There is a sense of cosmic justice that Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights drew the attention of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who refashioned the story as Saawariya, which is at once his biggest flop and one of his greatest achievements. For one, it is a love triangle — the masochistic unattainability of love by at least one of the vertices of the triangle is something that's always watered this director's imagination. Two, Dostoevsky's subhead for the short story was "A Sentimental Story from the Diary of a Dreamer". That's exactly how I picture this filmmaker at home, a sentimental man with a mental diary filled with sado-masochistic scribbles about, well, the unattainability of love. These are lines, about the protagonist, that seem to be written with Bhansali in mind: "I don't know how to be silent when my heart is speaking… And I do nothing but dream every day that at last I shall meet someone. Oh, if only you knew how often I have been in love in that way…"
In Saawariya, Bhansali invents a prostitute. Yes, I know the politically correct word, today, is "sex worker", but I do not think Bhansali has ever entered the modern era, or even the real world — and I think the character he invented (and had a magnificent Rani Mukerji play) would like to call herself a "prostitute". She's the film's conscience, the protagonist's, and she utters the film's most significant line, right at the start: "Khwabon ka yeh shehar duniya ki kisi nakshe mein nahin milega aapko yeh, kyonki yeh sirf mere khayalon mein hai." This is a city of dreams. You won't find it in any map of the world, because it exists only in my imagination.
It killed me at the time to see literal-minded critics maul this movie with "real-world" considerations, but this is not about the film's merits (or the lack of them). This is about those words from the prostitute, which sum up not just Saawariya but all of Bhansali's work. Even if the places "look" real, they are cities of dreams, cities you won't find in any map of the world because they exist only in Bhansali's imagination. And Bhansali is this Rani Mukerji character, this "prostitute". He may "sell himself" at the marketplace, but after the late night show is over, he returns to his room (I like to imagine that it, too, is accessed through a spiral staircase, like the one in Saawariya leading up to the prostitute's room), where his heart beats for true love.
It took a while for this Bhansali to bloom. His first two films aren't his — at least, I don't think so. He's trying — oh, he's trying — to get those images from inside his head onto the frame that the audience will see them in, but keeps failing, and failing. Oh, there are moments, to be sure. The impoverished family in Khamoshi: The Musical has to sell their piano because the father is not making any money. When the men taking the instrument away let it drop, its internal mechanisms let out a jangly chord. Bhansali imagines the chord as a cry, as though the instrument is weeping. The man supervising the operation remarks: "Isko chot pahunchi to rone lagta hai." When it is hurt, it begins to weep! The piano becomes a person. The grinding poverty may look real, for we have not yet entered the airtight, hermetically sealed worlds that Bhansali would set his future movies in, Devdas onwards. This world looks like ours, but this is still a khwabon ka shehar, where inanimate objects express puppydog-like sentimentality when being separated from their owners.
Or take the 'Tadap Tadap' song sequence from the slightly better Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, where Bhansali joined forces with Ismail Darbar, a composer more attuned to his heavily classical musical sensibilities. (Jatin-Lalit's score in Khamoshi is fine. It's just that it's too light, more Jatin-Lalit-esque than Bhansali-esque.) Salman Khan is leaving forever. Aishwarya Rai races to her terrace to see him one last time, and before she can say anything, he silences her with the gesture they used for their staring game — and she stands still, like a statue. Tadap tadap ke is dil se aah nikalti rahi, the male voice goes, undoubtedly echoing the woman's sentiments as well. But the suffering, the writhing (i.e., the tadap), the sigh from the heart (i.e., the dil se aah), it's only in the words. It's only inside her. She cannot express these words, because outside, she's as still as death itself, watching her love, her life walk away from her into the desert sands.
But these two films had too much generic melodrama, and it's only when we come to Devdas that we finally get inspired melodrama: in this sado-masochistic Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay story, Bhansali finds the pitch on screen to match the pitch he's been hearing inside his head. Nothing he'd directed earlier matches the thunder-meets-Zen chant flavour of the 'Morey Piya' song sequence. On the one hand, the stage is set for Paro's mother's towering humiliation. But within the same song, we see Paro and Devdas elsewhere – embodying the Radha/Krishna in the song. They're simply, quietly being in love, the dewdrops around them glistening like diamonds. And of course, there's a thorn, an actual thorn that pierces her foot, and of course, he makes her experience the pain before finally extracting it. The point isn't that he is being cruel. The point is that she would expect, and settle for nothing less.
See Aishwarya Rai's long pallu catch fire from a chandelier as she races to see Salman Khan in that Tadap tadap song sequence. Now, in Devdas, see Aishwarya's long pallu billow behind her like a storm-tossed ship-sail as she races to see Shah Rukh Khan one last time. The former conceit lasts twenty-odd seconds. The latter lasts two-odd minutes, because the house is just that damned big, and she has to run and run and run to get to the gate that keeps her shut in. The former is the work of a frustrated dreamer, frustrated at being unable to exactly translate what he sees to what we see. The latter is the work of a director finally finding his footing.
Devdas is the first real Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie, right from its ta-nom-tara-dhere-na humming (a reimagined bandish, which you can compare with a Lata Mangeshkar version from the 1952 film, Raag Rang) over the opening credits. The raag, unsurprisingly, is Yaman. Why does the director love this sequence of notes so? It is associated with peace and happiness (listen to Chitchor's 'Jab Deep Jale Aana', for instance), but there's also something meditative about it. Only he can say. It's not just a happy happiness. There are other shadings in it, like a gently expressed sadness, which we feel when we watch the exquisite 'Ek Dil Ek Jaan' from Padmaavat.
Shahid Kapoor is standing in front of a flame, thrusting his sword into it, readying himself for war. (But of course, he is at the centre of the frame. One day, Bhansali and Wes Anderson should have a nice little talk.) We cut to Deepika Padukone, again centered in her frame, looking at her husband. As she walks over to him, the sword is thrust downwards, at the centre of the frame — and along with this love for centering, we could also ask Bhansali why his characters have eyes that fill with tears but refuse to shed them. "Why do you like fountains?" and "Why do you like chandeliers?" are easy questions. The real questions are about how he uses water, how he uses fire.
In Bajirao Mastani, for instance, he equates Kashibai with fire, Mastani with water. Bajirao marries Mastani in the rain, and at the end, when he unites with her, he is borne away by water. In contrast, the scene that defines Kashi is the one where she extinguishes the lamps in her home – and by extension, her relationship with her husband. Early in the film, we see her celebrating his return after a successful military campaign by lighting the lamps in her house — and now she's doing the opposite. Bhansali fills his films with such contrasts. Mastani is likened to a peacock, while Kashi is the swan from a Ravi Varma painting. Mastani is green; Kashi is saffron. Mastani is the moon; Kashi is the sun (even her childhood friend bears the name Bhanu, which is another word for the sun).
It's not just the writing, but also the way he uses colour that singles him out, and in this, we have to acknowledge the fact that Bhansali might not have existed in the form we know him today had Ravi K Chandran not existed. The great cinematographer — first with Black, then with Saawariya — made Bhansali a great filmmaker. After the first day's shoot of Black, I imagine Bhansali weeping with joy by a chandelier (both fire and water). If that sounds like I'm cracking a joke, it's also a reminder that Bhansali has a terrific sense of humour. In Padmaavat, note how Alauddin Khilji tears roti-s into pieces and bites into meat like a carnivore. Ratan Singh, in contrast, sits in front of a plate where everything is contained in little katori-s, and with two bowls of fruit decorating the ends of the table.
Anyway, back to Black. Finally, someone got this man. Someone got the images in his imagination, and figured out a way to put them on a frame so that we could see the exact things Bhansali was seeing. Yes, Bhansali already was trying out colours in Devdas (where red was the most prominent) and using them to aggrandise the emotions already present in the dialogues and performances — but Ravi K Chandran's silken blacks (in Black) and blues (in Saawariya) came from a different dimension, altogether. (The coming together of Ravi K Chandran and Bhansali is like the coming together of Ranveer Singh and Bhansali. Finally, an actor got this director. He got how to play his characters as per the purplish requirements of this director's films, which stand at the centre of performance and performance art.)
Now, finally, the images from Bhansali's khwabon ka shehar, the dream world, could be interpreted as per the dream-logic they demand. Rani Mukerji's voice-over begins on a black screen, and then, the first shot we see feels almost like the curtains have opened and a stage has been revealed. She, of course, is at the centre of the frame, and the dominant colour, of course, is black. But our eyes are drawn to the blinding shafts of light from the windows in front of the character. A literalist would scoff: Why on earth would a blind woman live in such a huge house, all alone? A Bhansali-ist would understand: this room is her world, and the world is a huge place, and even though there's light from the outside, there's only "black" in her. Looking at Aishwarya Rai in Guzaarish, a literalist would scoff: Why on earth is this servant-like woman dressed like a character from a Gabriel García Márquez love story? A Bhansali-ist would understand: she is a victim of domestic abuse, but she is also a proud woman who does not want pity, so she "makes up" for those bruises by overdressing herself to the point that her sad and real life will never be revealed. She is an extension of the prostitutes in the film Bhansali made earlier: Saawariya. They wear colourful clothes, but their faces are filled with wounds.
Bhansali's dream worlds require dream logic. It's like in a Shantaram film. When the older filmmaker remade the Shakuntala story as Stree, with Sandhya, he had the lovelorn woman write a letter to her beloved on a lotus leaf – as opposed to a scroll. Why? Because Shakuntala is a creature of nature, found as a baby surrounded by Shakunta birds. In this song sequence in the film (C Ramchandra's gorgeous O nirdayi pritam), she is surrounded by a deer, a peacock, flowering trees… Or you could take Kamal Amrohi. In Pakeezah, the Meena Kumari character's spirit is represented by a bird whose wings are clipped. In Devdas, Shah Rukh Khan's soul is represented by the flame that Parvati never allows to die. That is, in fact, the sentiment she expresses in her first song: Silsila yeh chahat ka, na maine bujhne diya…
In a Hindi cinema landscape littered with filmmakers who write in English and quote English filmmakers as inspiration, Bhansali is one of the last of the traditionalists. His "madness", if you will, reflects the emotion-filled Indian nature. Look at Mastani's red palms in the first song she performs for Bajirao. The dye is not patterned. It spreads all over, as though she dipped her palms in blood. And the formalism in Bhansali's staging, dialogue, camera, lighting, performances — everything being just so — contains this "madness" within the frame. From sound to design to colour, everything says so much. I'll give you the scene from Saawariya where Rani Mukerji meets the disapproving Zohra Sehgal. Both of them are the same, she says: if the older woman is renting out her house, the younger one is renting out her body. Hence, both are dressed in blue. (Ranbir Kapoor appears in a shirt in a neutral colour, something whitish.) Best of all is the vulgar clink of Rani's glass bangles on the old woman's precious piano. Rani knows how to rile the woman up. Another point of note. In the following scene, Rani sings Ae malik tere bande hum, which is probably the only prayer she knows, something from the movies. And the director of the film the song is from? Shantaram!
It's not that every film of Bhansali's, post-Devdas, has been successful in its entirety. But he is one of the handful of original, homegrown Indian filmmakers who can be counted on to give us at least 10-20 scenes (even in the lesser films) that sear themselves into memory. Watch 'Ang Laga De Re' in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (superbly shot by Ravi Varman), and you'll see lovers who seem to know they won't be allowed to be lovers for much longer. It's an anti-love song. Another set of images that leap to mind is from Guzaarish, another movie I don't care for all that much. It's when Estella calls Ethan on his radio show. She's his ex. She now has a husband, a child. (They remain in the far distance, out of focus.) Bhansali places her in the centre of a frame of an enormous room. She is sitting down, in a simple white dress. The camera slowly tracks in, and soon, we are faced with a close-up as she says yes, she votes for his death by "Ethanasia".
The framing has the simplicity and the elegance – and also the dignity — of one of those Dutch paintings of milkwomen and lacemakers (Sudeep Chatterjee is the cinematographer), and it is in stark contrast to the ultra-dramatic, gloriously colour-filled magic acts we see, when Ethan and Estella used to be together. When we see Estella, there is not a "warm colour" in sight. In contrast to this stillness, we have the climax of Padmaavat, which is simply one of the most gloriously directed pieces of cinema ever. We hear a repeat of the humming that plays over the opening credits (like in Devdas). The composed ritualistic behaviour of the red-clad women inside the fort is constantly edited against the frenzied attempts of the black-clad barbarians outside, trying to break in. Even when a group of women with torches in hand force Alauddin Khilji to back off, they simply walk. There's no ferocity on their partially covered faces. All the "acting" is on his face. He is unable to comprehend this utter calmness, and he is unwilling to lose the prize he seeks so much: Padmavati.
Then, suddenly, this red sea of calm parts and we get another homage to another Indian filmmaker. As in Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala, two women run up to the villain and fling coals on him: black weapons for the black man. The women are conquered by his army, and then we get another contrast: Alauddin races to get inside the fort in regular frame-speed, but Padmavati and the women enter the pyre in slow-motion. Slowly, he, too, gets his slow-motion and the two "sides" are equally paced, except we know there is no equality here: one side has won. A literalist would say: But would not even one woman become hysterical at the thought of such ritualistic suicide. The Bhansali-ist will understand that even asking this question is irrelevant.
It's like questioning his love for artifice and theatricality, his love for Indian music and Indian folk arts and Indian movie-making traditions, his love for the navarasa, his love for beauty and symmetry. But this beauty isn't just empty prettiness. Take the scene in JP Dutta's misbegotten Umrao Jaan, where another "love triangle" plays out. How does Abhishek Bachchan discover that his lover has been unfaithful? Because his competitor, Suniel Shetty, tells him about a birthmark. Now take the Bajirao Mastani scene where Kashibai discovers her husband has been unfaithful. She "sees" it on a piece of cloth that acts like a movie screen. It's cinema at its purest. I can't wait to see Gangubai Kathiawadi, where, like Helen Keller, another real-life character will be deposited in the Bhansali-verse, his khwabon ka shehar. At his best, no one comes close to the mix of the real and the unreal that Bhansali unleashes on the big screen. To complain that he prettifies everything is to complain that Kalidasa wrote about even the most horrible happenings in beautiful verse. It's a style. And no one does it better.