Sanjay Leela Bhansali is grandiose, Bhansali is traditional, Bhansali is painstakingly detailed, and Bhansali is a human chamber of operatic, larger-than-life and exotic imagery. His is the India that foreign tourists imagine when they come visiting: overwhelming, melodramatic, historically rich, royal, loud, colourful and precisely emotional.
Well, at least those are how the clichés go.
I’ve often found that limiting this film maker – and he is a film maker in the widest sense, given that he also excels as a musician, producer and editor – to stylistic signatures is a bit reductive. There is more than one voice in Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He is deceptively diverse, even if the “aura” of his storytelling has become a tad repetitive. Much of our perception of his legacy, though, is down to the age of Bollywood he occupies.
It’s because of the consistent multiplex-ization and urban modernization of Indian romance that his scale of vision continues to remain relevant, new and simultaneously nostalgic – like a vintage rotary-dial telephone interrupting an assembly line of swanky artificial-intelligence smartphones. His gigantically scaled orthodoxy almost operates within the realms of fantasy today because nobody else has the patience to “create” anymore. It looks magical because the definition of magic is subject to the visual arts’ ever-evolving dynamic: his peers have in fact illuminated his language further by choosing to reflect a younger India instead of committedly romanticizing a bygone one.
Over his twenty-one years as a professional director, he has represented some of mainstream Hindi cinema’s most stereotypical attributes, yes, but in the “oldest” way possible – and, more importantly, perhaps at the rightest of times.
On the eve of his ninth directorial venture – the sprawling Padmavati – let’s take a closer look at this career by ranking his eight films from worst to best. Again, it’s hard to imagine Sanjay Leela Bhansali has ever made a truly “bad” film. Messy, overambitious, over-lyrical, broad – sure – but never unremarkable.
8. SAAWARIYA (2007)
There are ways to process Bhansali’s very blue and self-consciously poetic adaptation of Dostoveyvski’s White Nights in terms of his filmography. One way – and this is crass – suggests it was his Student Of The Year: his first and last blue-blooded-star-child launch vehicle. Tonally, though, this is more of a predecessor to the atmospherically superficial Mirzya. The second way suggests that Saawariya was the most geographically “daring” – and therefore the strangest – of his unrequited-love-triangle series: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas and Bajirao Mastani thrived on their settings, while Saawariya was symbolized by the staginess and ambiguity of its hybrid culture. Its most memorable frames were derivative tributes to Raj Kapoor, though I still believe this film was unfairly panned because of its competition with the diametrically opposite Om Shanti Om.
7. GUZAARISH (2010)
I remember being spellbound by Guzaarish when I first watched it – because perhaps I wanted to slot it in the same universe as the other two films of Bhansali’s passionate “disability” trifecta, Khamoshi: The Musical and Black. But the more I emotionally matured, the more irritated I grew with Hrithik Roshan’s quadriplegic hero and his aesthetically pleasing quest for euthanasia. His concept of eccentricity still bore the drastically overbearing remnants of Koi Mil Gaya. To compensate, Bhansali stuffed his designer Goa with every possible device of visual opportunity: a magician backstory (the stage acts were stunningly conceived), a gothic mansion and a radiant Aishwarya Rai. Perhaps this was part of Bhansali’s reactionary phase of three films between 2005 and 2010 – when he swapped rustic scale for colonial tone. This may have been a result of the fact that the big-thinking Ashutosh Gowarikar had succeeded in Bhansali’s “mega-period” universe, almost as a direct competitor. Otherwise one would imagine that Gowarikar’s loyal collaborator, A.R. Rahman, was a perfect fit for Bhansali’s vast soundscape. But they never worked together. Only one of the two directors endured – with Bhansali returning to his lavish “stable” once Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010) bombed.
6. GOLIYON KI RAASLEELA RAM-LEELA (2013)
As hypnotic as Deepika Padukone was in this vivid Gujarati-Bollywood adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, the second half is a chaotic mess. The film boasts of some truly timeless characters – Supriya Pathak’s “Dhankor Baa” will remain immortal – but it is especially disheartening to see someone like Bhansali fall into the trappings of his own grammar. He often gets so carried away by the inherent drama and musicality and energy of the world his star-crossed lovers occupy that he falters on a basic storytelling level. The incoherence of the final act is starker because of vibrant spectacle that precedes it. On the heels of Guzaarish, though, Ram-Leela was hailed as a comforting comeback of excesses by everyone’s favourite moment-painter. Perhaps its flaws were the result of the showman in Bhansali exploding to express himself after ten years of colonial subtlety.
5. BAJIRAO MASTANI (2015)
An end-of-the-year release, as well as an underwhelming season for Hindi cinema, resulted in this film being appreciated with more “mohabbat” than “ayaashi”. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good film – it had some achingly immortal words and sequences, not least the trademark falling-in-love “money shot” in full battle motion – but simply being good in the heightened history-weds-mythology genre is not always enough in post-Baahubali India. Almost every shot, piece of jewelry, teardrop and geometrically precise “diya” is designed to highlight Padukone’s enigmatic form and Ranveer’s Maratha swagger. Yet, as is often the case in the “Bhansali Triangle,” it’s Priyanka Chopra as the third wheel – Bajirao’s Brahmin wife – that steals the show. While most directors use music to pinpoint crucial emotions, Bhansali used silence to do the same. If only he had done this more often.
4. DEVDAS (2003)
There is no greater film to demonstrate how the glorious vanity of song picturization in Indian movies goes a long way in defining our memories of them. Devdas, I suspect, was the beginning of Bhansali’s marriage with perfection and prose – an abusive, fascinating relationship that would thrive on its imperfections in the years to come. Along with Lagaan, this signaled the return of the “big screen” for new-age period Hindi movies – with a superstar who was willing to challenge the idealism of his own romantic legacy. Bhansali made Shah Rukh Khan’s broken, drunken, egoistic, regal, pathetic, weak and defiantly self-destructive figure look almost aspirational in its implosion. Some might argue this film was the ultimate form of cinematic indulgence. But think about its addictive titular protagonist and the “treatment” makes complete sense.
3. HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM (1999)
This superbly textured film primarily stood out for highlighting the strengths of the performer in Ajay Devgn before he discovered multi-starrer comedies and lost a vowel. And it also had a roguish Salman Khan before he became a big, bad “bhai”. In all seriousness, this remains one of Hindi cinema’s most endearing triangles, propelled by a young Aishwarya Rai’s path-breaking performance. This was a year in which she broke the “former beauty queen” stereotype; coupled with Subhash Ghai’s Rahman-boosted Taal, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam established Rai as transitional Bollywood’s most evocative damsel in distress. It also made Bhansali a household name in a nation transfixed with a slew of exciting next-gen voices. More importantly, this film became a rare reminder of how two distinct films within one screenplay could be equally effective despite an interval.
2. BLACK (2005)
This devastatingly acted film accounted for Amitabh Bachchan’s finest performance 40 years into his career. For a story about a deaf-and-blind girl’s struggle to exist, it’s phenomenal that Bhansali contrives to never let us forget its sights and sounds. The most exquisitely felt scene involves an insolent little girl thrashing around like an animal in a water fountain, finally learning to associate meaning to words. After three straight musicals, viewers learned to do the same for Bhansali’s dreamscape. It didn’t matter whether it was Shimla or Scotland, because the actors – including a wonderful Shernaz Patel – generated an environment, instead of the other way around. This was Bhansali’s fourth film – his first four constitute one of the best “opening innings” for any filmmaker – and perhaps his most divergent. Ironic, coming from a director famed for symbolizing a “genre”.
1. KHAMOSHI: THE MUSICAL (1996)
Maybe it’s appropriate that, for a story-maker who has fashioned a career out of elegantly updating the concept of nostalgia, his first film – bereft of decoration, scale and reputation – remains his most memorable. Khamoshi is the pure, blank-slated infant that grew into a popular, lush Emperor. It had a Goa that Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa ended in, not the one Guzaarish accessorized. It had sunny scenes propelled not by colour-corrected imagery but by empathetic characters. It had melodious songs – as opposed to humbling symphonies – that agreed with the dramatic contradictions of its atmosphere. It had everything that Bhansali came from, and a little of what Bhansali built upon. There were scattered elements (and stars) of Vidhu Vinod Chopra – who he had assisted for years – and his cinematic solemnity, as well as seeds of his own obsession with the healing powers of music and grief. Most importantly, it had Nana Patekar, the founding father of the indie-pop space currently occupied by the likes of Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi and Kay Kay Menon. As the catholic deaf-mute father of the “heroine” (an ethereal Manisha Koirala), a heartbreaking Patekar single-handedly raised Bhansali’s fairly sentimental template – perhaps lighting the spark and inspiring the director to spread his brush on bigger, if not necessarily firmer, canvas.