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October 20, 1997


'I hadn't even shot a proper kiss'

Jagmohan Mundhra directing Monsoon. Click for bigger pic!
Life is stranger than fiction is a dictum Jag lives by. While bidding his time in Hollywood, actor and friend Sanjeev Kumar, who was in the US for his check-up, detected his frustration about becoming an exhibitor instead of a director, and suggested that he announce a new film. "He told me to go ahead and use his name as the hero of the film. The minute I announced his name, many Indians in LA came forward to invest money in the film. They all wanted a piece of the pie."

That was how Suraag began. The shooting of the film went off smoothly. It was much publicised as the first Hindi film shot completely in America. The problem started when Jag packed off all his negatives to India because the film's dubbing was supposed to take place there. As luck would have it, the customs confiscated the negatives of the film saying it was a foreign film and that Jag did not have a importer's licence.

The National Film Development Corporation which was supposed to help out, didn't. As the film gathered dust in the cans, someone from the customs department finally decided to help Mundhra out.

"He said he would auction my negatives and that he would not make the auction public. I ended up buying my own film which was delayed by two years."

"At that time the going had got difficult for me because I had to support my wife and my newborn baby. Suraag had cost me around $ 400,000, which amounted to Rs 4 million in those days. Those were tough days. But Suraag helped me get my foot in the door.

"I also realised that theoretical knowledge was insufficient. I learned to swim by jumping into the water and thrashing about." After the release of Suraag, Mundhra closed his theatre forever.

But while making Suraag, he realised he could not believe the ludicrous scenes in Hindi films. "I realised in the comic scenes between Mehmood and Shubha Khote that my heart was not in it and that those scenes seemed ridiculous to me." So he tried his hand at serious cinema.

On his visit to India, Shabana Azmi insisted he see Vijay Tendulkar's play Kamla. After seeing the play, he called upon Tendulkar who was a bit hesitant about handing over the rights to the play. By that time Mundhra had been branded a commercial film-maker.

"These art film-makers have their own clique; they are as bad as the commercial film-makers... I was like a pariah. In fact, Dinesh Shakul and Basu Bhattacharya admonished him (Tendulkar) for giving me the play. But Vijay was a very clear man -- he said they may not make better films, just better copies of the original."

As with Suraag things went like clockwork during the shooting of Kamla. The cast, Shabana Azmi, Deepti Naval and Marc Zuber knew it wasn't a big budget feature and were very accommodating. But when Kamla reached the censors, the Indian Express moved an injunction against it.

Both the play and the film both were based on a report by Indian Express reporter Ashwini Sarin, exposing the sale of women. But in his movie Mundhra showed the journalist as being exploitative, ending the film with him being sacked.

"The copyright suit was thrown out in the primary court, but the libel case went on for a year."

Kamla didn't do too well anyway and the ending jarred with the audiences.

Mundhra quietly returned to teach at Loyola, Marymount in Los Angeles. He began working evenings as a clerk in a production company's shipping department. Free of cost, he says. But he was relegated to the basement and few knew he existed.

Click for bigger pic!
There he jotted down a four-page treatment called Multiple Listings, a real estate term. What Mundhra was hinting at was a serial killer. One of the ladies who worked in the office above chanced upon him in the basement. "I told her I was a professor and had already made two Hindi films. We talked a lot. They saw Kamla and really liked it."

Mundhra also made friends with the receptionist who turned out to be the daughter of Sandy Coke, the production company's owner. Coke's second wife was a film student at Loyola University. And when Coke needed a script, Mundhra showed him Multiple Listings. Mundhra refused the $ 1,000 Coke offered, saying the script was his for free if he was allowed to direct the film. Coke was reluctant, but was brought around by his wife and daughter.

The name of the film changed to Open House. Everything went well and Mundhra got alone fine with his actors, a fact which would help him later. But differences cropped up with Coke, who used pick-up shots (stock shots used to fill up scenes and give them consistency).

"I'm totally against pick-up shots because they are patches on the film... A stage came that I wanted my name taken off the credits." But someone stopped him from being hasty. He's happy now he didn't.

"I was really vindicated when the Daily Variety reviewer wrote that for a low budget film it was very well directed, but for the patches in it," he guffaws.

Mundhra says it was important that his name appeared because producers used to say that though he had made films in India, he knew nothing about American audiences. "With this film I finally made an American film."

Then during work on the horror flick Hack-O-Lantern he broke his leg in a graveyard. It was after this film that the famous Roger Corman called him to direct films. For a pittance though. Mundhra didn't think twice. All that mattered to him was that he would be working for a director/producer with whom Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard started their careers. There he met actor Andrew Stevens who gave him the idea for his next film, which appeared on the nascent video market.

"Andrew was having an affair with Rod Stewart's wife. One night, as he was quietly slipping out (of Stewart's house), a security guard came up and said, 'Goodnight, Mr Stevens'." He realised that the entire house was bugged. This is where I got the idea for Night Eyes." The tale of how the tables are turned on a jealous husband who pays a detective to have an affair with his wife under video cameras, clicked. "After Night Eyes, meri dukaan to chal gayi (my shop was running well)," he says.

Night Eyes was a challenge for Mundhra.

"Before Night Eyes I hadn't even shot a proper kiss. All those horror films had brief clumsy sex going on in unnatural situations. For this film, I put up a four-poster bed, a swimming pool, a candles scene. At least, now no one was questioning my ability to make an American film."

He gave up the opportunity to make Night Eyes II because he'd agreed to make Vishkanya for Sunila Pierra with Pooja Bedi in it.Though the producer said they would shoot in exotic locales and that the shooting would be over in six months, he spent six months idling in India, because he could not let Kabir Bedi down. "I was like a surrogate father to Pooja. I did what I could to salvage the project," he says, throwing up his hands.

An expedition into erotica

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