Sultan of sex: Remembering Jagmohan Mundhra

By Sandip Roy

I met Jagmohan Mundhra once. And I met him with considerable trepidation. It’s not every day that the sultan of sex comes by your house. Should one offer him tea? Or would only Vat69 whiskey do?

Jagmohan Mundhra was for a time one of  the most famous desis in Hollywood. He made more than 30 films. Chances are you wouldn’t admit to seeing most of them. They were the kind that screened on late-night television in America, that you caught while flipping channels on a sleepless night in a motel room in the middle of nowhere. Movies with names like Night Eyes, Sexual Malice, Perfumed Garden.

It’s too bad Jag never made his own story on film. There was so much in there. Getty Images

When I met him, Mundhra was on the road with Nandita Das, promoting Bawandar. The film was loosely based on the infamous gang-rape of the Harijan villager Bhanwari Devi. I just knew of Mundhra from stories about his earlier films. Films that made back their investment in spades but got little respect otherwise.

Even Nandita Das said she was nervous about being in a Jag Mundhra film. This was not that long after Shekhar Kapur got into a fracas with Phoolan Devi about Bandit Queen. And that was Shekhar Kapur. Mundhra was already carrying a lot of baggage.

“The hesitation was he had done all these films which were erotic thrillers,” said Das. “My concern was this was a film about rape. If there was any titillation, that would be the worst thing.” Mundhra sent her a copy of Monsoon.

That didn’t help. If you look up the plot keywords for Monsoon on the film database site IMDB, they are “Wet saree”, “Woman on top”, “love”, “rain” and “nudity".

“I didn’t think it was a great movie,” said Das. “In the end, it was the sincerity of the person. The story was powerful. Secondly, here was a man who really sincerely wanted to change himself. He had made all his films as Jag Mundhra. And now he’s going to call himself Jagmohan! Who is going to do that?  I thought I needed to support him.”

That’s when I finally realised what I should have known all along. That even the king of erotic thrillers has his own story. That before there was blood, cleavage, and wet saris, there was Jagmohan.

Jagmohan Mundhra, I found out that night, was a Marwari boy from Kolkata. He had a salt and pepper beard and wore glasses. He looked like a businessman or even a college professor. He loved Kaagaz ke Phool  and jhaal muri. He was an engineer who became a filmmaker. Long before there was home video he rented a theatre in Los Angeles to show 35 mm Hindi films for $5 a ticket (and chai and samosas).  He was married. His wife Chandra sipped tea (there was no Vat69 needed) and talked about her job as a corporate recruiter. She gave me her card in case I needed to get a new job. They seemed like just any another affable middle-class NRI couple.

The only difference was Jag hung out with the likes of Aishwariya Rai and Nandita Das. He had “made it” in Hollywood but was now trying to “re-make” himself. That was a tough job. Once the sultan of sex, always the sultan of sex.

So whether it was a movie about a gang-raped Harijan woman, or a battered immigrant housewife in the UK, there was always that lingering suspicion. Was it ultimately about some kind of rape-porn disguised as a social message movie?

He moved to Mumbai to try and make different movies since then, comedies like Naughty@40 with Govinda, Shoot at Sight with Naseeruddin Shah set against the backdrop of the 7 July subway bombings in London and satires like Kissa Kutte Ka about the hullabaloo over a Dalit woman feeding a Rajput’s dog. The films didn’t really take off at the box office.

It’s too bad he never made his own story on film. There was so much in there. The boy from the traditional business family. The engineer who became a filmmaker. How low-rent Kamasutra peddling passed for desi success in Hollywood in the old days. And then how Jag became Jagmohan again. Sadly, it probably wasn’t sexy enough.

The obits in the newspaper today said “Film director Jagmohan Mundhra died in Mumbai from a reported heart attack. He was 62.”

Jagmohan Mundhra had gone home, in more ways than one.

R.I.P Jag.  Safe journey, Jagmohan.