Martin Chacha and his chelas
Dig deeper, and you will find an imprint of Martin Scorsese in so much of what we consider new age, edgy Bollywood
I would've probably first met Farhan Akhtar, better known as a director then, sometime in mid-2000s. Up until that point practically every interview I'd seen of his, about a filmmaker who'd influenced him most — he'd say Martin Scorsese. He'd pretty much begun his acting career by then. And in my conversation with him, he couldn't, almost by association, not stop talking about Scorsese's muse, Robert De Niro — whose autographed picture found a pride of place in his study.
The fact that Akhtar made a war-movie Lakshya (2003) after a bro-mance Dil Chahta Hai (2001), he said, was because of De Niro, whose career path had taught him to never get complacent about success: "Could've made feel-good films all my life." He had incessantly trained at the time to play athlete Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2006).
Ask Dibakar Bannerjee what's that one movie that moved him as a filmmaker, earliest on? He'll say Raging Bull (1980). Which is what Scorsese bounced back as a director with, after a brief brush with depression and cocaine-addiction, post the global success of Taxi Driver (1976).
What did Taxi Driver trigger? Significantly, an assassination attempt against US President Ronald Reagan, by a mentally imbalanced John Hickley Jr, who claimed he had mimicked what Taxi Driver's lead character Travis Bickle (De Niro) does in the film (shoot a Senator). Hinckley did this to impress the movie's lead actress, Jodie Foster!
What did Taxi Driver inspire closer home? That relationship between De Niro and Foster led to Mahesh Bhatt's Sadak (1991), starring Pooja Bhatt as an underage sex-worker, and Sanjay Dutt in the role of a taxi driver. Which was also the part, as a loner in a big city behind the wheels, that Om Puri played in Sudhir Mishra's Dharavi (1992), that he told me was also deeply inspired by his love for Taxi Driver.
Mahesh Bhatt was the executive-producer of Mishra's subsequent feature film, Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996), which if you watch closely, you'll find within it traces of Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) — whether they exist consciously or not, I never asked. Iss Raat starred, among others, Delhi's theatre actor Saurabh Shukla in his first major role ever since he moved to Mumbai after starring in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen (1994).
Shukla was also the co-writer of Ram Gopal Varma's Satya (1998). Shukla told me the first time he met Varma, he made it clear that the Mob opera had to be along the lines of Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), a worm's eye view of street violence, rather than Francis Ford Coppola's larger-than-life Godfather trilogy — the only two types of underworld films there can be.
I once bumped into Varma at a restaurant, and then joined him on the table, where all we discussed over fair amount of vodka was Scorsese. His love seemed pretty apparent. I told him Casino (1995) and Goodfellas were the same film. Why? Because I just wanted to rattle him off in the same way that he always did with ludicrous statements sometimes. In the vein of Joe Pesci's line, 'You think I'm funny', he kept repeating, 'What do you mean?' I said because they're both American films! He smiled.
Satya's other credited writer was Anurag Kashyap. One could have a long conversation (with him) on Scorsese's influences on his work, besides the most obvious ode, Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), named after Scorsese's Gangs Of New York (2002) — similarly a bloody history of a place told through the prism of inter-generational, father-to-son gang-wars bursting within.
Why am I telling you this? To briefly give you a sense of how Scorsese as a New York director has been the singular background score for so much of what we have considered new-age or edgy in Bollywood/Bombay films. Is there any other? Unlikely, to this extent.
Besides recurrently exploring identity, violence, religion, guilt and redemption, Scorsese's own influences staggeringly range from Satyajit Ray, Rolling Stones, French New Wave, Italian neo-realism, Bob Dylan, name it — all of which he's paid rich tributes through either preserving prints or directing deeply felt documentaries. As a film buff I was exposed to Scorsese's early, best-known works after they'd already been deemed masterpieces, which as a pleasure can't equal watching for the first time movies he did with his later muse Leonardo Di Caprio, transforming Titanic's chocolate-boy into the deadly dude — in The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), Departed (2004), Shutter Island (2010), The Aviator (2004)…
Scorsese's The Irishman (2019) with his original compatriots De Niro, Pesci et al (besides Pacino for the first time), many rightly believe, is fine culmination of a genre he's ruled over, and it's his best ever. Frankly, I can't wait for his next, Killers Of The Flower Moon, with both De Niro and Di Caprio. Meanwhile, I hear Akhtar has set off to play a boxer, along the lines of De Niro in Raging Bull! Hmmm.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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