Being a Man in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Films

Everyone talks about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s women characters, but the heroes of his stories deserve a second look. And occasionally an ogle
Being a Man in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Films
Being a Man in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Films

Machismo isn’t the first attribute that comes to mind when we think of the heroes in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, but it should be. Sure, his heroes are often reduced to tears, but if you think about it,  any softness they display is counterbalanced by muscles and rage. While Bhansali writes strong women characters and shines a spotlight on their stories, at the heart of his films is almost always a man who is broken by circumstance and anguished by the world around him. From Khamoshi (1996) to Padmaavat (2018), the poster of a Bhansali film may give the heroine pride of place, but ultimately, the story is really that of a man whom society tries to break, and who has the conviction in his beliefs to withstand social pressures.

Over the years, just as the women in Bhansali’s films have become stronger and more belligerent, so have the men. The heroes have become more obviously macho, reflecting the muscularity (physical and psychological) and hardened stances that we’ve seen in real-life social attitudes. The masculinity of Bhansali’s heroes is traditional in most ways, but seems radically different because his men are not threatened by women. They’re not insecure about sharing either the spotlight or power. However, for all the space that they’re willing to give women, a Bhansali hero is almost always rooted in masculine pride and aggression, with beauty and male tears as accessories. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, Bhansali makes machismo look good. Here are our favourite heroes from the Bhansaliverse, ranked from least to most macho.   

Vanraj and Sameer in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Chaste, tender and the first of Bhansali’s grand opuses, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) remains unusual because it’s a love triangle that flattens into a straight line — and none of us minded. As Sameer and Vanraj, Bhansali cast two actors known for their ability to do action — Ajay Devgn and Salman Khan — and made them sit down with their emotions. Khan reprised the role of a happy-go-lucky composer that we saw him play in Khamoshi. Once again he goes up against a strong, silent type. However, Devgn’s Vanraj is very different from Nana Patekar’s character in Bhansali’s first film. The stoic Vanraj has none of Patekar’s anger and in no time, we realise that there’s a softie lurking behind his granite face. There was ample scope to make Sameer and Vanraj’s relationship adversarial, but Bhansali made the two men friends. Manliness is unconventionally gentle in this romance, and it makes the men contemplative and caring, rather than locking them in ego battles.   

Debraj in Black 

Black (2005) is one of the few films in Bhansali’s filmography that’s unmistakably centred upon a woman’s story and keeps the male lead as an important but secondary character. The film’s protagonist is Michelle, played by Ayesha Kapur and Rani Mukerji, a deafblind girl whose world is chaos until her teacher Debraj (Amitabh Bachchan) imposes order upon it and helps her make sense of what is around her. Debraj is very much the alpha in the relationship until he realises he has Alzheimer’s disease. In an exhibition of intellectual machismo, he decides unilaterally to abandon Michelle when he feels he’s no longer capable of being her support. He’s the second patriarch in Bhansali’s filmography who has a physical condition that makes him feel powerless and requires him to lean on someone he loved like a daughter. 

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Devdas in Devdas

Of the many reasons why Bhansali’s take on this classic of Bengali literature continues to be relevant is that it has given us perhaps the most iconic single-tear image from Hindi cinema. Alcoholism has never been quite so picturesque. More seriously, Devdas has fascinated generations of readers and cinephiles who have found his passive-aggressive behaviour to be poetic and affecting. Irrespective of how you feel about whiny men who would rather drink themselves silly and blubber than actually do something about the challenges they’re facing, Bhansali’s Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) is a fascinating character study. Especially if you keep in mind the director’s father was an alcoholic who did little to support his family and with whom Bhansali had a discordant relationship. The drunk Devdas lashes out incoherently, showing a strength of character and arrogant defiance that is difficult to reconcile with his sober self. Yet it’s his weakness that Bhansali romanticises and glorifies, hinting that what seems to be his weakness is actually rooted in pain and emotional strength.    

Joseph in Khamoshi

Although Manisha Koirala was luminous as Annie and she’s the one narrating Khamoshi (1996), this film is very much Joseph’s story and Nana Patekar stole the show from his co-stars as the deaf-mute father. If you had any doubts about Bhansali’s audacity, consider this: For his first film as a director, he cast two actors, who were rumoured to be having an affair, as father and daughter. Patekar and Koirala channel their chemistry perfectly to portray a domineering father who is fighting for a sense of self-worth, which he ultimately gets from his daughter. On one hand, he’s the disabled man who is dismissed and disrespected. On the other, he’s trying to be a traditional patriarch because he has pride and wants to live up to masculine ideals of being a provider and protector. Patekar roars and rages, and breaks your heart. Yet even when he’s humbled, Joseph remains proud and even though his behaviour leaves a lot to be desired, he has both the director's and the audience’s favour. Khamoshi remains one of Bhansali’s most moving films despite being made 27 years ago.    


Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khalji in Padmaavat

This film should have been titled “Macho Do About Nothing”. Padmaavat (2018) is one of Bhansali’s most controversial projects because it was plagued with disruptions from Right-leaning protestors who were convinced the director was going to show a romantic relationship between the wife of a Rajput king and an Afghan-Muslim invader. What we got in the film were two models of masculine virility — Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh, the Rajput king whose look comprised of a low-rise dhoti and high-rise hair; and Ranveer Singh as the demonic Khalji, who rapes and pillages his way through the subcontinent. They’re supposed to be opposites of one another, but ultimately, the two men, with their arrogance and obsession with masculine pride, feel like two sides of the same coin. The only thing less agreeable is Bhansali’s decision to make the ugly and regressive practice of jauhar (forced self-immolation) look like a beautiful ritual of feminine agency.     

Bajirao in Bajirao Mastani

He’s a warrior and a lover, and he somehow made the Peshwa hairstyle of a shorn head with a ponytail look good — it doesn’t get much more macho than the hero of Bajirao Mastani (2015). Played by Ranveer Singh, Bajirao is every inch a man’s man. His valour is seen on the battleground and although he’s blunt with his words — diplomacy is for the weak — he outwits his opponents in royal courts as well. He has the grace to admit his mistakes to his wife, and he’s also brave enough to stand by the woman he loves (who happens to not be his wife). Bajirao could easily have been as insufferable as Ratan Singh in Padmaavat, but both the character and the film are saved by the women in the film (particularly Priyanka Chopra as Kashibai). They steer the attention towards themselves and away from the monotony of Bajirao’s masculine, heroic persona. Because as magnificent as Singh is in the action scenes, the one-note manliness gets boring after a bit. 

Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Ram in Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela 

If anyone needs a visual definition of machismo, fast forward to the shot from the song “Ang Laga De”, in Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), in which Singh walks towards the camera, wearing nothing more than one amulet, one armlet and a dhoti that’s tied so low that if it wasn’t a mid shot, you’d think he’s naked. Set in a fictional village named Ranjhaar, which is famous for its guns and trigger-happy locals, Bhansali’s take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ushered in a new chapter in the director’s storytelling. His men displayed an overtly muscular masculinity and the chaste sensuality of his earlier love stories gave way to explosive, sexual desire as a conquering force. Gorgeous as Deepika Padukone is as the feisty Leela, Ram-Leela is very much Ram’s story, as he goes from being the indulged young son to a clan patriarch, sacrificing all that brought him joy along the way. There’s not a moment in the film that doesn’t emphasise Ram’s masculinity, whether it’s through shots of Singh’s bare and muscled torso, or in dialogues that refer to his virility. Singh in this role is a straight feminist’s nightmare because he really makes old-fashioned manliness look delicious.     

Gangubai Kathiawadi

Gangubai in Gangubai Kathiawadi 

Undoubtedly the machoest of all of Bhansali’s heroes has to be the titular protagonist of Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). We’ve seen Gangu’s spiritual predecessors in characters like Vinod Khanna’s golden-hearted gangster Dayavan and the Angry Young Man that Bachchan made famous in his youth. Like these heroes of yesteryears, Gangu becomes the protector of a community. Male heroes of the past demanded dignity and respect for their fellow thugs; Gangu demands respect for her sisterhood of sex workers. For the role, Alia Bhatt adopted a deeper register for her voice and wore a head of curly hair that added substantially to her frame. It also suggested that Gangu, like her hair, can’t be tamed. Her body language — shoulders thrown back, sitting on throne-like chairs, the sneers, the unwavering gaze — drew on distinctly masculine swagger. Women admire her, men fall in love with her and Gangu sees it all, and remains unmoved but amused. From her intro shot, which shows her feet crossed, to dancing drunkenly in a public square and the way she takes on the powerful elite, Gangubai is an ode to the underdog hero who was such an integral part of vintage Bollywood. In a nutshell, she’s the man. 

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