Back in 1965, soon after he passed out of the Film and Television Institute of India, Subhash Ghai landed in Mumbai with one aim: to become an actor. After small roles in six films, including Rajesh Khanna’s mega hit Aradhana, he realised that acting wasn’t taking him anywhere. So he switched to direction with Kalicharan (1976) starring Shatrughan Singh. “When I passed out of FTII, I had no clue [what to do] and no one was willing to give me a chance,” says Ghai. “That’s when I thought that one day I would start a school which would open avenues for people aspiring to make it big in the film industry.”
The dream came true when in 2006 he set up Whistling Woods Institute (WWI), a state-of-the-art film institute, in Mumbai. With that project now running into trouble, 67-year-old Ghai, one of the most sought after directors of the eighties and nineties, is trying to get back to what he did best — directing films. Rumours are that he has signed Salman Khan for his next — he doesn’t confirm or deny it. There’s also a buzz that he’s launching actor Jackie Shroff’s son. But, it’s been years since the man who doled out one blockbuster after the other — Karz, Karma, Ram Lakhan and Khalnayak — made a splash in the box office. His Yuvraaj (2009), starring Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, tanked. Kisna (2005), too had flopped as had Yaadein (2001).
Though Ghai says he never went away from direction, he did slow down to put all his energy into WWI. Trouble began when in February the Bombay High Court cancelled the allotment of 20 acres of prime land in Goregaon, Mumbai, for the institute. The Supreme Court also dismissed an appeal by Ghai’s company, Mukta Arts, challenging the High Court ruling. Stalwarts of the film industry, like Shyam Benegal, Shabana Azmi, Anupam Kher and Shekhar Kapoor, had then come out in his support.
Ghai says he’s done nothing wrong and doesn’t “want the students to suffer at any cost.” It was alleged that Ghai got the land at a huge discount from the then Maharashtra chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh. The court ordered Ghai to return 14.5 acres of land immediately and the remaining 5.5 acres in 2014 once the students in the current batch pass out.
A two-year course in direction at Whistling Woods costs Rs 14 lakh, and a one-year diploma in acting costs Rs 7 lakh. Currently, there are over 400 students enrolled in various courses in film, television and media. Ghai claims that over 500 students have been placed in various media and entertainment companies. At a press conference after the Supreme Court ruling Ghai said he had invested Rs 75 crore in the project and was losing money annually. Mukta Arts reported a profit of Rs 5 crore at the end of financial year 2011-12. In 2010-11, the company had reported a loss of Rs 0.3 crore. Its turnover in 2012 was Rs 43.2 crores as compared to Rs 58.34 in 2011. In 2011, the company also launched a chain of multiplexes in tier two cities under the name Mukta A2. Currently, Mukta Arts is trading at Rs 27 down from a high of Rs 40.80 prior to the court order. Apart from producing films, Mukta Arts is also involved in film distribution. Ghai says the school might be making losses but he’s committed to turning it into a world class institute. And, that he will never stop making films.
Trade analyst Komal Nahata doubts if Ghai can once again touch dizzying heights as a film maker. “His track record in the last decade isn’t good and while actors might respect him, the audience has changed.”
Ghai agrees. “In the ’70s, movies were made for masses and that included almost everyone. Now, there’s a greater divide in the audience.” The economics, too, have changed drastically. “Movies make Rs 100 crore regularly, which is good, but it creates a lot of pressure on producers.” Tightlipped about his projects, Ghai says he wants to deal with the court case first. But, “I will always be making movies.”