carrying a vacuum cleaner in a DTC bus, wearing a tie in the heat of Delhi summer. I felt like a fool, but I figured it's OK to feel like a fool in the course of your work." Next came a partnership with a friend when they started a garment fabrication export unit. Starting with 4 tailors they expanded operations till they had 100 tailors. Mehra says, "I was really little more than a tailor myself."

Mehra handed over his business to his partner when he received an offer of a client servicing job in Systems, a small agency, where he spent 18 months and learnt about advertising at the grass-roots level. Roles were not defined and Mehra did everything from buying sugar for the office to chasing payments and juggling finances. When they got the Swaraj Mazda account, Mehra was sent to Japan to learn first-hand Mazda's manufacturing as well as marketing and advertising process, as part of Mazda's corporate philosophy. "Back in '85, those were beautiful early days of the opening up of our economy. I learnt that a commercial is not supposed to be philosophical. There is just so much art to it. A balance has to be achieved."

The next one year was spent with the agency, ULKA during which he was involved in the four commercials made for Hero Honda. On the second day of the shoot for the first film the director, Prahlad Kakar broke his hand, leaving the cameraman and Mehra to muddle their way through with instructions from Kakar who later told Mehra, "You belong to Bombay, not Delhi." It was fast orientation to film production and finally, the elation of having the film approved.


Along with a friend he established a production company in Delhi, coming to Bombay at intervals to make commercials. Said Mehra, "It was tough going. I probably made one film in the first year. There was no money to pay the tea bills." Soon Mehra shifted to Bombay where Kakar gave him shelter for the first six months until he found his feet. "First I got a little desk space, then a cabin, finally a room, and then two rooms, till I bought this place."

Taking over the liabilities of the company from his partner, Mehra ventured out on his own, with the idea of running a production house with a panel of directors, among whom were Kakar, Kunal Kapoor and Ashok Mehta. Working with directors who gave him the space to grow, he found himself offering increasingly higher inputs till he could see his own personality emerging through the films made. It was not long before he was directing his own films, with a maiden venture for MTV. With an expanding organisation, he handed over charge of production and the nitty gritty of running an office, to fulfil himself in what he enjoyed most - making films.

After a series of commercials for Hero Cycles came a docudrama, Mamuti Ram : The Little Big Farmer, which received acclaim both at the documentary film festival in Mumbai and in the international forum. The BPL ads were followed by the music videos for Aby Baby. Next on the anvil is a feature film. What is the basis for the feature film he is making? "It has to be a balance between an expression of ideas and what is commercially viable. In a feature film you are selling your idea. For the person who pays to see the film, it has to be worth his while. I have no great ideas, like Journey to Planet Moon or 2001 Space Odyssey. I am only showing people and their realitites, and sometimes I fantasise their realities." And where does creativity fit into the scheme of things? Mehra firmly believes that there is nothing exclusive about creativity. "You can be creative about any job, anything you do. When you look at the mediocrity on television you realise the really creative guys are the ones behind the scenes who juggle the finances within their impossible monetary constraints. Creativity has nothing to do with fame."


Mehra talked of his weaknesses with rare candour, "I am very vulnerable, very easily influenced, though that is possibly also a good thing because I am open to other ideas. My concentration is not what I would like it to be. I am slow at grasping things. And as a director it's a major weakness that I cannot write two pages that sound right." Who has influenced him most ? " My parents and my wife. She is the harshest critic of my work." Married in 1992, he first met his wife when she was working at Kakar's production house, Genesis. She looked after pre and post-production at Flicks.

Mehra attributed whatever he had achieved to a combination of luck and the confidence of other people. "When I see my own films I am very unhappy because I see the flaws - in conception, in execution, the technical faults, the imperfect lighting - I see all the mistakes I have made." To what extent does he plan his shots ? "Before making a film, I write down all the things that should be done. Then I tear up the paper, because those are precisely the things I should not be doing," says Mehra, adding, "There is an intangible link between the director and everyone else who contributes to making the film, as there is in reaching out and talking to the viewer. Film-making is the skill with which you portray the way you look at things. I try to be true to my vision. But, eventually, the magic has to happen." And Mehra has the gift of being able to make the magic happen, without being too aware of it.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.