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Priyadarshan, who has vanished from the Bollywood scene today, reassessed by Khalid Mohamed


Curiously, at times you miss a filmmaker whom you may have squelched for his rumble tumble cinema (many of them hits). But for a stray exception or two, his films were infallibly hyper-commercial, catering to what used to be called the lowest-common denominator.


The reason for missing Priyadarshan in B-town nowadays is simply this: At the very least he had a penchant for techno-craft ,the ability to extract comic performances from usually unfunny actors (Akshay Kumar and Suneil Shetty, the former in his career’s mid-phase) besides the romantic use of hill town locations. Often his films’ photography, foreground props and decor, colour coding and dubbing quality were  a class act.


He specialised in remakes of south films into Hindi, an easy route to take. Regrettably his cult comedy Hera Pheri, a retread of Siddique-Lal’s Malayalam ha-ha fest Ramji Rao Speaking, had sparked a controversy; the de facto producer Firoz A. Nadiadwalla had lashed out against the director, claiming that final print was nearly 3 hours and 40 minutes in length and ascribed its success to the actor-writer, the late Neeraj Vohra, for finessing it into marketable shape.


Priyadarshan didn’t shed tears over the fact that he wasn’t assigned the official sequels, Hera Peri 2 and 3. Neither did he care visibly if the sequel of his mega-hit Bhool Bhulaiyya (sourced from the Malayalam Manichitrathazhu) was handed over cavalierly to Anees Bazmee. The template he had created was sufficient to fire the ticket windows.


Besides a scant few Tamil and Telugu films, he has worked predominantly in Malayalam and Hindi cinema.


Parseh Rawal, Akshay Kumar & Suneil Shetty in Hera Pheri(2000)

Now, for a slice of his backstory: Priyadarshan Soman Nair or ‘Priyan’ as he is affectionally called – 66 this year -- is a philosophy post-graduate from the University College of Trivandrum. His father was a librarian, a fact which instilled in him the love for books (this factor doesn’t show up in his cinema though).


From all accounts, Kerala’s superstar Mohanlal got him his first break as an assistant scriptwriter and eventually agreed to act in his debut film, a low-budget slapstick comedy co-starring Shankar, in Poochakkoru Mookutthi (1884), a surprise hit.


In a span of 40 years, he has helmed 96 films at last count.He has won National Awards for Kanchivaram (2017) and for Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea (2019). The latter he had dedicated to David Lean and Ramesh Sippy for being his inspirations.


His foray, commencing 1992, into Bollywood was rocky: Muskurahat  was a certified flop and Gardish strictly comme ci comme ca, he became the trade’s darling with Virasat, Hera Pheri and Hungama.      


And presto ,he was being spoken about as among the highest-paid directors of Indian cinema. After pressing all the right laugh-out-loud buttons, the Malayalam filmmaker was rated the King of Comedy, sprinting ahead of the one-man jest factory David Dhawan. More at home in the Mumbai chuckle fests than in his homegrown Malayalam entertainers, the man with a score of 95 films (including eight in Tamil and two in Telugu) was then having the last laugh, only if his detractors would allow him to. For the OTT platform, he has directed episodes for the omnibus series Forbidden Love (Zee 5, in Hindi), and Navarasa (Netflix, in Tamil).


It’s ageless and incurable maybe – the conflict between creators and reviewers. Indeed, it would be a strange day and world, where and when the reviewers just went rah-rah-rah without expressing their responses and comments, positive..and like it or not..negative. C’est la cinema.


To cut to the chase, then, permit me to recall my one and only conversation with Priyadarshan around 2006. I was watching the athletically sinuous Akshay Kumar and the uber glowing Vidya Balan shoot for Bhool Bhulaiyya in the courtyard of  a crumbling palace, an hour’s drive away from Jaipur. I was warned that if you take the name of that palace, you would run into misfortune. So, I daren’t push my luck.


Vidya Balan in Bhool Bhulaiyya(2007)

Director Priyadarshan, dressed in spotless white, suddenly noticed the inconspicuous me, lurking around. “YOU!”, he yelled with a mix or rage and surprise.


“Yes, hello Priyan sir,” I smiled angelically (read professionally), “I would like to interview you please.”


“You’re joking..(pause)..if you’re not, okay let me complete the shot and then..”


Then happened..and..he started off by saying, “I want to understand what you have against me.”


Exactly, which is why I replied, “I don’t blame you Priyan sir. No one can take criticism.”


"Agreed but criticism should encourage a creative person,” he sniped. “Regardless of my track record of successful films recently, you have been trying to discourage me. You seem to be writing out of some sort of vengeance, you write the same lines about my films.”



Which lines were these? “I’ve lost count of the times you have written the same lines. I wanted to call and tell you this. I’m not claiming that I’m a great director but I do have good sparks, you only mention the bad sparks.”


“Not at all,” I persisted, “But I would surely like to see you getting away from the same old track, like I would surely like to see the serious film on the exploited community of Kanchivaram silk weavers you told me about years ago.”


Priyan sir retaliated, “I know I’ve been saying this for eight years. Believe me, at long last I’m going to start this film (Kanchivaram) on May 20 with Prakash Raj in the lead. It’s a period film about the first communist movement in India which started in the mills of Kanchipuram where the weavers were treated like slaves.”


Prakash Raj in Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram (2008)

“It has taken long to get going,” he explained,

“because whenever I wanted to make it, producers would tell me to make a commercial film instead. So, I said okay I’ll make one, then I’ll do that. One commercial film led to another one..but now I’m sorted..after Bhool Bhulaiyya, I’ll do one more, a Great Escape like comedy, with Akshaye Khanna and Anil Kapoor..and then I’ll do the film on weavers.” (the Great Escape project never got off the ground).


When his Hindi films tanked at the outset, he admitted he was wracked with doubt, “Mercifully Virasat and  Hera Pheri clicked big-time. Still I was in the doldrums for one and a half years. Hera Pheri was followed by three disasters (Kabhi Na Kabhi, Doli Sajake Rakhna, Tera Ghar Mera Ghar).”


The director elaborated, “I felt shaky, then Hungama worked, and I signed films left, right and centre to kill my insecurity. All directors from the south go back home as failures. I didn’t want that to happen to me. So, I became a factory, determined to produce profitable goods, with every hit, it bothered me that the next one had to click too.”


If his surprise hit Malaamal Weekly was ripped off from an Irish film, did he expect critics not to mention that at all? The answer’s somewhat predictable, “But, 99 per cent of all our films are borrowed from some source or the other. At least, it can be accepted that Malaamal Weekly was a hit without any big stars (it featured Ritesh Deshmukh, Paresh Rawal, Om Puri in principal roles, plus voice-over by Naseeruddin Shah).”

 He elaborated, “I’d like to see Dhoom work without stars. (Laughs) And see Martin Scorsese remakes the Hong Kong movie (Internal Affairs) into The Departed and wins an Oscar. So far, my Hindi films have won 16 National Awards in different categories..but I’ve never won an award for them.I’ve been a big dreamer from my childhood. After making it in Kerala, I dreamt bigger.I was attracted to the gloss and glamour of Bombay. Now, I’m middle-aged…but mind you young at heart… and can say, yes I made my mark here.”



How come there has always been talk about his liaisons with his heroines, right from Pooja Batra to Reemi Sen? This answer wasn’t predictable at all: “The saddest part is that they’re only rumours. I’m not  successful at affairs at all.My wife trusts me. Recently, Reemi Sen  huffed that she hadn’t got anything out of my films.What can I do if she feels that way? I’m not Yash or Aditya Chopra or Karan Johar to do justice only to my heroines. I can only do justice to my entire film, 65 per cent of which are situational comedies.” (As it happened he and wife Lissy divorced in 2016.)



Did he mind being compared to David Dhawan? “Don’t draw me into a controversy,” he pleaded. “All I can say is that I don’t use double meaning dialogue. I want to appeal to family audiences, I would never want to alienate women and kids. But yes, I don’t like the comparison because I do cleaner comedies and also some meaningful films like Sazaa-e-Kala Paani.”


Sazaa-e-Kala Paani(1996)

So whatever happened to the director of  …Kala Paani? Candidly, he stated, “Frankly, now I’m playing to the gallery because that’s demanded of me. I don’t have to prove that I’m the greatest artistic director. I have to be successful, in the limelight. It gives me a tremendous kick to make remakes which improve on the original. Like Garam Masala which had more tempo and gloss than its original version.And let me tell you, Tera Ghar Mera Ghar taught me that subtlety doesn’t work, I have to be straight, clear-headed and direct”


How important was it for Priyadarshan to make stacks of cash? Surprise, surprise, to that he riposted,

“Whatever I’ve earned, I’ve invested in cameras, lights, technical equipment and facilities for my post-production unit in Chennai. Otherwise I drive the same car..a Betel..I’ve been used to  since 15 years.”


Right, then why was he obsessed with casting top stars? “Stars are a must for the business. And I’ve really enjoyed working with stars like Akshay Kumar, Tabu and Vidya Balan. But when the script doesn’t demand huge stars..I also go with Sharman Joshi and Rajpal Yadav like I’ve done in Dhol. By the way, I’m also trying to do a film with Shah Rukh Khan..we’ve discussed many projects in the past..he has spoken to me about doing a film together. Still who knows? Nothing may ever fructify.” (It didn’t).


As a director where did he place himself ? Modestly he insisted, “I’m nowhere. Am I listed in any particular place in the industry? Some trade experts have claimed that I’m  among the highest-paid directors.I hope I am..maybe I’ll be THE highest-paid like Sanjay Leela Bhansali is. I’ll have to make better remakes.And I would request you to say one thing..(pause)


Sure Priyan sir,what? To that, he spun a googly,

“Call me the Martin Scorsese of India. If he can do remakes, why can’t I? And I’ll look up my files and send you the same lines you keep using about me I’ll mail you those lines.”


I never received them. That apart, I still wish Priyadarshan would return to the land of Hera Pheri which, creatively, does belong to him. And who knows? He could confect something on the lines of his Kanchivaram once again with feeling.



Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, prodcuer & film director

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05 Δεκ 2023
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Good article

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