It was after my film Ghulam released in June 1998 that I was shooting a television series for Pooja (Bhatt) called Dhund. We were almost wrapping the series, shooting long hours at a bungalow on Pali Hill in the suburbs of Mumbai, when Mukeshji (Mukesh Bhatt) got out of his car with two young boys. He walked up to me with them in tow and said, “These are my nephews Mohit (Suri) and Emi (Emraan Hashmi). They want to assist you.” Never to say no to anyone who wanted to learn, I asked them to hop on to the filmmaking bandwagon.
As the days went by, I could see that Mohit worked hard and Emraan did not work at all. He gave every excuse possible to escape the drudgery that came with being an assistant director. ‘This guy is never going to be a director,’ I said to myself. The schedule ended and they disappeared.
I started filming Kasoor a fortnight after that and the boys were back on the set with me. I saw very little of Emraan but I am not the one to enforce any kind of attendance on my assistants so I did not really pester Emi. I let him be. Soon he stopped coming.
We were shooting at Filmistan studios and I saw Emraan again. He had come to meet Bhattsaab, (Mahesh Bhatt). There is this huge make-up room in Filmistan simply called Room Number One and Bhattsaab generally read there while I shot. I went in to consult with him on a scene and I found Emraan sitting with him and having a very serious chat. As I entered the room, Bhattsaab, in his quintessential style, shouted, “Hey, this guy wants to be an actor. What do you think?” I remember mumbling some half-baked “that is good” kind of response and getting out of the room as quickly as I had entered. I also remember telling myself that if this chap pursued acting with the same passion that he pursued direction then God help him.
It was not going to be an easy ride for him. Well, to be honest, nothing is easy if Bhattsaab is involved.
Emraan’s first job as an actor was to be with Bhattsaab at all times. And believe me when I say it is very difficult to do that. Raaz and the Ooty schedule, Emraan was there with Bhattsaab. He had to share the room with Bhattsaab which actually meant sleeping in the lounge of the suite on an uncomfortable couch and being woken up at odd hours by a man who sleeps very little. The poor chap was between dreams and a nightmare. He was being put through the fire, for sure.
Finally the day came. Emraan was being launched and the film was Footpath. The location was Mukesh Mills and his second shot was his first dialogue ever, “Headlight off kar warna battery down ho jayegi toh dhakka marne wala koi nahi milega.”
First take, second, third…tenth…fifteenth. Bhattsaab sat in his car and left the set. It was looking like a bad decision. Emraan’s grandmother, a yesteryear actor and someone who was really happy to see Emraan take after her, was there to see his shot. She was mortified. Take 30 and everyone was gone and so had Emraan’s spirit. He was a bundle of nerves. There was no point going on.
Mukeshji called me early the next day and asked me if I thought Emraan was going to deliver. Something told me that he would. That evening, he did. He rocked the scene. A star was born.
Footpath did not do well although Emraan got a lot of praise for his performance in the film. Soon after Footpath, I had some differences with Vishesh Films and I left the company. I did not work with Emraan for the next 10 years. Although from afar, I watched Emraan grow from strength to strength. From Murder to Gangster and Raaz 2 and then Jannat, he was belting out films and the boy I knew to play hookie at shoots was now the famous, ‘Serial Kisser’.
Relationships that have meant something deep are not broken easily and I was back with Bhattsaab and Mukeshji. The film was Raaz 3 and, this time, the Hero was the star Emraan Hashmi. He was not the Emi I knew. He was the confident man who had many roles and many hits behind him.
Raaz 3 was not really his film and, to be honest, he did it more as a Vishesh Film enterprise and less as a project that excited him. He never even saw the finished film and I am guessing he felt slighted by the importance that Bipasha (Basu) got in the film. I don’t really blame him. He did get his biggest hit, though, and Raaz 3 remains the highest-grossing Indian horror film to date.
Mr. X was, however, going to test his mettle on and off the screen.
Januray 2014, three days before we were to start the principal photography of the film, I was sitting with Bhattsaab in the office when he got the call from Emraan. His son Aayan had been diagnosed with cancer, a tumor in his kidney. Everything fell apart around him, least of all his film schedules. We pulled the set down that was put up for the schedule and Emraan took his son to Toronto. He went there, got the treatment started and came back a month later to begin the film.
Filmalaya studios and the first schedule of Mr. X… We were filming the scene in which Emraan goes invisible in the film. He was screaming for the shot and he was screaming because of the pain he was supposed to portray. But I saw through the 3D monitors the pain of a father who had just left his son in Toronto for a treatment he hoped would save his life. That day, only Emraan could be Mr. X because he was Mr. X in real life. He could take the pain and move on. He was the epitome of bravery.
Through the making of the film, he kept going back to Toronto. Aayan was getting better slowly and we discovered, much to our joy, that he was going to beat the cancer. But as if the illness of his son was not enough, Emraan had to face one box-office reversal after another. His films missed the mark at the box office. Through it all, I saw him hold it together. I saw him swing from ropes and say the Mr. X lines and do the cool stuff in the face of all adversity. He gave everything he had to the film.
Regardless of the fate of his films, Emraan Hashmi stands tall in my eyes today. When I look at Bhattsaab saying, “Hey this guy wants to be a hero,” I want to say today, “He is a hero, Sir. He is a real hero.”