Sanjay Leela Bhansali is two people housed in one soul. Rumoured to be neurotic, temperamental, and a perfectionist, there are stories abound of him throwing phones, screaming instructions, and pronouncing improbable deadlines.
He is also the incredibly sentient artist who waited twelve years to give voice to his dream project, Bajirao Mastani. In an interview with us Ranbir Kapoor had said “He always instilled in me that you need to sacrifice your personal life, fun, or something that stardom will give you, because it will take away from a certain believability and empathy that you feel for your characters.” Bhansali is known to work 18 hours a day, and speaks of his films as his children, anxious not for their reception, but for their place in the world of cinema.
“I want to experience all that I haven’t in my life, through my work,” Bhansali told Simi Garewal, on her chat show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. Though this was after the rousing success of Devdas, his films would not always be received as such. In 2007, his most visceral, delicate love poem, Saawariya would be decisively rejected. Devastated, he found himself in France. He had been asked to direct Albert Rouseel’s opera, Padmavati for the Parisian stage, which he much later would adapt into a cinematic war poem, in 2018. He did what he does best- channel Indian aesthetics that he learned from watching V Shantaram’s flamboyant films. A spectacle was staged with elephants, tigers, and a moody python, eliciting a fifteen minute standing ovation. Bhansali is opera, and so it is only fitting that we start with Devdas.
Where to Start: Devdas
Taking an early 20th century Bengali novel of aristocratic ego, class war, whores, booze, and unstitched love, Bhansali created an audio-visual spectacle with a throbbing pulse that radically divided his audience. Though the film is included in TIME’s top 10 movies of the millennium worldwide, at the time, the Bengalis were up in arms about the mispronounced accent and misplaced adulation. Critics at The Cannes Film Festival too did not take to the film well. Derek Malcolm of The Guardian went so far as to call the film “pretty silly three hours worth of romance, song and dance, and utterly tasteless – if luxuriant – production design”.
The film is the story of Devdas, (Shah Rukh Khan) a man with no design. After losing his childhood sweetheart, Paro, (Aishwarya Rai) to his hubris, he drowns himself in alcohol. Amidst the ittar, jasmine, and brocade, he falls in love with the gold-hearted prostitute, (Madhuri Dixit) while repenting and regretting.
Elaborate costumes, soaring set pieces, fabrics the length of the film, and a punctuating background score tether the narrative that has the most stunning climax in contemporary cinema that rises to both a musical and emotional crescendo.
While the film itself was opera on celluloid, the circumstances that produced the film too are nothing less than operatic. Mounting the largest Indian film ever made over two-and-a-half years, with the financier (Bharat Shah) jailed and in poor health, two crew members who died on set, reports of the music director walking out (again), borrowing money from close friends to keep the film running, the making of Devdas is a study in endured passion.
Devdas came out of Bhansali’s tragedy. “Devdas started the moment my father died… He was an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis. My mother and him did not get along that well in the years I had seen them together. But in the dying moment he came out of his coma and stretched out his hand to my mother. It was one moment of reaching out and holding… and he has gone. Maybe my mother sacrificed twenty two years of her life for this one moment,” he confided in Garewal.
The film was dedicated to his father.
What Next: Khamoshi, The Musical
When asked about his relationship with commercial success, Bhansali often recalls painfully, the first Friday after Khamoshi’s release in 1996. It was his first film. “The producer called and said “Baith gayi” (it sat). and I said, ‘Kaun baith gayi?’ (who sat?) He told me, ‘Picture baith gayi.’ (the film has sat)”. He no longer answers his phone after the film’s release on a Friday.
The film opens with his dedication to his father. Later, his films will be dedicated to his grandmother, Shakuntala, his dog, Lady Popo, and his mother, Leela in addition to his father.
Cinematically, it is Bhansali’s most raw film. It tells the story of Annie (Manisha Koirala) who has the voice of a nightingale, but is born to both deaf and mute parents (Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas). They understand neither the seduction of music heard, nor the abandon in music sung. When Raj (Salman Khan), a wanderer enters her life, her desire for companionship and music are put to test. Set in the coasts of sepia toned Goa, this film is Bhansali finding his voice.
Some dialogues are clunky, the acting too unfettered, but it all comes together as the narrative is enhanced by some of the finest melodies of our time composed by Jatin-Lalit. ‘Bahon ke darmiyan’ is one of those rare songs that is known for portraying both unmanifest lust and unmanageable love. Koirala’s skin colour frock makes her look both clothed and naked simultaneously. When the grandmother (an endearing Helen) runs down the mountains with the flowing white fabric of the piano cover, her looming death is announced nonchalantly; the sadness pulsates underneath.
Khamoshi failed to garner commercial approval. Bhansali was vexed. “After the failure of Khamoshi, for full two months, I was sleepless and angry. I was dying to reach out to the common man and I had failed,” he said in an interview.
He would go on to make Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a film that looked, and felt like celebration and renewal. His cinematographer Anil Mehta later said that he believed Bhansali made this “on the rebound”.
Where Not To Start: Padmaavat
When the film was finally screened in 2018 after months of protest, it was hard to view it merely as a work of art. The name of the film had changed, bare hips were CGI clothed, and noses were threatened of being chopped off on live news- it was madness. It was impossible to have walked into the theater in a purely objective state of mind.
The story is that of an evil king, Alauddin Khilji (played sumptuously by Ranveer Singh) and his obsessive pursuit and lust for beauty, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone, stunning, stunning, stunning) being thwarted by Padmavati’s husband, an honorable Rajput (played stoically, with every hair and ab in place, by Shahid Kapoor).
The film plays out like a war poem, with some of the finest set pieces our cinema has seen. In one stunning sequence, Alauddin charges on horseback towards a golden tornado of dust enveloping warring armies; he comes out unscathed with the head of the opposing army chief on his lance. It is a spectacle, as is the haunting, controversial climax. But the film lacks the emotions needed to tether a sprawling narrative. Love cannot just be glances, lust cannot just be words.
Padmaavat was his fifth attempt at scoring his own cinematic vision (including the one song he composed for Saawariya) and it paid off handsomely. Though the film went on to collect massive figures at the box-office, I still would not suggest starting here, because a Bhansali film is not just about the vision, but the ache too.
The Film That No One Got: Saawariya
“Khwaabon ka yeh sheher. Duniya ki kisi nakshe mein nahin milega aapko yeh. Kyunki yeh sirf mere khayalon mein hai”
(This world of dreams… you won’t be able to find it on any map, because it exists only in my thoughts)
And so Saawariya begins. This could have been Bhansali speaking of his oeuvre. Growing up in a small, crowded chawl, he saw space as a blessing, and thus grew up to play god himself, creating space, resurrecting film sets of houses, gullies, and in this film, a universe unto itself, one that eludes both time and cartography.
The film is about a man with no backstory who arrives in a town with no backstory, and falls in love with a woman who is defined by her backstory. She is waiting for her lover to return. The movie is about the time they spend, becoming, then unbecoming, based on Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights. The film was then reviewed and is now remembered as pretentious, boring, and indulgent. It went onto to perform dismally, panned by critics and moviegoers.
The world he created was unique, a contextless space that housed statues of Buddha, images of Lakshmi, Muslim domes, minarets, and festivals, and a Goan-Christian hangover in the bars, the lingo, and houses. Different worlds exist side by side and the characters weave in and out effortlessly. A world of prostitutes (pivoting around the immensely entertaining Rani Mukherji as Gulabji) willing themselves to believe in angels, singing sacred hymns, celebrating and berating, exists beside the house of a Christian woman with Victorian morals and Renaissance curtains.
There is a muslim muhalla celebrating Eid. There is rain, there is snow, and sunlight is only implied through the rays that flit between curtains and carpets, or reflect on walls. That’s precisely why the film was slighted- you feel the awe, before you feel the emotion and as an audience, we crave emotion first.
Rajeev Masand in his scathing review of the film writes “Is this a period piece, or are we in the present day? Pray tell us, where in the world is this idyllic town.” But the point was never to recreate the familiar.
Besides, these worlds are not created easily. Ranbir in an interview with us spoke of the immense amount of detailing that goes into getting a shot right. “In Jabse Tere Naina, I had to roll back in a certain way and the towel had to fall and my leg was showing and it was one shot where I had to get up and sing. He is very particular about what beat you catch; he is a very musical director. I did 45 or 50 takes one day and my back really broke and out of sympathy he said, ‘Okay, I’ll manage’. The next morning, he said he hasn’t got it and I had to do another 70 takes.”
His homeless lover in Saawariya, who sleeps on the streets, wears velvet and tweed, with no home, but has keys dangling from his chest; his universe does not care for reason.
Bhansali will always remain the elusive and pioneering cultural storehouse. Casting Hrithik Roshan, known for his fluid dance and rock-solid physique as a bed ridden, ageing, and potbellied patient in Guzaarish, he is the same artist who tried to cast Amitabh Bachhan known for his baritone as the mute character Nana Patekar would eventually play in Khamoshi, his first film. His nurses wear Sabyasachi gowns, and deep red lipstick is used to portray loneliness. His homeless lover in Saawariya, who sleeps on the streets, wears velvet and tweed, with no home, but has keys dangling from his chest; his universe does not care for reason. Because nothing matters, he sees that. Except beauty, perhaps. Maybe (performed) love.