Rajeev Bhatia is no stranger to the art of film direction. With over two decades of experience directing shows and serials for television, and assisting some of the finest names in Bollywood, Bhatia’s maiden venture, a Haryanvi film titled Pagdi The Honour, won not one but two National Awards this year. Bhatia talks to Rohini Nag about the bleak predicament of the Haryanvi film industry, his own movie and his plans
How did you get into the film industry?
I hail from Hisar in Haryana and have a background in theatre. During my graduation, I used to take part in local college youth festivals and stage plays as an actor. I was directing plays even back then. While doing my post-graduation in Chandigarh, I received many gold medals for the plays I acted in and directed. After that, I thought of becoming a director and moved to Mumbai.
I started my career as an assistant director and worked with Ketan Mehta on films like Oh Darling Yeh Hai India and Aar Ya Paar. I assisted Reema Rakesh Nath in Mohabbat, which featured Madhuri Dixit, Akshaye Khanna and Sanjay Kapoor. I was working with Mukul S Anand on the film Dus, which was never completed due to his untimely demise. I turned to television, where I got to direct many prominent shows. My first television show was for Pritish Nandy called Raj Kahani, which featured R Madhavan and was aired on Doordarshan at prime time.
After that, there was no looking back. I worked with the best names in television, from Ekta Kapoor to Dheeraj Kumar and Paresh Rawal. I worked with Ekta Kapoor for seven years and directed all the ‘K’ serials. But I was still waiting for my big break to enter the realm of film direction. After almost 10 years of making a name in the television industry, I had this craving to join the film industry. I started working on Pagdi The Honour in 2012 and it took me two years to finish the script.
How was the film conceived? What is it about?
While working on the script, I kept taking inputs form my wife Vandana and my friends in Mumbai and in Hisar. I received a really good response from them, which gave me the confidence to go ahead with it. We are aware of honour killings and how the practice is very much alive in many parts of the country, especially Haryana. It is a very sensitive topic and whenever an incident of that nature used to take place, it would emotionally affect me. So I thought of making a film about honour killings and how it affects an entire clan. The title of the film says a lot. ‘Pagdi’ is depicted as a person’s maan samman, his honour… Hence the title Pagdi The Honour. The film has a beautiful love story woven in with complications. Hence the honour killing.
I always wanted to be a film director and I waited a long time to make my first film. So as soon as I completed my script, I wanted to start filming. But it wasn’t easy and it took a lot of hard work to produce the film. I couldn’t find a producer so my parents and my wife stepped in to support me. Basically, my family and I produced the film and I am very grateful to them for believing in me.
We started pre-production in January 2014. I was working on assembling the cast and travelled across Haryana. Luckily, the entire unit was from Hisar, the actors and everyone. In fact, out of 30 actors in the film, 28 are newcomers.
Was it hard to train the newcomers?
Yes, it was. We started with workshops, which took two months. After the casting and workshops, things started to shape up beautifully. It was challenging but once we started our shoot, we had become like a big family.
The film won two National Awards – Best Feature Film in Haryanvi and Best Supporting Actress. How does it feel to receive a prestigious honour like this?
Actually, a film that wins the Best Feature Film award is presented with not one but two awards – one for the film and other for the producers. We are planning to send our film to many festivals nationally and internationally.
Films that win get a screening for a select audience, and ours took place just few days ago. It was overwhelming to get such an overwhelming response. People came up to me and congratulated me, and I was very moved. There were elderly people who were crying, there were parents, children and people from different walks of life. To get appreciation like this for my first film makes me want to do bigger and better in years to come. We plan to release the film theatrically after it does the festival rounds. I made sure my film was made to international standards. There are no songs or background music, and the story flows in a way that each character is etched in a simple yet convincing manner.
The thing is that even after receiving a National Award, not many people in Mumbai are aware of the film. To them, it’s just a film name in a list of award winners. I am planning to have a screening in Mumbai as the film is a Hindi film made in Haryana, with Haryanvi talent.
Is it tough to get funding for a Haryanvi film?
It is very tough. But the thing about my film is that it is shot in Haryana, yet a big part of the dialogue is Hindi. The Haryanvi dialect is very similar to Hindi, which makes my film have universal appeal.
The first Haryanvi film ever made was Dharti, in 1968. After that, not many were made till the ’80s. There was another dry spell in the ’90s. Why is there no growth in the industry?
There should be an industry, in the first place, to see growth! There is no solid foundation for Haryanvi films and there is no support from the government. Unlike other state governments, Haryana does not subsidise the production of regional films or exempt them from entertainment tax. There have been some films but the makers are not serious about filmmaking. They make one film and go back to their reliable sources of income. Chandrawal, which released in 1984, is the only hit Haryanvi film. The film ran for years at a cinema in Haryana. People used to come in trucks and tractors to watch that film. But this was 30 years ago. If there is government support, then the film industry in Haryana might have a future.
Do you think the Punjabi film industry eclipses the Haryanvi film industry?
The Punjabi film industry is very big and the comparison is unfair. There is nothing in the Haryanvi film industry to be overshadowed. The Punjabi market is huge and it caters to the overseas market along with the East Punjab circuit. The good films enjoy a domestic release, with many multiplex chains assigning shows. They make good cinema with films like Carry On Jatta and Punjab 1984. On the contrary, the Haryanvi industry is merely subsisting. A Haryanvi film can only cater to an audience in Haryana whereas a Punjabi film has a wider release. Punjabi films are technically strong and have big names attached to them but there is only a handful of Haryanvi films. It is up to us and the Haryanvi talent in Mumbai to take on the onus and make films for Haryana.
What next? Will you venture into the Hindi space?
I have a couple of scripts and concepts and would love to direct a Hindi film. If a producer wants to work with me, I am more than willing to make a Hindi film. My concepts have a strong social message and films like this can also have good content to achieve commercial success. Everyone wants their films to be commercially viable and a good-hard hitting film can do that. Having said that, I don’t mind going back to television as well but for now I want to test the waters in Bollywood.