Bollywood director takes Dubai producer under his wing

Working with financial constraints, the aspiring producer's dedication has landed him a prominent mentor: Mahesh Bhatt.

DUBAI // Irfan Izhar has always wanted to be big in Bollywood, but lacks the keys that usually open doors there: family connections and massive resources.

He does, however, have one valuable commodity: determination. Now, thanks to that, he is being mentored by one of Bollywood's most prominent directors, who is helping him to produce his first feature film. Mahesh Bhatt, known for directing intense, socially driven dramas, writes his own scripts and works with unknown actors to play the lead roles. Since he first talked eight months ago to Bhatt about the script he developed, Mr Izhar, 42, has been on frequent trips to India to learn the intricacies of producing a film.

"His work is so good," he said of Bhatt. "He can manage funds very well. He makes good films with limited budget." Mr Izhar will produce Chandu, a biography based on the life of a student activist at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the country's best known institutions of learning. Chandu, better known as Chandrashekhar Prasad, was assassinated in 1997 during a speech in the Indian state of Bihar.

Mr Izhar said the director had led him through "lots of research", and now he was preparing for his role as a producer. Production will start in September and the film is slated for release next year. "I wanted to do meaningful cinema," Mr Izhar said. "This is not commercial pulp. There is a message. This is not a masala film." A masala film is a colloquial Bollywood term describing three-hour musicals that are packed with plots from every genre.

"I don't think I have ever wanted to do that," he said. "I never wanted to do it for the money." Mr Izhar graduated from the Aligarh Muslim University in the 1980s and was a regular fixture at the cinema houses in the city of Aligarh. He was part of the university's theatre community, which is well known in India for producing theatre and film luminaries, including Javed Akhtar, the Bollywood lyricist and scriptwriter, and Naseeruddin Shah, the film and theatre actor known for his crossover films such as Monsoon Wedding, Amal and Such a Long Journey.

But Mr Izhar moved to Delhi soon after graduating to pursue a degree in accounting. He tried to work on a few theatre productions on the side, yet soon had to leave to pursue a "more settled" life - a career opportunity in Saudi Arabia. The family's financial constraints forced the relocation, he said. "I never wanted to be a salary person," he said. "My passion is for Bollywood. I didn't have anything back then. I wanted to be an actor but I had no resources to go try my luck. And I certainly didn't have the family connections," he said, referring to moneyed families that often finance a film as a launch pad for a child's career.

Mr Izhar, who often travelled between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on business trips, decided to move to Dubai in 2002. He opened a couple of successful Indian restaurants in Dubai and Ajman while launching a factory that produced packaging material. "I always thought that when I had earned enough money, I would join social clubs to do drama," he said. Indeed, Mr Izhar again found himself drawn to theatre and became a member of the India Club in Dubai, where he helped to co-ordinate plays, workshops and social events. He also continued working on his first short film, about the life of a child affected by his parents' separation.

Soon, Mr Izhar found himself tapping into the talent of his university's alumni, and has since worked with Shah, for whom in 2007 he organised several plays to be staged in Dubai, including Dear Liar and Ismat Apa Ke Naam. "There are plenty of people of his calibre in India," he said of Shah. "But not a lot of them come to perform here." After producing a string of plays for the club, Mr Izhar met Bhatt in 2005, when he invited the director to conduct a workshop in Dubai. The men chatted about Mr Izhar's future projects, and Bhatt agreed to help Mr Izhar navigate the tough road of filmmaking. "He is the creative head of this film," said Mr Izhar. "He taught me a lot."