Riteish Deshmukh speaks out on what happened in run-up to his visit to the Taj...
Riteish Deshmukh is a perfect example of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's the quintessential good guy, which explains why in a cutthroat industry he is everyone's favourite guy. And when someone like him gets embroiled in a controversy that invokes national outrage, obviously, something isn't right.
Which is why everyone was stumped when he took along Ram Gopal Varma to visit the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, as part of his father and the then CM's entourage after the three-day terror attack ended. That one mistake not just cost him dear but also became one of the reasons behind his dad's ouster. Vilasrao Deshmukh's political career came under a cloud and Riteish went underground.
Everyone else has had their say; now, for the first time, Riteish unfolds the events that took place before and after that fateful visit to the Taj. It takes courage to own up, and apologise for your actions. He could've easily let Ramu take the fall but the actor makes it very clear that if anyone has to be blamed for that visit, it should be him. He's just the kind of person we need in politics today; unfortunately, he chooses to act. Read on for excerpts from a chat...
In retrospect, how do you view that fateful day when you went to visit the Taj?
I was as shocked or as sad as anyone else in the country. I won't compare my pain and my grief to people who have lost their families and loved ones because unless and until you lose someone who is close to you, you cannot understand someone's pain and loss. But as a city, as a country, to suffer that kind of terror for 50 or 60 hours, it was shocking. I had come back from my shooting (in Karjat) and switched on the TV. I didn't sleep the entire night after what I saw.
You caught it on TV first? No one called you?
Yes, strangely. I was watching TV and nothing good was on, so I moved to a news channel. That's when I first heard of the attacks. Our city has gone through some terror strikes before like the bomb blasts or the train blasts, but it's never been like this. It was like being in a war zone. Every hour, I kept thinking, it would stop now and then I slept at some point in the morning, thinking when I woke up, it would be over. But it was still going on. It was terrible.
Were you privy to more information than the rest of us, considering the fact that your father was the Chief Minister at that time?
I got to know more from the media itself. Because the media was there, and they were getting stories from every individual who was coming out; they knew what was happening and they were getting regular briefings from the cops. Apart from that, I had no other information.
Your visit to the Taj with Ram Gopal Varma was looked upon as an act of 'terror tourism'. Comment.
You know, first of all, I would just like to make an unconditional apology to all those people who saw the TV channels and were upset with my presence there.
For some reason, people were more outraged over Ramu's presence at the Taj than yours.
People were hurt and upset. There was so much of anger. I was angry too and my concern for the situation was no less than anyone else. As an individual, my concern, my pain or my grief shouldn't be acknowledged as anything less than what other people were feeling at that time. But I must say that Ramuji's presence there was only because of me.
You asked him to come along?
Yes. He wasn't supposed to be there. I wasn't supposed to be there. He had come to meet me in the morning, to discuss a film that we were about to shoot early this year. I was supposed to leave for my shoot, and Dad was leaving for the Taj just to take stock of the situation. The army had given over the place to the police, and all the checking and everything was done in terms of whatever evidence had to be gathered and so on. I asked to go along as I knew three people who lost their lives in the attacks at the Taj and the Trident. It was just a matter of sheer concern.
But it backfired....
Mine and Ramuji's visit to the Taj was not a matter of commercial exploitation, as the media suddenly started projecting. As an architectural student, I have sat outside the Taj and sketched the building. It is a very special place to me. I remember the first time I went to eat at the Taj was after I passed out of my Standard 10 exams, and the first thing I wanted to do was to eat at the Taj because it was like an event to dine there. Later, you become more social, and attend functions at five-stars and eat there regularly but you don't forget the first time you went there. The Taj is a national monument. And then to see such a place being destroyed I think everyone cried when they saw the dome on fire. So like I said, my visit was out of sheer concern just to see what had happened.
But Ramu should've known better.
Unfortunately, what had happened is that Ramuji was with me at that time and I said to him, "I am just visiting the Taj. Would you mind coming along and we can finish our chat on the way?" And he said, "I don't mind." It was not his idea to visit the Taj. So if anyone is at fault, it's me. I morally take the entire responsibility if his presence has upset people.
You think Ramu's presence bothered people more, as he is not a very popular man?
I cannot comment on people liking or disliking a person. He is my director and I do films with him, and I do films with people I like, so that's that. I am not even defending myself. I am just putting my point across
in terms of what were my reasons for being there. I was as angry and upset as the next person. But you cannot undermine my concern and say, "Oh, you had gone to do a recce for a film." Please hang me if
I ever do a film on the terror attacks, because then I would be completely guilty. Then you do whatever you want to me.
You think the media blew the whole thing out of proportion?
The print media was correct in its reporting. But when the visual media comes into play, every channel was trying to outdo the other. It's all about viewership so we almost became the scapegoats and targets because every channel was trying to show something better and the viewer was being fed stories. They were being told that the CM is indulging in 'terror tourism'. Then they said that the CM had taken Ram Gopal Varma to show him the sights. That Ramu was there for a recce. Then someone said that Ramu and I were planning a film on the terror attacks. A channel also questioned, "How could the CM take so many people when forensic evidence can be destroyed?' Then there were things like why these two (Riteish and Ramu) were present for a meeting that was supposed to be confidential and meant only for officials. To be honest, I was so far behind my father that I could not even hear what dad and the cops were discussing. My dad had no idea that Ramu was there. You will never see him chatting with Ramu or even looking at him. When a CM walks, he just walks. He is not bothered about who is behind him. There were so many people around him all the time.
I saw the recording several times, but didn't notice you or Ramu till your faces were encircled and highlighted.
Certain Marathi channels started doing that at first and then everyone else picked up from there. And then it went for two days and it became national news. There were half-hour specials; people from all walks of life were commenting on it on chat shows. This entire thing became more important than the actual terror attacks. Everyone started talking less about that, and more about this.
People were angry and they wanted to blame someone.
I can understand that. But when you are at the receiving end, you are just shocked. I want to say that I am not a terrorist; I am not a criminal. When you encircle someone's face like that, you tend to make him feel like he is one. And the tape was given to the channels by the government. So obviously there was nothing 'confidential' about the visit. It was a review meeting. And everything that was seen by the entourage was seen by the entire world. In fact, when I was there, I was just looking at the loss that had happened to the place.
There were people from your fraternity, like Farhan Akhtar, who made some acidic comments against your dad.
These are individuals who are talking about the way they felt. And I understand that. There were so many people that I knew who commented on the matter. I don't hold it against them. I saw the strong comments people made on some chat shows. Honestly, if I were in their place, I would've possibly have done the same. Just because I am at the receiving end, it doesn't mean that I don't understand the perspective.
Do you think that the Taj incident acted as a catalyst for your dad's ouster?
It's a perspective. It's what you hear. Ramu's presence with me at that site cannot be the reason for a CM to resign. It can be one of the reasons but definitely not an important one okay, this has happened, so the CM should go. There are various things that lead to such a situation. In this case, the main reason being the terrorist attack. People have to take up moral responsibility. You belong to a national party; this is not about what you think individually and take a stand. The Home Minister resigned and then the CM resigned; as they are morally responsible at the state level and at the centre. Even if a minister resigns, the government still goes on. But when a CM resigns, there is a process involved. It takes about four to five days to choose the next candidate. So there has to be a particular time to tender a resignation. Once it was all settled, the army had left, the cops were done, then it was the right time to resign.
In future, will you think twice before going somewhere with your dad?
Since the last four years that my father was the Chief Minister, I made a very conscious effort of staying away. You'd hardly see me and my father at the same functions. I understand that politics and films don't mix well. My dad and I must've probably been at some wedding together or a function where I was performing. But he has never attended a function because I was performing. If he was there, like at the Screen Awards, it was because of the editors and because certain people from New Delhi requested him to go. I have been very responsible in terms of my actions as to where I go, what I say, what kind of people I meet, because when your father is the Chief Minister, you have to take care. Because even if you do something out of concern, it can go horribly wrong.
Do you feel guilty at all?
Guilt will always be thereÃ¢ÂÂ¦you know, because of Ramuji's and my own presence there, the nation felt so much anger. Mainly because the way the visit was projected and it had its implications.
Did you speak to your dad about it?
Yes, I did.
Did you apologise for Ramu's presence?
No. That evening, we sat and discussed it at the dinner table. My dad is an extremely large-hearted human being. I didn't know that it would escalate in such a way. These days, the media is holding court. They have become judges, and they are having their own trials. If something doesn't happen the way they want it, they go to another extreme. But I guess one needs to learn to live with such a force
Why didn't you come out and defend yourself?
I think when people are shouting, they don't listen. I am talking about the media in particular. When you are in such an aggressive and angry mood all justified when you try to be defensive against such a force, it doesn't work. So I wanted to wait till everything was quiet. If I'd spoken then, it would've looked like I was on the defensive. Like galti ho gayi lekin defend karne aa gaya.
Maybe an official press statement would've helped.
In that entire scenario, the seat of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra was much bigger than any Riteish Deshmukh in town. So it was not eventually about what I felt at that point. The target was not me. I was probably the reason for it. So dad was answering questions and eventually Ramu said what he had to say.
And you were fine with Ramu talking about it?
(Thinks hard) I read a couple of his interviews. And every individual has his own perspective. I cannot govern or monitor what one has to say. But mostly, all the points that he put across were quite correct in terms of why he was there, why and how it happened.
Ramu also said that he'd tried to talk to you but you were unreachable.
No, that's not true, actually. I have been in touch with Ramuji. Not that day but yes, after that, for sure. I was in a place where I had no network. I have been shooting everyday since that day. And some places I didn't even have television so I was hearing on phone what everyone was saying. And there were days I just didn't feel like putting on the television.
No. You know, television is a monster. You switch it on and it will attack you. And it was only attacking me. So I was like: ab bandh hai, toh bandh hai. I know it's like a cat shutting her eyes and thinking no one can see her.
Has this episode made you cynical?
I don't think anything in life can make me cynical. Because I usually try to figure out a balance between why certain things are happening. I was reading and hearing actors, directors, and people say things on the subject. Tomorrow, if I meet these people in fact I met a lot of them I will not raise the subject. They said what they had to, and it's their opinion, and they have the right to voice it. I won't ask them why they said all those things about my dad. He is an elected leader of a political party and the public has every right to question and comment on people they vote into power.
Did anyone from the industry offer you support?
There have been loads of people who have been supportive as friends and as individuals. I was extremely happy when Karan (Johar), Shah Rukh, Sajid and Farah (Khan) called me. All of them are very close to me and they were supportive. They understand the situation. They may agree or not agree with what happened; that's a different issue but as friends, they were there and will always be there. That's what friends are for and it was nice to have to have them.