Bollywood in Fact and Fiction

by Liz Mermin

LizWhen I was asked two summers ago if I’d like to make a documentary on “Bollywood,” I thought: melodramatic love stories, endless musical numbers, glittery kitsch… not my thing.  Six months later I was at a trendy café in Mumbai listening to a vigilante cop once known as “Bombay’s Dirty Harry” extol the virtues of P. G. Wodehouse and Jodie Foster. ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ is a cliché documentary filmmakers take seriously, but when the fiction in question is Bollywood, it’s quite a challenge.  Except in Bombay.

That documentary has just been broadcast and is about to come out on DVD, so it seems as good a time as any to reflect on the madness of it all.   If you aren’t familiar with this story, please pay attention, because it’s complicated.  The Bollywood film we chose to focus on for the documentary was called “Shootout at Lokhandwala”: a star-studded, highly-dramatized retelling of an incident that took place in 1991 in a middle-class housing complex in the Bombay suburbs, in which seven alleged gangsters and over 400 cops spent four and a half hours in the middle of the afternoon shooting at each other.  At the end of the day the seven gangsters (or in some versions, six gangsters and one hostage) were dead.  There were some at the time who suggested that the police reaction might have been a bit heavy-handed, but for the most part the media treated the incident as a victory for law and order, and the lead officer, A. A. Khan, as a hero.  (Khan later wrote a book about the incident, sprinkled with quotes about justice from, among others, Tennyson, Emerson, and Martin Luther King.)

Sib The film had a lot going for it, by Bollywood standards: a dramatic story, a huge star cast, a hot young director, and a production house famous for edgy fare (as well as, if one believed the rumours, more than a passing acquaintance with the underworld).  But there was a problem.  The actor playing the lead role of A. A. Khan, superstar Sanjay Dutt, was on trial for weapons possession, in connection with the largest terrorist attack in India’s history, and could at any point be sent to jail.

It started in 1993, when Dutt allegedly received some weapons (three AK-56 rifles, a few dozen hand grenades, and a pistol) from a notorious gangster with close ties to the film industry.  He said at the time that he needed the weapons for self-defense, because his father – a beloved film-star turned MP – had been helping Muslim riot victims, and as a result Hindu nationalists were threatening the family.  Shortly after Dutt received the weapons, a series of bomb-blasts ripped through Bombay, killing over 250 people and injuring 700 more.  Dutt’s weapons suppliers were alleged to be behind the blasts, and the film star became one of the 125 accused in what would become the longest trial in India’s history.

Over the next fourteen years, although (or because) Dutt was in and out of jail, his career took off.  He made over 50 films – the most successful being one in which he plays a gold-hearted gangster who receives ethics lessons from Mahatma Gandhi’s ghost.  The fact that the star might be sent to jail at any moment didn’t stop the industry’s top producers from signing him, possibly because his predicament seemed to deepen the devotion of his fans, who were convinced that he was the victim of political machinations.  But just as “Shootout” was going into production, verdicts came down: Dutt was acquitted of terror charges, but convicted of weapons possession.  The judge granted him provisional bail in dribs and drabs while he awaited sentence, requiring him to report to court almost every week; and the filmmakers had to get “Shootout” in the can before their star was put away.

It turns out that nothing is easy in Bollywood, and what should have been a cake-walk to fame and fortune for the unproven young director and his team became a test of patience and strategic ingenuity.  Shots and reverse shots were filmed weeks, even months apart, with ample use of body doubles.  Scenes that should have been shot in three days were completed in three hours.  Sets went up and down so quickly you couldn’t be sure they’d ever been there.  And while hundreds of technicians frantically embedded thousands of tiny explosives in the walls of the fake housing complex, the vigilante cop and the convicted film star palled around. “I suppose he got carried away,” Khan said, when I asked how he felt about Dutt’s troubles with the law.  Dutt himself looked surprisingly vulnerable, with sad matinee eyes that could melt any heart – though not, it would turn out, that of the judge.

If this is your reality, why would you turn to fiction?

The scary thing about documentaries is you never know how your story will end: would they finish the film? Would it be a hit or a flop? Would Dutt go to jail? If you’re interested in finding out, the documentary – called “Shot in Bombay”is playing at the MIAAC film festival in New York on Nov 8 and is coming out on DVD in Europe.  And if you’d like to see how Bollywood turns a four hour shootout into twenty minutes of hand-to hand combat, ending with a gooey impalement, you might check out “Shootout at Lokhandawala” – also playing at MIAAC.

Liz Mermin is a documentary filmmaker.