Pooja Bhatt thanks Mahesh Bhatt on Father's Day as she celebrates more than two years of sobriety
It's 36 degrees as I land in Coimbatore with my father, and senior crew members. Despite the scorching sun beating down upon us, the mood is upbeat. We are en route to Coonoor and Ooty to finalise the locations for Sadak 2, the much-anticipated sequel to our ’90s smash hit, Sadak. It has been 25 years since my father and I made this journey to the queen of the hills together. We were there last for the shoot of Saatwan Aasmaan (1992) and having filmed both Sadak and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin in Ooty prior to that, the Nilgiris hold a special place in our hearts. My father has memories that run deeper, and way before that golden phase of his career, and they reinstate themselves as soon as we get into our car. He remembers the time he was a struggling filmmaker hiding out in Wellington with Parveen Babi, who was in the throes of an unfortunate and tragic breakdown. That memory takes me back to my own childhood and a scab from a scar I thought had healed, is peeled back and makes me tell him plainly, “Papa you know, you’re the best father in the world, but you only became that about 30 years ago.” He is generous enough to agree and adds that it was that ‘failing’ as a father to me, and as a husband to my mother in the conventional sense that enabled him to make Arth, where he portrayed the wife’s character played by Shabana Azmi with such reverence and largesse. We drive on through the sunbaked yet lush landscape speckled with groves of banana trees, and I comment with a laugh that this was quite a start to my ode to him on Father’s Day. Never one to steer away from what the world might perceive as irreverent or uncomfortable, he wholeheartedly agrees.
Fourteen hairpin bends later, we arrive in Coonoor. That night, he sleeps fitfully unlike the rest of us who wake rested. ‘Go finalise the first location, Pooja’. I will see you at the next one. I’m happy to give him some time to rest and take off to complete the task assigned to me. I told him at the end of our first schedule for Sadak 2 that it was an absolute honour for me to be his lieutenant in the film. I have worked with him as an actor, a producer, and even as a director, when he wrote films for me, but this is my ultimate role — to use my collective skills to make things a bit easier for him through the process, and on set. He meets us later and is delighted that we have locked our first location, and jokingly calls me the ‘director’s director’. I’m sane enough not to take that seriously, but the comment warms my heart. Later, we check into Fernhill Palace, a location where he shot Kaash, Aashiqui, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (DHKMN) and Sadak, to name a few. He is given the Maharaja Suite — a lavish two-bedroom space that is fit for a king, but he walks in, turns around and walks straight out. We eye him quizzically, and he says to the welcoming hotel staff, “This room is too big for me. Give me the smallest room you have please.”
While there is a shuffling of rooms, he tells us about the time he came to visit the great Sanjeev Kumar, who was once shooting there. This was on the same trip that my father was with Parveen Babi, and Sanjeev Kumar, who was always very fond of my father, had sent a production car to ferry him to Fernhill Palace from Wellington, which was over an hour away. He then went on to recount like it was yesterday, his first impression of that grand space and how inadequate and small he felt while he waited in the foyer for Sanjeev Kumar to finish his shot. Ironically, years later, he is back there being treated like a king, and he refuses the largest room on offer. But then, that’s my father — someone who prefers to hold onto his frugal beginnings instead of getting swayed by delusions of grandeur. And when he looks back at his chequered life with its successes, failures and endless errors, he doesn’t flinch.
The next few days are decorated with impossibly blue skies and much laughter. We finalise all our locations, and the team gets ready to head back with a feeling of great achievement. As we check out early in the morning, a little girl cycles past in an unsure manner. She is clutching the handlebars in a tight grip, and drags her feet on the ground. “Lift your feet off the ground and let go,” my father yells out to her. “Then you will be able to cycle.” I am reminded of the time he taught me to cycle in the compound of my grandmother’s building. I would gain my balance and cycle with great confidence as long as I thought he was holding onto the seat. But the minute I turned and saw that he wasn’t holding the seat anymore, I would panic and come crashing to the ground. When I remind him of that, he says, “You’ve come a long way from there, Pooja. You’ve cycled far and way beyond on your own now. Safe in the knowledge that I am no longer holding on.”
Co-incidentally, I celebrate two and a half years of sobriety a few days after Father’s Day. And, while my father never asked me to quit drinking, in December 2016, he sent me a message that said: “If you love me, then love yourself, for I live in you.” It was that message, and especially what I read in between those words that set me on my path of sobriety, a path that has been searing yet more validating than any that I dared to take. And much like my unsure attempts on a cycle, I tottered, but held on, soon hitting a steady pace and then unfurling my wings and gliding with a manner of ease I never thought I possessed. My mother gave me life, but it was my father who gave me my next shot at it. So thank you Pops, and even though I don’t need a day accorded to me by some marketing guru to celebrate you, here’s wishing you a wonderful Father’s Day!