Jag Mundhra: Director who progressed from exploitation films to tackling serious social issues
Friday 09 September 2011
The film director Jagmohan Mundhra carved out a distinct niche for himself, moving easily between social relevance and pure entertainment. Equally at home making thrillers, comedies and more serious-minded films, he found commercial and critical success both in his native India and in the US and Britain.
Early in his career he took an interest in Hindi films, and used to rent a theatre in Los Angeles and showed Bollywood films for $5 a ticket. His directing career began in 1982 with the drama Suraag (The Clue), starring the Bollywood stars Sanjeev Kumar and Shabana Azmi. It was followed by Kamla (1985), with Azmi and a newcomer, Deepti Naval. The film deals with the flesh trade in Madhya Pradesh; it gave Deepti, who plays a victim of the trade, an opportunity to prove herself. The film was nominated for an Indian National Award and "Jag", as he liked to be called, found overnight fame.
It was with Bawandar (The Sand Storm, 2000), based on the story of a real-life gang-rape victim, Bhanwari Devi, a low-caste woman from Rajasthan, that Mundhra achieved recognition as a director with a penchant for depicting gritty reality. The controversial film portrays the emotional trauma and humiliation Devi went through while seeking justice in India after being brutally raped by a gang of higher-caste men in 1992. It went on to win The Political Film Society award in the US. Mundhra went on to transform more real-life stories into tales that captured the imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Jagmohan Mundhra was one of the most subjective directors," Azmi said. He was an extremely generous, kind, hospitable and thoughtful man." Born into a conservative family in 1948 in Nagpur, Mundhra grew up in Calcutta. Though his family disapproved of the cinema, he was determined to make films. After graduating from the University of Mumbai, he moved to the US, where he completed a PhD in marketing at Michigan State University and taught for a year at California State University. In 1979 he gave up his teaching job to become a film-maker.
In the late 1980s and into the 90s, Mundhra made a string of exploitation films in the US, including The Jigsaw Murders (1988), Halloween Night (1988), Night Eyes (1990), LA Goddess (1993), Sexual Malice (1994) and Monsoon (1998). Night Eyes, made on a budget of around $1m, went on to gross more than $40m.
He returned to his favoured genre of social realism with another controversial piece, Provoked (2006), with Aishwarya Rai. Again he brought to the screen a kind of cinematic reality that left his sincerity and sensitivity in no doubt, adapting the true story of a London-based Punjabi woman, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a victim of domestic violence. When the film was released in London, the BBC said "Provoked avoids sentimentality and illustrates how one woman's bravery helped fuel a nationwide crusade and irrevocably altered British laws on domestic violence."
In the same year, Mundhra handled another provocative subject in Shoot on Sight (2007), with Naseeruddin Shah, Greta Scacchi and Brian Cox. The film dealt with the West's view of Muslims following the 7/7 London bombings. "I decided to make the film after my own post-9/11 experiences in London when, as a fully-bearded guy, I could not get any taxi cabs to pull over for me," Mundhra said at the time.
An ardent experimenter, and always his own man, Mundhra moved back to to India, to Mumbai, and was eager to make more films, but away from social realism. Last year he directed the thriller Apartment: Rent at Your Own Risk (2010), and earlier this year he made the Hindi comedy Naughty @40.
Jagmohan Mundhra, film director: born Nagpur, India 29 October 1948; married Smriti (one daughter); died Mumbai 4 September 2011.
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