Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saudagar without a happy ending

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated April 10, 2012)


He trusted the Maharashtra Government. He had faith in the then Chief Minister of the State. He believed in the legal authenticity of the documents that he signed along with the Government officials. He had the confidence that, after all this, his dream project in collaboration with the State would have a smooth sailing. In the end, though, he has been left cheated, even duped, since he has invested tens of crores of rupees in a venture that the Government had told him was above board. That deal has failed the legal test in two of the country’s highest courts, and stands scrapped. Ab kya hoga?

For mega filmmaker Subhash Ghai, this can form the bare skeleton of a riveting script. He does not have to go far in search of characters. He is himself the protagonist here — a saudagar who has been taken for a ride by a political system that he does not understand, and a legal system of which he has become the victim. His ambitious project, by all accounts a world-class film and television learning institute in Maharashtra, is in ruins after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier Bombay High Court verdict cancelling the allotment of land by the State Government to Mr Ghai for his school, Whistling Woods International.

While dismissing Mr Ghai’s petition challenging the High Court order, the Supreme Court wondered, “You are a great filmmaker no doubt, but there are greater filmmakers also. Why have you been chosen?” It would have been futile for the showman to blow his trumpet before the learned judges, but the query had an obvious answer: Because those ‘greater filmmakers’ have not taken the initiative to give back to the industry even a fraction of what they have gained from it. Mr Ghai tried to do that in his own way and has been penalised for that ‘folly’. Nobody is saying that he was into charity with Whistling Woods; it was a commercial venture designed to make profits. But the school would have helped the film industry gain access to quality manpower, both creative and technical. This is something that the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India has done well in the past, but is now struggling to achieve.

There are those who believe that then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh broke and bend rules to favour Mr Ghai so that the filmmaker would promote the Chief Minister’s actor-son Ritesh Deshmukh through his Mukta Arts banner. But in making such insinuation, they insult Mr Ghai’s business acumen and creativity. Even those who cursorily follow the Hindi film industry know that Bollywood does not believe in personal relations when it comes to success and failure. An actor may get a break as a result of his or her ‘connection’, but that’s about it. Few filmmakers are going to go out of the way to shore up sagging careers of others. Mr Ghai is not a fool to commit himself to promoting Mr Ritesh Deshmukh’s career merely because the actor’s father has cleared his project.

The film industry has several instances of star-sons and daughters falling by the wayside despite their pedigree, with no one coming to their rescue. The legendary Dev Anand’s son, Suneil Anand, faded away after his first film, Anand aur Anand, crashed at the box office. Actor Rajendra Kumar, whose ability to give back-to-back mega-hits earned him the title, ‘Jubilee Kumar’, could not rub that magic on his son Kumar Gaurav. Nor could the sons of actors Feroz Khan and Raj Kumar, as also the daughter of Mala Sinha, make it big in Bollywood, despite the huge amount of goodwill their parents enjoyed in the film industry. Sunny Deol, Abhishek Bachchan and Tusshar Kapoor are nowhere nearthe dizzying heights that their star-fathers achieved.

This does not mean that, given the politician that he is, Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh must not have tried. But we do not know for sure. What can be said with certainty is that Mr Ghai would never accept such a ridiculous rider, because he values the success of Mukta Arts more than the career profile of a Ritesh Deshmukh. What is also now certain, in the light of the Bombay High Court verdict and the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold it, is that the Vilasrao Deshmukh Government did resort to legally untenable short-cuts to seal the agreement with Mr Ghai. The irony is that, despite being severely mauled by the two courts, Mr Deshmukh continues to flourish — he is a Union Minister — whereas the victim of the virtual fraud, Mr Ghai, is left to fend for himself. He has to pay the market price of the land he was given by the Government from the period the deal was inked. Moreover, he has to by 2014 surrender the entire plot in which Whistling Woods is located and wind up his business, after having invested some Rs 50 crore. The Supreme Court observed that “one cannot be treated as a blue-eyed boy for whom a Chief Minister can bend or bypass rules”. If this is how blue-eyed boys are treated by the Government, it’s best not to be one.

How can Mr Ghai be faulted? In fact, neither the Supreme Court nor the Bombay High Court has adversely commented on his intent. But the apex court upheld every bit of the damning observations made against the then Chief Minister. Is it the filmmaker’s fault that the Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation, with which he entered the agreement into, did not get the deal endorsed in the corporation’s board meeting? Or that the agreement was not approved by the State Cabinet? Or that he was given the land at rates far below the market price? These are matters that the Government should have taken care of. The High Court had observed, “Neither the Government nor the corporation had ever taken a decision either to allot the land in question to the joint venture company or to permit the utilisation of the said land by the joint venture company.” Yet, the Government enticed Mr Ghai into sinking crores of rupees into the joint venture project.

The “arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal” decision of the allotment of land by the Government, and that too at a hugely undervalued price, has ended up eroding the credibility of Whistling Woods International as well, as far as public perceptions go.

What are the options before Mr Ghai? Once bitten twice shy, he may scrap his dream project for good. Or he can revive it by participating in a bidding process for all of the 20 acres of land that he has to surrender by mid-2014. We don’t know if he has the stomach for exercising the last option. There is another way out: Explore another State which can help him realise his dream quickly but without indulging in illegalities.

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