In more than 30 years of showbiz journalism, Mohamed has seen it all. The film critic and director reveals how movie stars became his surrogate family and why his new book is his last connection with the industry
As media editor at The Times Of India (TOI), Khalid Mohamed was Filmfare editor and hosted its awards for nine years. He was influential too as the newspaper’s film critic for 27 years. Unsurprisingly, he formed deep associations with several movie stars, even seeing some of them as surrogate family. Among the books he authored was To Be Or Not To Be, a biography of Amitabh Bachchan, commissioned for the superstar’s 60th birthday by his wife Jaya. The critic, who also directed three feature films, Fiza, Tehzeeb and Silsiilay, reveals that at the time, he also shot hours of a documentary on Bachchan that was shelved by the family later. Today, Mohamed is no longer on speaking terms with the Bachchans.
It isn’t the only fractured friendship that Mohamed suffered over the years. Our interview with him begins with Faction, his edited collection of 22 short stories by star writers such as Deepika Padukone, Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor, Karan Johar, Rishi Kapoor and Farah Khan. The conversation meanders to how movie stars modified their equations with Mohamed once he stopped being ‘useful’. The writer realised the only way he could deal with this change was by going through a ‘Bollywood detox’. “I felt violated,” he says, and adds that Faction is his last connection with the film industry:
Q What sparked the idea of Faction?
A [Film critic] Deepa Gahlot asked me to contribute [for] a bunch of stories written by showbiz journalists. I gave one about a fading legend and my Sunday evening cognacs with him. That book didn’t work out, so I had an idea of asking stars to narrate stories. I first fleshed out a story with Akshay Kumar, then followed it up with Arjun Rampal. The early ones were Rishi Kapoor, Ram Gopal Varma, Sonam [Kapoor].
Q How did you explain the concept to film personalities?
A Most of them balked at the idea of a short story. I told them it was carte blanche. You could write a romantic story, about a friend, ghost, sci-fi, Kafka-esque, anything. Most gave their own stories, except for Basu Chatterjee who had wanted to make ‘The Window’ into a film.
Q Who has a great story-telling style?
A Rishi Kapoor. He was skirting some things when he was telling me the story, but [Rishi’s wife] Neetu was there, so she said, ‘Eh, why aren’t you saying that?’ Akshay narrated his on a chartered air flight back from Chandigarh. He has many stories. One of them that didn’t make it was about his grandmother and the Paranthe Wali Galli in Chandni Chowk. Juhi [Chawla] spoke about her mother’s [fatal] accident. I would have liked Karisma [Kapoor] to have been in the book. I’m sentimental about her and Hrithik [Roshan] because I saw them as kids and they were creating what I had written [Fiza]. They are warm when I meet them, but I’ve realised when a project ends, you leave. You can’t get possessive about them.
Q Why did you need to detox?
A I wrote reviews for 27 years. I left ToI because it wasn’t the same, and I wasn’t cut out for the [Filmfare] awards. They were death. Nine years. I would give all the credit [for the award] to [group president] Pradeep Guha, while I was the Kathakali dancer there, going mad. The last year that I was there, in 2002, I had an accident [before the awards]. It happened because I went to invite Raakhee, my driver was upset that it was late, and boom [I had an accident]. I had to go through surgery and my arm was in a cast. My colleagues asked me to come for the function. What I had to do was cueing–this one is coming in, so that one had to be there. It all had to be politically right.
Q What happened at the function?
A Salman Khan came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to break your other arm’, because he was going at Aishwarya Rai [Mohamed, in his role as editor, had stopped Khan from going up to Rai]. Her brother and everyone had walked off and I had to handle it. It was Rishi [Kapoor] who actually pulled him aside. Salman then told me, ‘Maroonga.’ It was horrible.
After the event, there was a Fardeen Khan party. I was sitting exhausted among a flood of people and… my arm was paining. All my colleagues had vanished. I suddenly saw myself in this long-distance shot, sitting there alone. I decided, ‘It’s not worth it.’ Nobody cared, though I’d done the whole bloody ballet—Swan Lake.
Q What do you think was your most memorable awards show?
A 1996, it was traumatic. The police turned off the power while Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Lucky Ali were performing, Madhuri Dixit was on the stage. Then, there was 1998 when Rekha performed to Umrao Jaan and we cut to Amitabh Bachchan—I thought that was quite clever.
Q While you were Filmfare editor, you continued being the film critic for TOI. How did you juggle the two identities?
A I was a two-in-one system. If I wrote a bad review, then went to interview a film personality two months later, I would be spoken to like the critic was a third person. It was like having a split personality. I remember walking out of JP Dutta’s office. I told him, ‘You’re talking about me.’ For the stars, I was strange. I came across as Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde.
Q You were the most powerful film journalist for years. Did the stars fawn over you?
A Once an editor asked me, ‘Don’t you miss the sense of power?’ It struck me then that I had power. I was blessed that I didn’t have to go through a typical journalistic struggle. My family went through hard times, but by the time I settled into journalism, I was okay. Journalism was pocket money. Maybe, I was an odd kettle of fish for the stars. They would make all kinds of overtures for the reviews. At Evening News, I remember I was looking at the time once, and an actor told me to take his Rolex. I was like, ‘Yeah sure [sarcastically]. I have one at home and this one is better, it’s a Cartier.’
Q What about the accusations of bias in your reviews?
A Yes, but I’ve always liked good people—Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol. It didn’t affect me if people thought I was corrupt. The agony and ecstasy I feel while watching a movie transmits through the review. I wouldn’t have lasted as a critic otherwise. I felt happy I was writing on cinema. I was applying the knowledge I had since I was a kid… The sense of power was for my company. I wanted to get them exclusives, the best covers, the best star attendance. How could I have used the power for myself?
Q But many showbiz journalists love the access of walking into a superstar’s home or being a confidant…
A I’m a fan boy. The first time I interviewed Amitabh Bachchan was in 1982 when he was shooting for Coolie in Bangalore. He wasn’t giving interviews then. It was in his cottage at Taj West End (hotel)…
Q Before the Coolie accident?
A Yes, it was his last interview before the punch, so it became big. So when I went to this loo in his cottage, I thought, ‘Amitabh Bachchan ke loo mein piss kar raha hoon.’ It was the kind of feeling you have on meeting The Beatles. Paul McCartney was the first interview in my life. I couldn’t top that. I got the scoop when I was a trainee in 1977 at ToI because my friend knew someone in Qantas. The interview happened at the airport lounge and when I shook McCartney’s hand, I felt like a teenaged groupie. So there was an iota of that feeling for Mr Bachchan.
There is a fan thing, but as I grew older, I enjoyed few interviews. Brad Pitt, George Clooney. In those days, it was difficult to get access to a Hollywood actor. Now they are all over the place in PR-driven interviews.
That doesn’t excite me. I wouldn’t even go out to meet Robert DeNiro at one of these things. The thrill for me was running after him in Russia and getting five minutes. It was about the exclusiveness.
Q What was your first Bollywood interview?
A Raakhee (laughs), for a Filmfare cover story. To be a film journalist, you have to love the movies, you have to be a bit star-struck. Yet if I went to meet Raakhee, I knew so much about her, including her dirty dance in a film like Paras. I’d have this trivia in my head, so the stars would be kicked. When I first went to meet Raakhee, I was told that I couldn’t do the interview that day because she was standing on her head.
A Yes. So the next day, I was called over to try her famous fish [dish]. Bosky [Meghna Gulzar] was a kid and quite the preener… Every star likes you when you meet them, but if you are enthusiastic at your job, they get threatened. You can’t go to stars thinking they’re super-gods or that they’re dumbbells. You can’t be overawed. The only time I felt trembly was when I was a kid and first met Gulzar. I liked his films so much.
Q When did your equation with the stars change?
A ToI wanted a certain attitude in reviews —pro, pro, pro. I’m not blindly pro.
The last review I wrote there was in 2002 for (Ram Gopal Varma’s) Company. Then I became Mid Day’s film critic. Until then, the readership didn’t dip at all. But when I moved to DNA, I was in a strange position. Karisma Kapoor was having trouble in her marriage and since I had made Fiza, everyone felt I should be inside her room and get an interview. It doesn’t work that way.
Similarly, I knew Mr Bachchan’s family. He had landed in hospital and I was the only one who had access. Pressured like crazy, I wrote a benign thing like how he was cracking jokes from his hospital bed. The Bachchans saw it as a breach of faith in our friendship. The day I walked into DNA when the report came out, it was like that scene in No One Killed Jessica when everyone in the newsroom claps for Rani [Mukerji]. Later, Mr Amar Singh called me from Abhishek’s cellphone and accused me of doing this and that. He said, ‘Now you have to rework your equation with this family.’
Q How did the Bachchans react?
A Mr Bachchan didn’t say much but Jaya was obviously upset. She said, ‘You came in as a friend but did this.’ I said mea culpa. I later moved to Hindustan Times as its National Cultural Editor for two years. I left because Vikram Bhatt wanted to start a film with me.
In that period, interaction with my so-called friends in the industry ripped. I suppose it was because I was no longer (pauses) useful in any capacity… I thought, ‘Hey, they laughed at all my jokes, thought I was good company. Wasn’t I an individual?’
The classic example of knowing when you are not in the Bollywood favour list is by those wretched bouquets on your birthday. Bouquets shrink, so everyone from the elevator boy to your cook ask you, ‘Kya hua?’ You get a couple from your genuine friends, and maybe from those who have forgotten to strike you off the list. You feel bad, but you can handle it.
Q Who stayed on as friends?
A My genuine friends have been Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Manoj Bajpayee and Karan Johar. I’ve had a steady love-hate relationship with Ram Gopal Varma. But others who I imagined to be close, like Dimple Kapadia, said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ The realisation that you weren’t a person to them is tough to take… and maybe, you’ve done it yourself. Suppose a star was popular and had skidded… But I feel I would have maintained the same friendship.
This feeling of not being considered as an individual by film stars comes from being too close to them. Emotionally close. I’ve been through three tough breaks. Salim Khan was one, then Gulzar, then the Bachchans, Jaya, specifically.
Q Why did you become emotionally close?
A Perhaps, because I didn’t have a family and was looking for a substitute. There was an emotional lacuna. Actors give you that lethal line, ‘You are family, yaar.’ I looked for warmth and it was given. But it changed when I wasn’t useful. I’m being upfront. This is my point of view; who knows how the other side sees it. I felt violated.
I was brought up in a traditional disciplined way by my grandmother. Her philosophy was, ‘Never take a favour.’ If anyone gives you Rs 100 as an Eidi present, give back 200. I was always careful with my friendships. So I’m indebted to no one, from Mr AB to Z. And Mr Bachchan’s blog about serving me ‘exclusive and expensive’ wine was such a joke. The Bachchans owe me and they know that.
The detoxification took… nearly two years. I took long walks. I tried theatre, books and documentaries. I’ve not been satisfied even though I’ve done one play, two books, three documentaries… I am writing a novel now and I definitely want to make a feature film.
Q If you went through detox, why did you go back for a fix with Faction?
A That’s why I said, ‘No sequel’. Faction is my last connection with this industry.
Q Among the stars you’ve known, which ones had striking personalities?
A Well, they weren’t always successful—like Jiah Khan… She wrote poetry, made video films, worked for the UN. She was a disturbed soul. Do you mean a personality I’d enjoy travelling in a train with?
Q Or marooned on a desert island?
A (Laughs) Shah Rukh Khan till he became an entrepreneur. Now you have to talk to him about the IPL and whatever else he’s doing. He’s a great conversationalist… See, there is a rule: actors are best during their struggling days. The moment they reach the ‘we are known’ stage, they don’t need you.
One girl I wish I’d known, but haven’t met is Pooja Bhatt. I met her father [Mahesh] many times, he’s quite a Bhatt-dose (laughs). You can be stuck on an island with Salim Khan. He’s a great raconteur. I’ve also enjoyed talking to Tabu and Shabana Azmi, though she drove me nuts during Tehzeeb. She’s made a difference to cinema. And Smita [Patil] who was in my college. She was very vulnerable.
Q Do you look back at directing as a mistake?
A No, I’m damn good at it. My shot-taking, mise-en-scene are far better than what’s going on. I’m really proud of Fiza, then Tehzeeb. Fiza was important because it was a minority take. The reviews ended up being more about me than the film. Silsiilay had too many problems because of interference. Journalism would have sucked me dry and I would have probably have jumped off a cliff if I hadn’t directed Fiza and written Mammo.
Q You wrote Amitabh Bachchan’s biography To Be Or Not To Be in 1999, but by 2008, both of you were exchanging verbal barbs. Few biographers have fallen out like this with their subject.
A There’s Paul Theroux. Not that I’m Theroux, but well, maybe Mr Bachchan is as important as V S Naipaul. Fallen out? I don’t know. In any case, that’s a very long story.
Q What’s the status today?
A When something breaks, it damages you. Till today, I’m wracked by nightmares. I wake up, yelling, ‘What the fuck? What were you dreaming about? Stop it.’
If you ask me, I wouldn’t do [film journalism] again. It’s too demanding because you’re dealing with the real and unreal, a saga of sorts. I wish I had gone into academia and lived in Devonshire. That would have been fun, intellectually stimulating.
Faction: Short Stories by 22 Film Personalities, edited by Khalid Mohamed is published by Om Books International, Rs 395Aishwarya Rai Amitabh Bachchan Articles Filmfare Jaya Bachchan Khalid Mohamed Raakhee Rishi Kapoor Salman Khan Shah Rukh Khan