Indian American Filmmaker Mundhra Passes Away

After a prolific career in which he constantly strived for respect with issue-based Hindi films, director-writer-producer Jagmohan Mundhra abruptly passed away Sept. 4 at the age of 62.

Mundhra is best-known to Indian American film lovers as the director of “Bawandar� (Sandstorm), starring Nandita Das; “Shoot on Sight,� starring Naseeruddin Shah and Gulshan Grover; and “Provoked,� which many critics feel was one of Aishwarya Rai’s strongest performances.

But the versatile filmmaker also had a populist side, first making his name in Hollywood with B-grade “sensual thrillers� such as “Night Eyes� (1990), “Sexual Malice� (1994), “Perfumed Garden� (2000) and “Monsoon� (2001), among many others.

“It’s all economics,� Mundhra told this reporter in our first interview back in 2003. “As a filmmaker, my heart belongs to realistic films like ‘Bawandar,’ but one does what one has to do.�

At one of our interviews, held in a hotel lobby at Jack London Square in Oakland, he impressed me with his patience and compassion — as it was a Saturday, I had to bring my toddler son along. Mundhra was very good-natured about holding an interview while a little kid attempted to walk and hold on to his leg, and he never gave an impression that it was an inconvenience.

Mundhra was always unapologetic about his oeuvre of low-budget films, which paid the rent between his more illustrious and high-profile works such as “Bawandaer� and “Provoked.�

“I went towards what sold — erotica and thrillers, in an era when there were no takers for art-house cinema,� Mundhra told India-West’s Rajiv Vijayakar in 2008. “But my own personal tastes are towards realistic films like those made by Shyam Benegal and M.S. Sathyu. And yet I am perfectly aware that a lot of boring stuff goes in the name of such cinema. I want to do stories that are engaging, gripping, well-paced, dramatic and even thrilling, and if I can give a message this way — great!�

And later in his career he made the switch to comedy, with the Govinda starrer “Naughty at Forty,� released in April of this year. Mundhra discussed the film with this reporter in July 2010.

“I met Govinda in London and he made me an unusual, interesting offer,� said Mundhra. “He asked me to direct a film for him, even though I’d never directed a Govinda-type film. ‘Why me?’ I asked him. He said, ‘You have a different audience, and I have a different audience, and I want to take you to my audience. It might be something interesting for you.’�

Mundhra said at the time that lowbrow humor was not his forte, but he liked the idea of trying something new. “Govinda is perfectly in tune with the so-called ‘masses,’ and he told me to think of it as trying to expand my range,� he told India-West.

Mundhra had recently launched an initiative that was created to monetize the casting process of his latest film, “Kissa Kutte Ka,� which he described as a political satire starring Tannishtha Chatterjee, Seema Biswas, Sarika and Raghubir Yadav.

The site he and his wife, Chandra, launched — Bollywood Central Online Limited —offers a database where actors, filmmakers, producers, playback singers, voiceover artists, writers, technicians, choreographers, makeup artists, caterers and equipment rental houses can upload their resumes and portfolios and seek employment opportunities. Registrants are asked to pay a fee of Rs. 1,500 (in India) or Rs. 2,000 (outside India) to sign up. BCOL is run by S. Kumars Online Ltd., described by a spokesperson as “a pioneer and trendsetter in bringing e-commerce to India.�

Mundhra was always a proponent of self-financing. “Unless you’re Shah Rukh or Salman Khan, you can’t presell [a film],� he told this reporter last year. He would also distribute some of his films himself, he told India-West back in 2003 during the release of “Bawandar,� his 25th film. “If a distributor is not willing to give me money up front, and if I am going to be responsible financially, why don’t I do it myself?� he said.

Among the uncomfortable topics he addressed in his films were rape and rural injustice (“Bawandar�), domestic violence (“Provoked�) and anti-Muslim discrimination (“Shoot on Sight�).

About this last film, Mundhra told India-West’s Rajiv Vijayakar in 2008 that he always took the serious topics seriously indeed. “I am a Ph.D. and so I believe in deep research before I write such films,� he said.

“Provoked� did a lot for Mundhra’s career as well. Shot on location in London and based on a true story, the film starred Rai as a young immigrant housewife whose repeated abuse at the hands of her husband leads her to kill him by setting their house on fire.

“ ‘Provoked’ got great mileage because I had a major star like Aishwarya Rai — and I respect her a lot because she watched ‘Bawandar’ and approached me for a woman-centric film,� said Mundhra.

The Press Trust of India reports that Mundhra was an alumnus of IIT Bombay who studied electrical engineering but switched to marketing studies, and wrote a comparative thesis on marketing practices of Hollywood and Bollywood. He then came to the U.S. to study; and after finishing his Ph.D. he also taught for a year at California State University Northridge.

Family sources told India-West that on the night of his death, Jagmohan and Chandra Mundhra had gone to the Metro Cinema in Mumbai to see the hit film “Bodyguard� for an 11 p.m. showing Sept. 1. During the film, Mundhra started sweating and feeling pain in his chest similar to the symptoms of a heart attack.

Mundhra was then rushed to the Bombay Hospital just two blocks away, where doctors started examining him for a heart attack or stroke. Mundhra, aware of his condition in which the walls of his veins were too thin, told the doctors to check him for internal bleeding, but sources told this paper the doctors kept following protocol instead, and Mundhra lapsed into a coma. He died Sept. 4 at 10 a.m. IST.

His daughter, Smriti, 31, a film producer, left Los Angeles for Mumbai as soon as possible but her flight was diverted to Bangalore due to bad weather in Mumbai. When she reached the city in the afternoon, Mundhra had already passed away. His body was cremated Sept. 4 at the Shivaji Park crematorium.

Many who worked with him praised his professionalism, discipline and thoroughness.

Among the industry leaders who have shared their memories of Mundhra with India-West was actor Gulshan Grover, who starred in many of his films.

“I am still in shock by the news of [his] demise,� Grover said in an e-mail. “Jag was like an elder brother for me. We have spent beautiful moments not just on sets also personally.“His maddening passion towards his work was most striking. It is not just loss of of an extremely dedicated filmmaker, but also of a dear friend and one of my favorite directors with whom I have done many films.“The understanding we had as an actor and director was extraordinary. His faith in my ability and my total surrender to Jag’s vision has resulted in me giving performances like in ‘Bawandar,’ ‘Shoot on Sight,’ ‘Monsoon’ and ‘Backwaters.’�

Victor Bhalla, who was a friend for nearly 30 years and Mundhra’s partner at Everest Pictures Inc., told India-West that he had “no words� to express his feeling of loss. “If he took on anything, he finished it and did it right,� said Bhalla. “He was a very hard-working guy, and very lovable on the sets — all the actors and crew people loved him.�

Leading Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj, who had collaborated with Mundhra in the 1980s, said, “I’m so saddened to hear of his passing … As a person, he was really warm-hearted. As a filmmaker he was fearless in the subject matter that he chose.�

Sultan Allaudin of Saaz Promotions was the producer of Mundhra’s very first film. “He spoke on the radio, saying that he wanted to make a film,� Allauddin recalled to India-West Sept. 6. The film was the thriller “Suraag,� and more films were to follow.

Asked why he took a chance on an untested filmmaker, Allauddin said, “I wanted to give an Indian a chance. Period.�

Manoj Kaytee, now best known as a concert promoter and principal with Super Entertainment Inc., said that he’d known Mundhra since 1985 and worked with him on an Indian American beauty pageant in 1988. “He will be missed on a very personal level,� Kaytee told India-West.

“He was the first person I knew in L.A.,� said Kaytee, who moved to the city from Houston at Mundhra’s urging and still lives there today. “He was very affectionate, very giving. He made time for everyone — from a small person to a big film star … and he lived for films. To have a conversation with him about films would run all night!�

Many of Bollywood’s top personalities have also weighed in with their remembrances of the filmmaker, reports PTI.

“There was never a time when Jag and Chandra’s house was not open for guests. I will miss him dearly,� filmmaker Shekhar Kapur wrote on Twitter.Anupam Kher said, “Can’t believe that Jagmohan Mundhra passed away this morning. He was a delightful person.�

Playback singer Shreya Ghoshal tweeted, “RIP Jagmohan Mundra. This was too sudden. You were indeed so down to earth, humble and gentle human being. You will be missed.� Dia Mirza, Kabir Bedi, Shabana Azmi, Sanjay Suri, and filmmakers Vikram Bhatt and Shirish Kunder also sent their respects, as did Govinda, Poonam Dhillon, Deepti Naval, Rajiv Rai, Dimple Patel, Krishna Shah, Mona Kapoor, Madhu Kapoor, Bappi Lahiri and many, many others.

Copyright 2011 India-West Publications Inc. This article may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the publisher.

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