by MOHINI CHAUDHURI & PRATHYUSH PARASURAMAN

Sanjay Leela Bhansali constitutes a film genre unto himself, his movies always packed with the promise of spectacle. Any other director making a grand film, with chandeliers, tapestries and detailing, should expect it to be dubbed “Bhansali-influenced”.
His feature film debut, the sombre Khamoshi: The Musical, released on 9 August, 1996, and since then his canvas has only become wider and more ambitious. From the celebratory and bashful Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002) to the melancholic Black (2005), Saawariya (2007), and Guzaarish (2010), to his final phase of grand storied legends in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Bajirao Mastani (2015), and Padmaavat (2018), Bhansali’s craft is always in a state of flux. We’re yet to see where his upcoming film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, fits in this filmography.
But one thing is certain. 25 years after his debut, his relevance and sway within the Hindi film industry is unquestioned. We asked artists, technicians and friends who have spent years honing and lending their craft to his vision to demystify the magic and madness of Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Auteur

There is such a thing as a Bhansali ‘chhaap’ — the film. It is the detailing that goes into the shot, the way the 5000-plus diyas in the background are lit, every fabric flutters precisely, every background dancer has their arms angled the same way. This requires tremendous patience, sometimes shooting one song over weeks, and a yielding producer. He took 260 days over two-and-a-half years to shoot Devdas, over 220 days for Bajirao Mastani, and over 280 days for Padmaavat.
Even thematically, his films have a common thread. Shah Rukh Khan, who worked with Bhansali on Devdas, once told him that his films, even when they weren’t physically violent, had a lot of “emotional violence”. His characters, all emotional descendents of Meena Kumari or Guru Dutt, have a fractured beauty that he milks to the hilt.
Actor Ranveer Singh who has worked with him on three films — Ram-Leela, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat — notes, “He challenges you, he pushes you to deliver a performance that’s visceral, spirited and comes from a place deep within you.” To get this performance, he demands multiple takes till, as actor Jim Sarbh who worked with Bhansali on Padmaavat, puts it, “You feel tired, a bit more raw and vulnerable. And then you are just able to tap into stuff like magic, without even knowing.”
With official credits for choreography, costume design, editing, writing, music, producing, and directing, Bhansali’s shadow looms large on his movies. However, it is this probing, demanding shadow that allows actors, musicians, production and costume designers to produce their best work. Musicians like Monty and Ismail Darbar, writers and lyricists like Vibhu Puri have fallen off the mainstream cultural radar after working with him. The remaining who continue to work in the mainstream often find their work in a Bhansali film standing out as a gold standard amidst their portfolio of work. This enviable stamp can, for many artists, become a stain.

Baroque

Maxima Basu, who has worked on the costumes of every Bhansali movie since Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela itches to be back on his set. No other director, she says, cares enough about the costume department to stall a shoot for an outfit. On the day of the ‘Ang Laga De’ song shoot on Ram-Leela, Bhansali realized that the initial outfit — a granite choli and sindoor red lehenga — didn’t fit his vision. He waited two nights while Basu made him another in pearl white.
Actress Shernaz Patel recalls a similar experience. “We were to shoot a party scene in Black but he didn’t like Rani [Mukerji]’s dress. The two of them went off to Bandra in a car to look for a dress while we were sitting in that beautiful set, ready in our finery. He came back and said ‘Go home, I’m not happy’.”
Bhansali is one of the few directors who works with couturiers — Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla in Devdas, Anuradha Vakil in Saawariya, Sabyasachi in Black and Guzaarish and Anju Modi in Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani. This means a bigger budget. Take the handcrafted Abu-Sandeep ghagra that Madhuri Dixit wore in Devdas — weighing 10 kgs with mirrors embedded in Zardozi — that took over two months to create. Or the Rimple-Harpreet Narula lehenga that Deepika Padukone wore in the ‘Ghoomar’ song in Padmaavat that weighed around 30 kg and was made at an estimated cost of Rs 30 lakh.
Bhansali’s briefs to his designers are often elusive, trying to capture an abstract feeling instead of something he wants replicated — sometimes it is how a piece of velvet made him feel, sometimes an antique cloth, or a carving in wood. “He may be inspired by the maushi working in his house. He’ll just say ‘Come and look at how she wears her sari’,” says Basu.

Choreography

A song sequence in a Bhansali movie is an orgy of precision, emotion, and exaggeration. In fact, when Bhansali started off directing the songs of Parinda and 1942: A Love Story, he thought he was going to become a choreographer. But even as he moved towards music and direction, that choreographic impulse remained. So much so that in Black, his only film without a dance number, he stopped shooting midway and was going to give an SOS call to choreographer Saroj Khan. It was his actors, Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji, who held him back.
Though he is best known for the extravagance of his dance-offs — Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Dola Re Dola’ and Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra in ‘Pinga’ — what is often overlooked is the contained quality of many of his dance sequences. The hazy ‘Kuch Na Kaho’ in 1942: A Love Story was just shot on a stage in an auditorium, as was the chiaroscuro ‘Jaane Kiske Khwaab’ in Guzaarish in which Hrithik Roshan slides up and down a conical beam of light.
Bhansali, a student of Odissi dance himself, always collaborates with the most authentic choreographic voices — Pandit Birju Maharaj for Kathak in Devdas and Bajirao Mastani, Samir and Arsh Tanna for garba in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Ram-Leela, and Ghoomar exponent Jyothi D Tommaar for Padmaavat. As leading Kathak exponent Uma Dogra notes about ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’, “You can see that he knows the art form. If you look at Ranbir’s shoulder movements during the part of the song which suddenly transitions into Punjab folk music, he’s doing bhangra.”
But this doesn’t mean he’s a purist. If need be, he will modernize the mujra like he did in ‘Ram Chahe Leela’, or make his Maratha Peshwa or his Khilji Sultan shake their head and body with infectious “Lion King-wala” energy.

Death

Eccentric

A Bhansali set is not for the faint-hearted. Stories of his ferocious temper, actors being reduced to tears, fallouts with artists, childish tantrums, and mics being flung are now urban legends. A former collaborator who didn’t want to be named calls him a ‘mazedaar character’. “I loved to observe him. He sits behind the monitor and sticks out his palm and his spot boy can tell from the hand gesture whether he wants popcorn, peanuts, cigarettes or chewing gum. It magically appears in a flash. He looks like one of those gods in mythological movies or something straight out of (Satyajit) Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne,” he explains.
In 2015, Bhansali told Film Companion that he keeps food handy so he can stuff his mouth to prevent himself from yelling. “You tend to overlook — forgive is too strong a word — his anger because you know how much it means to him. He is trying to fine tune an absolute experience. When you understand that, you don’t take it to heart,” says Vikramaditya Motwane, who assisted him on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas.
In his relentless pursuit of perfection, he works you to the bone. While making the ‘Ghoomar’ song in Padmaavat a single sequence took countless takes because he noticed that the gota work on the blouse of a girl dancing in the third line behind Padukone was incorrect. He could have moved her to a less visible position, instead he waited till the blouse was fixed.
Before he was launched in Saawariya, actor Ranbir Kapoor assisted Bhansali on Black. He quit within a few months because he couldn’t cope with his “dark madness”. “I was kneeling on set. He was beating me... He got too much,” said Kapoor on the podcast No Filter Neha in 2016. He added that there wasn’t a better acting coach than Bhansali.
“You have to live, breathe and drink his films. You have to give more than 100% and your life disappears. To give you context, while I was working on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam my closest friend got a new girlfriend and I met her only 4 months later!” says Motwane.

Failure

In 1960, filmmaker Manmohan Desai made a colossal flop called Chhalia, starring Raj Kapoor and Nutan. It was based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story ‘White Nights’. The late Rishi Kapoor was reminded of this disaster in 2007 when he saw Saawariya, which launched his son Ranbir, and was also based on ‘White Nights’. “That story could never have been made into a film. If only Bhansali had told me, I would have dissuaded him,” wrote Kapoor in his memoir ‘Khullam Khulla’. He went on to write, “Saawariya had, I don’t know how to describe it, a spaced-out blue or green background. People uncharitably called it a ‘blue film’.”
Saawariya released with Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, a mega masala entertainer with a party song that featured every imaginable Bollywood star. Saawariya was a muted, slow-paced fairytale set in Bhansali’s imaginary world of Venetian gondolas, neon lights, and masjids. Its blue and green palette raised some serious questions about his sanity. Sony Pictures, which had made its entry into Bollywood with Saawariya, promptly shut shop and returned only years later. This was Bhansali's first massive failure after Khamoshi, and infinitely more humiliating. He recovered the only way he knew how — by creating something far more opulent and outlandish — the Padmavati opera in Paris.

Guru Dutt

Bhansali often cites Guru Dutt as an emotional influence. While talking about the song ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Hasin Sitam’ from Kaagaz Ke Phool, he remarked, ‘Isse zyada painful aur kya ho sakta hai?’.

Heroines

Raised by strong women — his mother Leela Bhansali and sister Bela Sehgal — Bhansali’s sense of female characters has a warped allure. They are always confined by circumstances, and yet assert themselves, so even their victimhood is framed like victory. Actress Rani Mukerji who worked with him on Black and Saawariya, bringing to life his version of Hellen Keller and a gold-hearted sex worker, respectively, notes, “He has this larger-than-life image of women in his mind and that’s because he loves and looks up to his mother and sister. He is drawn to characters and stories in which the female protagonist has a lot of substance, and this is not only true of the lead characters. Even the supporting female characters in Sanjay’s films have always been very strong.”
Even when his heroines are fighting over the same man, like Paro and Chandramukhi in Devdas or Mastani and Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani, they often coalesce into a dance, sharing symbols of marriagehood. They are never pathetic, they never beg for love. Bhansali affectionately calls all his heroines the “love children of Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari”, as they inherit their tragic, spirited and courageous allure.
For Bhansali, grace is inseparable from the feminine. Before Saawariya even started shooting, Bhansali sent his actress Sonam Kapoor, who was making her debut, to Kathak exponent Uma Dogra for training. His brief to Dogra was the following: “I’m not looking to make her a dancer. But I am looking for the dancing body. When she runs, it should look like a dancer is running.” The reference was always Waheeda Rehman.
From his first film, in which Manisha Koirala played the shackled daughter to parents who are speech and hearing impaired, to Padmaavat and Gangubai Kathiawadi, in which Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt play the titular characters — a privilege mostly reserved for heroes — Bhansali has always placed his female characters in the limelight.

Introduction Songs

Jinxed

A Bhansali film is shorthand for drama, and not just the kind you see on screen. Cinematographer Binod Pradhan was lighting the set of Devdas when Bhansali informed him that the film’s producer Bharat Shah had been arrested for suspected connections with the Underworld. This would be nerve-wracking for anyone making one of the most expensive films of the time. “(But) he told me, ‘Don’t compromise on anything. Just keep doing things like you were before.’ He was constantly looking for quality, no matter what,” says Pradhan.
The set of his next film, Black, was incinerated in a fire. The shoot was halted for months till the set was recreated, right down to its antiques and paintings. Actress Shernaz Patel says there are scenes in the film which have shots from before and after the fire but since the set was recreated so meticulously, no one could tell them apart.
Bajirao Mastani took 12 years and three failed attempts before Bhansali could make it. The trade called it a ‘jinxed’ film that would never see the light of day. In 2019, his film with Salman Khan was scrapped almost hours before the shoot. In weeks, he was filming his next release, Gangubai Kathiawadi.
Padmaavat was made under the watchful eyes of policemen after the shoot was stormed by violent protestors. Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee says he was panicking in a room with Bhansali as they heard shots being fired outside. “He said, ‘Jo ho raha hai, hone de. Let’s use this time to discuss’. But I knew he was affected. It was a traumatic experience,” says Chatterjee.

Khamoshi: The Musical

Khamoshi was a musical about grief. It was centred on a hearing and speech impaired Goan couple (Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas) and their golden-voiced daughter Annie. Filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane remembers being invited to the trial at Mumbai’s Rajkamal Studios in the monsoon of 1996. “I was going through a phase of rejection at the time... I wondered why Bollywood was making the same old stuff. I saw Khamoshi and thought, ‘Wow, here is an ‘artist’ working in Bollywood,” says Motwane, who then requested Bhansali to let him assist him on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
Bhansali narrated Khamoshi to his friend Manisha Koirala, but only for her feedback. His first choice for Annie was Madhuri Dixit, and the second was Kajol. “I loved the world he had created and told him that if they both refused, I’d play Annie. I had already witnessed Sanjay’s talent on 1942: A Love Story but since he wasn’t an established director, my gut instinct said this would come back to me,” says Koirala.
Khamoshi is the only time we saw a reined-in Bhansali. When you see Ethan Mascarenhas’s exquisite Goan home in Guzaarish, you almost feel bad for the Braganzas of Khamoshi. “Khamoshi was much more intimate, it wasn’t dazzling like his other films. It means that Sanjay has a side to him that he is not willing to explore any more,” says Koirala.
On the Friday of its release, Bhansali got an early morning call from his producer who hollered, ‘Picture baith gayi’, which is trade speak for, ‘Your film has tanked’. Nitin Chandrakant Desai, Khamoshi’s art director, says the film took a lot of risks. It had Nana Patekar, who was popular for his quotable dialogues, playing a mute. The consensus was that the film was too long and boring. “Sanjay, his sister Bela ji (who co-edited the film) and I went from theatre to theatre to see the reaction and, if needed, we’d cut the film on the spot,” recalls Desai. It was too late. Khamoshi was dead on arrival and nothing could resuscitate it.
Bhansali got to make a bigger second film with A-list stars like Aishwarya Rai, Salman Khan, and Ajay Devgn. But, to date, he says he’s afraid of answering calls on Fridays.

Light

Bhansali was insistent that when Aishwarya Rai holds the mirror and walks around, its metallic sheen and reflection dance around the walls till it settles on Hrithik Roshan’s face.

Music

Bhansali frames his scenes with the music in mind. During the shoot of Bajirao Mastani, he complained to cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee that the shot he set up wasn’t working. “You haven’t kept any space for my cellos and orchestra to come in,” he said. When Chatterjee made the lens wider, Bhansali yelled, “Exactly! Now, I can see my background music coming in from these empty spaces.”
It is this musical nature of filmmaking, combined with a difficult relationship with composers, who felt that Bhansali’s influence was getting stronger, that eventually moved him to finally start composing songs for his own films. He began with ‘Thode Badmash’, a song in Saawariya, and then composed complete albums for all his subsequent films, each tackling a radically different soundscape, from folk Marathi to 13th Century Rajputana. Shreya Goshal, who began her playback singing career with Bhansali’s Devdas, was also roped in to sing his first composition. She notes how he lets his singers inhabit the song before recording it, a relic of old-school composing, “We always do a rehearsal — a casual sitting where the singer learns the composition from the composer only on a guitar or a harmonium — before going to the studio. He is the only composer who still does that.”
There is an eclectic quality to his songs — some bar brawl-like, some rooted to classical ragas, some Arabic, some Goan. This is a reflection of his influences, the way his father made him listen to Roshan Ara Begum in the chawls, but also how Koliwada songs would play in the evenings after drinks.
There is also an unstudied spontaneity in his compositions. In an interview with Film Companion, he noted how he composed ‘Lal Ishq’ and ‘Deewani Mastani’ in the shower. He isn’t formally trained, but having spent decades listening to Lata Mangeshkar, the compositions of SD Burman, RD Burman, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal — his influences — music just poured out.

Navin Bhansali

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s story of a heartbroken man who drinks himself to death has inspired generations of filmmakers. Bhansali is one of them. In Devdas, he saw his father, Navin Bhansali, who drowned in debt and alcohol after losing all his money on the few B-grade films he produced, like Jahaji Lootera (1953). In fact, there are traces of his father all over his work. You see him in Joseph Braganza of Khamoshi, when he breaks the family’s music records in a violent fit of rage, and in the emotionally unavailable Narayan Mukherjee who beats a young Devdas, and ends up longing for him on his deathbed. Navin Bhansali passed away before he could see any of his son's films. Like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which begins with the emotional plea - ‘For my father. Come hold me... Just once’ - all Bhansali’s films are dedicated to him. They appear to be his way of reaching out to his father, perhaps letting him know he’s achieved his unfulfilled dreams.
Bhansali’s art is most potent when it’s personal. While his father’s debts mounted, his mother Leela (whose name he adopted) worked multiple odd jobs like selling soaps and tailoring blouses to educate him and his sister, Bela. Bhansali has often said his mother would dance and sing for them in their tiny chawl even when they were in the depths of misery. That’s also what he tells us through the song ‘Mausam Ke Sargam Ko Sun' in Khamoshi, in which the matriarch of the family, played wonderfully by Helen, tells her grandchildren ‘gaaye ja’ or sing through the pain.

Over The Top

While co-writing Black, Bhavani Iyer hardly met Bhansali. She had imagined a slightly worn-out bungalow in Colaba as the setting of the film. To then come on set and see a fountain and a two-storey bungalow with juggernaut statues and lacquered, polished floors was a shock. But that’s Bhansali.
He takes a sad story and spins it into exaggerated life with drama. Logic is only a consideration, willingly sacrificed for splendour. He will drape Sofia, the nurse in Guzaarish, in Sabyasachi bespoke gowns or shop for Ranbir Raj, the homeless vagabond in Saawariya, in Paris and London high street. His characters will have imposing, larger-than-life statues littered around their house, Rembrandt and van der Weyden paintings on their walls, Mona Lisa on their curtains, Raja Ravi Varma on their cupboards, and peacocks in their balconies.
Devdas is a love story between Paro, the poor daughter of a nautch dancer and Devdas, a rich zamindar’s son. But Paro’s home in the film was made of 1.2 lakh pieces of stained glass at the cost Rs 3 crore. Then, to make Devdas’ haveli, which was supposed to be 4 times bigger in the story, they had to bring in scaffolding with over 128 columns, the first time such an endeavour was undertaken in Hindi cinema.
Even the pitch of his characters are outsized. When Sakina in Saawariya faints, she just doesn’t fall, but arches her back over the arm of her lover, her hair brushing the floor. The first half of both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas are filled with cackling characters, who don’t speak as much as screech.
In Guzaarish, the protagonist Ethan Mascarenhas’ gorgeous home was meant to be a dilapidated bungalow. Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee once asked Bhansali, “What if we had Ethan’s character living in a 2 BHK in Byculla?” to which he replied, “There are people who make those kinds of movies. The kind of cinematic language that I'm trying to create... that only I can do.”

Padmaavat

After the humiliating failure of Saawariya, Bhansali went to Paris to direct Padmavati, an opera by the French composer Albert Roussel to be staged at the Théâtre du Châtelet. He got a horse, an elephant, and a young tiger on stage. While he received a 15 minute standing ovation, The Guardian critic wasn’t as generous, calling it “a series of inert tableaux, to which some coarse acting and risible choreography adds nothing at all”.
This wasn’t the first or the last time he would work on this story — of Alauddin Khilji’s obsession with Padmavati of Chittor, a Rajput Princess. In the 1980s, he worked as an assistant editor on Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj’s episode titled, “Delhi Sultanate, Part III, Padmavat & The Tughlak Dynasty episode.” In 2016, he came back to the story, making a film at a budget of ₹215 crore, the most expensive Hindi movie at the time.
Rumours brewed about there being a romantic dream sequence between Khilji and Padmavati. In January 2017, at Jaipur’s Jaigarh fort, members from the Karni Sena, a militant caste group, barged into the set and assaulted the staff, slapping Bhansali. Again in March, the set was attacked with petrol bombs. When the teaser came out in October, the Karni Sena threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose.
The film’s title was changed from Padmavati to Padmaavat, Padukone’s bare hips in a song were CGI-ed so they look covered. When the film finally released in January 2018, it was at the receiving end of another kind of criticism — of glorifying immolation of women out of caste pride. The final scene of the film where all the women — pregnant, elderly, young — dressed in red, perform jauhar, jumping into the fire with sombre, elegiac music playing caused a slew of scathing op-eds. Nevertheless, the film became a blockbuster making 585 crores, and Bhansali went radio silent. A year later he told Film Companion, “No filmmaker in the world has gone through, or should ever go through [this trauma].”

Queer

Actor Jim Sarbh describes Malik Kafur, his character in Padmaavat as “Alauddin [Khilji]’s favourite wench”. Gifted to Khilji as a slave, Kafur was both his confidante and concubine. The obvious sexual tension between the two — sitting on two ends of a bathtub, braiding hair, and Kafur being called Khilji’s “begum” — was a matter of contestation. Historians doubted the veracity of it, while queer activists were worried that Khilji’s bisexuality was framed as another of his barbaric vices.
While Bhansali has bestowed upon his heroes a ravishing sexual energy — Ranbir Kapoor’s butt baring in Saawariya, Ranveer Singh’s extremely low-hanging dhoti in Ram-Leela — these characters have rarely expended this energy on other men. This was the first time he was dealing with homosexuality in his films, and he was not coy or restrained about it.
In one scene, Khilji, throwing bird seeds around, turns to Kafur with his hands held out. Sarbh was directed to eat the bird seeds from his hands. But the scene wasn’t working for Bhansali. He turned to Sarbh and asked, "What nautanki were you going to do? You were going to do something else at that moment, nah? Okay do, do, do." Sarbh bent his head down “blowjob style”, neither embarrassed, nor demeaned.
It wasn’t a surprise then, that this chemistry between Sarbh and Singh became the talking point of the film, overshadowing the virginal track between Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.

Rowdy Rathore

Bhansali’s choices as a producer have been completely antithetical to the kind of film he directs. He’s said Rowdy Rathore took him back to his childhood memories of watching films like Loafer, Pratigya and Fakira in single-screen theatres.

Salman Khan

The beauty of the Salman Khan-SLB collaboration was that it was Khan who stepped into Bhansali’s world and not the other way around. Under Bhansali’s watch, we got a softer and irresistibly charming Khan. He hadn’t yet become the indestructible Robin Hood-esque saviour he now plays in every film, nor was he cloyingly righteous like the Prem of Sooraj Barjatya movies.
In return, Khan’s goofy presence lent cheer, levity and even some foolishness to Bhansali’s tragic tales. No one else could pull off a farting scene in that majestic haveli of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Also watch Khan in that terrific scene in Khamoshi, in which he asks Annie’s father for her hand in marriage by chasing him down a beach.
After the recent Radhe, it feels like Khan could benefit from a Bhansali intervention. And after two intense war epics, perhaps Bhansali could do with some Bhai spark. Could he shake Khan out of his unending cycle of hyper masculine films? It appears that the answer is no. In 2019, Inshallah, which promised to mark their grand reunion, was mysteriously called off the night before they were meant to start shooting.

Top shot

Unrequited Love

Vision

When it was time to shoot the climax of Devdas, the producer of the film was in jail and so spending needed to be curtailed. The scene has Shah Rukh Khan barely holding on to his last breath as Paro runs to him for a good four minutes, traversing the unending corridors of her mansion. But the budget only permitted one corridor. First they painted it off-white. Then overnight Bhansali got it painted blue with Ajanta-Ellora motifs to make it look grander. And then the next night it was painted red. “Sanjay’s command over visuals is amazing. He pushed us to our extreme. Poor Aishwarya was running down that corridor for three days,” says art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai.
But what keeps Bhansali’s vision pure and original? For starters, he doesn’t watch the films of his contemporaries, therefore his thoughts remain uncorrupted. (Although he was accused of borrowing heavily from the 1962 film The Miracle Worker for Black.) He can’t deal with technology and runs away from social gatherings. He is most at home within the confines of his own world — which means the emotional and physical world of the film he’s making. He grieves the loss of a set when it’s about to be torn down, wandering around the space by himself for hours. Those who’ve worked with him say that at some point they check out and go back to their other real-world duties, but Bhansali never does.
Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee says decoding Bhansali’s vision is like embarking on a treasure hunt. He keeps dropping tiny hints till you hit upon what’s going on in his head. While deciding on the colour of Kashibai’s room in Bajirao Mastani, he said, ‘I want something that makes me want to take off my shoes and sit on the ground’. “I’ll never forget that brief,” says Chatterjee.
For the ‘Binte Dil’ song in Padmaavat, he ordered Ranveer Singh to channel a mix of Zeenat Aman and Jim Morrison. “He has an ability to raise the stakes of the conflict while shooting a scene, such that achieving that golden standard feels like a moving target. He makes you feel like hitting that target is a matter of life and death,” explains Singh.

Water

X-Factor

The radical introvert that Bhansali is, it was nice to see him as the outgoing, eternally supportive judge — giving standing ovations and salams to performances — on the first season of X Factor, a talent show on Sony.

Yaman Raag

The raag of eternal love to be sung during dusk, has been present throughout the musical landscape of Bhansali’s movies — ‘Jhonka Hawa Ka’ from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, ‘Hamesha Tumko Chaha’ from Devdas, ‘Laal Ishq’ from Ram-Leela, ‘Aaj Ibadat’ from Bajirao Mastani, and ‘Ek Dil’ from Padmaavat.

Zakhm

Bhansali has often spoken of suffering as a muse. In an interview to journalist Karan Thapar in 2002 he said, “A good artist has to see life in its minutest, goriest details so that you become sensitive, fragile. You have to bleed from the inside.”
While making Black, he took his co-writer Bhavani Iyer to the chawl in Mumbai’s Bhuleshwar area where he grew up. He wanted her to understand his compulsion to make his films larger than life. “He even showed me his way of experiencing cinema. There was a huge white-cloth projection screen. He never had the money to go watch it so he would look at it from his house, which was behind the parda... I had to surrender to the way he wanted to mount his world because that is his expression of his art, it is his expression of his demons,” says Iyer.
Bhansali immerses his characters too in the pits of despair, unwilling to give them the ending they desire. “He loves catharsis — smiles with tears, and tears with smiles. Even in a film like Guzaarish, or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam which ends with Salman smiling through the worst moment of his life,” observes Vikramaditya Motwane, his assistant on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
Over the decades, he has become increasingly comfortable with bringing in the sexual along with the sensual in his depictions of pain. In Guzaarish, the lovers kiss deeply even as parting is imminent. In Ram-Leela, their faces are pressed against each other as they pull the trigger, killing each other. In ‘Deewani Mastani’, a song from Bajirao Mastani, in which Mastani is dancing in front of her lover, Bajirao, in a full court that includes Bajirao’s wife, there is a lyric, ‘Zakhm (wound) aisa tune lagaya, deewani deewani deewani, deewani ho gayi’. While trying to explain the emotional potence of this line to the assistant choreographer, he excitedly proclaims, “Zakhm sexy cheez hoti hai.”
Even as his depiction of pain has evolved, he has never let go of it as the central force of his films, for he doesn’t see the point of a character who doesn't suffer. “To go through suffering and to achieve what you want to achieve... that is the purpose of life,” he says.