‘Ram-Leela’ a tribute to my parents: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Sanjay Leela Bhansali talks about his father’s cinematic influence on his work.

Written by Priyanka Sinha Jha | Mumbai | Published: October 25, 2013 6:41 pm

People grow up dreaming,I have grown up seeing nightmares. But I feel,it adds an edge to my work—discovering things,recreating things not necessarily directly.

When burden comes,a woman of great aesthetics or great character never loses her beauty. I have seen that with women around me—I have seen that in my mother and grandmother in my growing up years

Devdas is based on that half bottle of alcohol my father had. My father was fortunate that when he was dying due to excess consumption of alcohol,with his liver bursting and the blood oozing out of his mouth,he had my mother holding his hand. Devdas didn’t have that

Sanjay,you have paid your mother the ultimate tribute by naming your main female protagonist after her,but in its music,is there a tribute to your father as well—you mention in your interviews that he introduced you to music.

This is a tribute to both my parents. My father had a great taste in music. A good record was the most valuable thing in our house.

Hum jab patang udane jaate the,toh mere chacha loudspeaker laga kar gaana lagate the ki sab sun sake. When the Ganpati procession would pass our home,we were told to pay attention to the rhythm,to the power of that Nasik dhol that got everything moving and bouncing.

One day,I said that I didn’t want to listen to Abdul Karim Khan,Bade Ghulam sa’ab or Ustad Aamir Khan sa’ab,and my father got very angry and gave away all the records. Today,I regret not having them because those were such rare collections. I checked with my cousin to whom he had given the collection,but he had given them away when shifting houses. I am trying to recover it through CDs. But the importance of music in films,unhone bahut sikhaya. Radio par jab hum gaana sunte the toh woh kehte the — Lataji itna achcha gati hain,toh kyun gaati hain?

Phir uske baad Prem jogan ban jaaye woh sunate the. Woh kabhi kabhi bahar baith ke cigarette peete the—humlog chawl mein rehte the— toh uss zamane ke Marathi koli songs bajte the loudspeaker pe. To woh kehte the ki yeh Marathi gaana suno.

My father would take me to watch Dada Kondke films too; Songadya was his favourite song from the Marathi film by the same name,as much as Jhanak Jhanak… or songs from Mughal-e-Azam.

My father was a big fan of V. Shantaram,so Jhanak Jhanak mein camera kaise ghumta tha,uss Gopi-Kishan dance mein,was discussed,as was the Songadya song and other popular musical formats.

This was because he had a taste for music. He had made a few films that didn’t do well,so he would keep talking to me about them.

Did he want you to continue with his dream?

All information related to films and film-making was passed on to me (by my father),so continuing in films was a constant subtext,lekin phir yeh bhi kahaa jaata tha ki,picture mein mat aana kabhi,kyonki humne paise khoye,par andar se yeh ichcha thi ki yeh seekh lein un filmoein se jise main dikhana chahta hoon.

He loved Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray’s work,but he also loved Dada Kondke’s work and that of Mehboob Khan among others. I can say that my work has got a jhalak of these people,because it is so thrown into my system.

And you learnt about the art of dance from your mother. Tell us something about that.

Before marriage,mom was a dancer under P.L. Raj whose ballets were famous in those days. As a child,I would keep telling mom,‘please take me to P.L. Raj master’. I wanted to leave studies and go to Raj master and assist him because dance was the only thing I thought I loved. My father was like,‘what’s the point of assisting Raj master? You should assist Raj Kapoor! But then you should not be in films.’

So I was a very confused child. (laughs)

Is it true that your mother would dance in the house and run into furniture or walls,which made you resolve the issue by allowing your heroines on screen,the indulgence of space when they dance.

It was a small house —kitchen,bathroom and a room. She had quit dancing to look after us,so sometimes,she would switch on the radio and dance and in doing so,she would run into a bed or table or some furniture,so I always wanted her to have a bigger space to dance. That’s why on my sets,there is always a bigger space for my heroines to dance.

After creating a stark canvas in Black and Guzaarish,you have brought back the colour and vibrance of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in Ram-Leela. Could you explain the co-existence of these two contrasting worlds?

All the Gujarati influences from Bhuleshwar,all the characters I have met over there,the Ramjibhais,Namjibhais,all these characters have come in. I have assimilated a lot of years of learning,things I heard. Hum Dil… also had a lot of it,but I did not enjoy that as much,because my earlier heroines were Nandini,Parvati,Sophia,Michelle,and I always wanted a girl called Leelavati to be the heroine of my film. So this one is about putting together all those years of unfulfilled dreams of my father and my mother,and how those dreams can turn into your legacy.

My father’s failure gives me the madness,the grit to achieve what he could not. It was the legacy I came unto. I know he trained me subconsciously; how to make a film,how to watch a film,how to understand different directors,what great writers do,what music composers do; there was always talk of all these aspects which I have now put together.

So Ram-Leela has elements from Bhuleshwar (where I grew up) like the nautanki —you go to Bhuleshwar and you will see how alive the place is,how throbbing it is. If you went to Moti Talkies which has the adjoining red-light area,there used to be prostitutes sitting around,but that’s where we saw films. People ask me how did you make Rowdy Rathore and I tell them I have grown up on films like Loafer,Chor Machaye Shor and Fakira,my temperament as a person was different. I was more artistic. On my way to school,I would keep looking at balconies,thinking about the architecture around. What is that kullar? What is that hanging? So my inclination as a child was artistically a different point of view from what people saw of Bhuleshwar. That perspective would be different. There were so many things that I saw,but somewhere at the Film Institute,I gradually moved away from that Loafer,Fakira,Chor Machaye Shor,Jwar Bhata,Pratigya sensibility. Those were the films I used to go to because two to three boys in the chawl would say,chalo aaj paise mil gaye,toh woh picture dekhne jaate hain. Un dinon parallel cinema utna hota nahin tha. To go to school,I used to pass the red light area every day. There are some six theatres in that area— Paradise,Moti Talkies etc all with garish posters that had people queuing up. The posters would be completely different from what the film was about. If you’d see Sholay’s poster in Alfred Talkies,you would say,“But this is not a Sholay poster.” It looked like some soft porn film poster,because that’s how the cinema owners would entice that audience. It’s this cinema culture that I have grown up with. The garishness,the kitsch of my film comes from there. I want to put all these things on record,because it is so amazing to realise what Opera House or Roxy meant to me. Uske saamne Alankar,wahan par Mughal-E-Azam lagi thi aur mere pitaji 18 baar mujhe woh picture dikhane le gaye the.

After the 10th time I wanted to cry; (because) I wanted to see younger films,Shammi Kapoor films,Mehmood’s films like Do Phoolbut instead we were going back to Mughal-E-Azam jisme ek colour scene tha baaki black and white. But today,when I listen to Prem jogan ban jaa,I start weeping and crying because of Bade Ghulam Khan’s music,because of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala’s magic or K. Asif’s magic which can never fade away.

Would you agree that dance and music have a very special place in your films—almost operatic with a local nautanki flavour?

All these things come together in a very nautanki-Ramlila way. Ram-Leela is in the zone where I grew up,and was educated. It’s not set in some imaginary world,it’s the world that I existed in. Hamare yahan CP Tank mein pol-lanes— hote the,aur har lane mein ek group dance karta tha,shehnai bajti thi,dhol bajta tha aur bakaayda itna khubsoorat garba karte the. My mother used to choreograph garba. I have never seen a dancer more graceful than my mother.

I realised that garba was a liberation from the confined spaces of the chawl. As a child I watched what it meant for them to forget the fact that they had to go down and fetch water every morning. Or stitch falls on sarees to pay for their son’s fee.

It was a fascinating space with fascinating decibel levels; very Italian in its own way. The walls would shake because people would sing from their hearts. Every two minutes there was a fight between a husband and wife or neighbours,but regardless of their quarrels,everybody would wait to come together for those nine days. And because my mother was a very good dancer,she would be the heroine of that lane during those nine days. In Ram-Leela I have tried to capture all those sounds,shehnais,dhol,khaas Gujarat se mangay huey,abhi woh pure folk gaane waale Gujarat mein bhi thode hi reh gaye hain,but I don’t want that music to ever die,because that’s our tradition.

What made you introduce an item song in Ram-Leela,a first of sorts for you?

In Hindi film narrative,every song where the hero-heroine dances is an item number. It’s never needed in the narrative. If you remove those songs,it doesn’t really make a difference to the flow. But we are a nation that loves music—when there is a death or birth in the family we start singing,there is a wedding in our family,we start singing. There is a song for every occasion. In Devdas when he goes to Chandramukhi’s kotha for the first time,it is an item song. It is specially designed in Hindi cinema to soothe your senses from the tension of the drama and the narrative. But yes,this time Priyanka (Chopra) has done a special song. I enjoyed it because it’s in a trance space,a song that I have never shot before. I could have done a mujra,but I wanted to do something that I have not done before. When you do something new,your energies are far more alert. To describe it in words is very difficult. It’s the title track and I loved working with Priyanka.

We spoke about the indulgence of space for the heroines in your films while dancing,so what is your idea /definition of cinematic space?

My understanding of space is very simple,it comes from watching Birju Maharaj. He is sitting in front of you and he suddenly looks in one direction and says,“Why are you doing this Radha? Come over here.”

Now,I am sitting in front of him,he is looking just past me and suddenly,my space is expanded by the genius of one man’s understanding of where his gaze should fall! He can generate an entire universe by simply directing his glance beyond me. He taught me that between one and two is the space that you can always discover in life.

Then again,when I think of Lata Mangeshkar singing,‘Sagar kinaare dil yeh pukare tu jo nahin toh mera koi nahin,’ what does she do? In that nahin and tu ke beech mein there is a whole two heartbeats,which I completely missed by the brilliance of her timing. The space between nahin and tu which did not come when Kishore da sang it. There are such amazing artists who have left such different concepts of space.

Itne permutation-combinations hain between one and two. As an artist,have you discovered that space between two lines? Or the space between two words?

As a child,when I woke up and did the maths sums,I would look up and the wall seemed very close. My mind would only push walls. This pushing walls to generate space was an obsession. When Madhuri (Dixit) dances,she should not dance in a space in which my mother would run into a kitchen,a wall or a bed. Her depth is from here (signals to where he is sitting and then far beyond to a point across the block ),till that end of the lane. From my room window in Bhuleshwar I could see that film in the street theatre. I could not hear a word,but the whole night I would sit and watch that film. That space mattered to me.

Cinematically what is space? It is not just a large space,it is also the space outside the frame of my shot,that still exists on the two sides and what is happening there. It’s a very complicated question you have asked; it’s also a very vast question. I need another 15-20 years of film-making to understand cinematic space.

Tell us something about the burden of life shouldered by the female characters in your films and does it enhance their beauty? Is it there in Ram-Leela as well?

Ram-Leela is an interpretation of Romeo & Juliet,the way I wanted to interpret a classical,plain love story,so perhaps not so much but yes,I have always been fascinated by seeing women in Kutch,for example,carrying four earthen pots. Just watching that walk— it’s 44-45 degree,their feet are bare,burning as they tread,walking and walking and they wear a woolen shawl. There could be a logical or scientific reason to wear wool in 45 degree heat,but the ability to take on nature and say,‘I care a damn’ is fascinating.

Is burden necessary to be beautiful? No. But when burden comes,a woman of great aesthetics or great character never loses her beauty. I have seen that with women around me—I have seen that in my mother and grandmother in my growing up years. Great women never bow down,their shoulders never droop due to the weight of whatever the circumstances. I think a woman is capable of it,because she can bear the pain of bearing a child,that a man can never understand. To be able to find your grace even in the moment of absolute crisis is what makes women very,very special.

Leela,anyway is a very special character because I have named her after my mother. I have seen my mother fall asleep at two in the night while stitching the saree fall. Every morning at six,my mother used to go from the third floor to the ground floor to fetch 10 buckets of water. I know what that weight means… So these women characters are very special,but I don’t think I am yet ready to put all that I have seen of what these very special women have gone through. Playing Juliet in a romantic story has got nothing with being that Leela,but there is a certain grace and responsibility that you have to have.

There is grace and kindness in your male characters too—like Ajay Devgn’s Vanraj in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Amitabh Bachchan in Black,so does Ram have it too?

Ram is a very noble character. I love the way Ranveer has played it. He’s a badmaash. He’s a brat,who lives in the locality but is opposed to love and violence. And yes,that nobility I feel is also my way of realising what those few women that I have seen in my life may not have got. They may not have had that respect or received that kind of stature,and I want to give it to them. So they always get that through the male characters in my films. Even if it means going to the extent of the teacher (Bachchan in Black) saying,‘Fine,you may have never made love to a man,never been kissed by a man,I will give you that dignity because you have the right to be kissed by a man. After that I may never be in your life,I’ll go away’,but even for him it was an agni-pareeksha in his own life.

You cannot fulfill everything in your life,so all those incomplete things,you start finding ways to put in your art. You find ways to fill in the blanks and keep moving ahead.

Is all art inspired by life?

It’s very important to have that personal touch rather than just make a film or a story without actually having to say something.

Like,when I saw my grandmother sell her last silver plate and I see that dignity—she covered her head,her silver plate which was the last belonging left with her to fall back on during hard times. But the pride with which she went … Her steps were small. I watched her from the balcony. I thought that today she is walking in a different manner. Fortunately or unfortunately,I was a very perceptive child. That day she was very quiet. She didn’t ask me what she should get me from Bhuleshwar,because she went to Zaveri Bazaar,but when she came back,she had a plastic pigeon and she said,‘here,now play with this’.

I was quite small. It was almost like magic,that a silver plate transformed itself into a plastic pigeon. And you look back and think—is this what illusions are made of? Is this what life is made of? I put that in Khamoshi. In such a situation,steps will be heavy,heart will beat differently. At that time you will not hear the commotion of the crowded lane; that time your mind is going through so many different notions,right from the time she took the plate from the husband’s house till now —when all of it must be coming in front of her. So the time,space again gets warped,completely muddled.

My mother had a box of coins which she would keep counting,because it had been collected after so much hard work. I would be going to bed and ‘trrrrrrr’ there would be the sound of those coins being poured out,I have used that moment in Guzaarish when that child talks about magic and all those coins come falling out of his hair. These sounds,images and incidents are all what happened to me as a child.

That’s my most precious wealth. But I need to show off to the world ki this is the wealth I have. I have been lucky enough to go through so many different and hard-hitting moments of life which can actually destroy your mind. I am very lucky that I am sane and very happy as a person despite seeing life in its darkest moments. People grow up dreaming,I have grown up seeing nightmares. But I feel,it adds an edge to my work—discovering things,recreating things not necessarily directly. Those are the ways to express what you have gone through and with that comes the purging,of exorcising your own demons. You have to,otherwise,you become the demon himself.

So much goes into that small little mind and the little heart,that luckily film-making gives me that place to express it. Coming back to your question on cinematic space,for me to now show something of my life,I cannot explain the time and space. When Michelle goes and says,‘Make love to me’,what time and space would it be? Human emotions,which you are experiencing and re-living,cannot be confined into time and space.

Devdas is based on that half bottle of alcohol my father had—he loved alcohol—that he had left with my mother who had kept it away in the cupboard. Everyday I pray to his picture,because I loved him in my own way,though I never knew how to express it. Neither did he,but that bottle was what Devdas was all about. My father was fortunate that when he was dying due to excess consumption of alcohol,with his liver bursting and the blood oozing out of his mouth,he had my mother holding his hand. Devdas didn’t have that. Paro was stuck behind the walls. But to understand that man’s dying moment—for him to put his hand out in semi-coma and tell the woman that,‘I never said I loved you,but I did love you’… To tell my mother that he loved her. I had to make Devdas in order to say that story. There is so much more to that one hour of seeing my father struggling to breathe and to express that one hour into Devdas dying under a tree than gloss and glamour. My mother could reach out,and I wish Saratchandra had written that Paro could reach out too. There is so much more I am putting out,so don’t trivialise it by saying ,‘Oh,it’s a 50 crore bastardisation of literature’.

There is certain legacy—my father talked about shayaars,poets and thumris and great kathak dancers,so it was a tribute to all that he talked about like classical dance — he was a great fan of Birju Maharaj and Sitara Devi. Can’t Hindi cinema preserve this rich legacy of thumris,architecture,the art of using perfumes,the men who visited the kothas? Devdas,despite his decadent lifestyle does not get seduced by Chandramukhi in her kotha and that is what I was trying to say—inspite of his debauchery,filth and Chandramukhi,he went to Paro to die. That is the love story I wanted to make. I wanted to encompass everything because I made it for my father,for his love for alcohol. I cannot translate everything but cinema is so much fun for people who have experienced life. Some people connect to it and some people find it discomforting. Therefore some people respect me and some detest me. Somewhere,I am blessed and cursed too. So it’s nice to feel every such emotion. You must be blessed and you must be cursed. To be able to assimilate all this in your work and to read from other people’s work defines your creativity.

There are a lot of incomplete relationships in your films — be it Khamoshi,Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,Devdas,Black or Guzaarish; does that fascinate you?

Anything which is not complete has such wicked charm because you want to complete it. You pull in your entire existence into what you are creating. Looking at it emotionally and then from a distance,I would agree that there are unfulfilled dreams. Everybody has them. I was not the only one who saw my father go with his desires unfulfilled,but now,maybe watching those desires being fulfilled,was an emotional experience in so many ways.

It completely fascinates me. I get bored of completeness. It just satiates everything.You lose magic,you lose the craving. When something great happens,it comes out of wanting to complete things. The greatest literature anywhere in the world is one that is incomplete and the writer leaves it behind for generations to somewhere in their minds,complete it. You will never have a film-maker who will have the audacity to say,‘Paro will cross the barriers’ and reach Devdas when he dies. Never. You cannot complete that story. That’s how legends are. When you find that sense of completion,you stop growing. Incompleteness in a relationship fascinates me. The reason to remember people is also because of it. I remember my father more because it’s an incomplete relationship. I keep finding a reason to hope that somewhere we will meet—I don’t know how,where. So,I will not attain you,but does it stop me from loving you anymore?

And therefore will I fall out of love? You cannot fall out of love and if you have,you have never fallen in love. Love is surrender. Salman (Khan) in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam does not fall out of love. Devdas could not fall out of love,Michelle in Black could not fall out of love. Ranbir (Kapoor) in Saawariya could not,even Sonam’s (Kapoor) character could not fall out of love with the man she loved. In Guzaarish,Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan) had no reason to be there,but she could not fall out of love. When you don’t get that person and realise you are still in love and therefore life is worth living. You may say that such people and such love doesn’t exist,and therefore that cinema is invalid or irrelevant. But I don’t understand that ‘Woh chali gayi toh doosri aayegi’ philosophy.

Ajay Devgn realises his wife is in love with someone else,but he still loves her. And so that’s when love is tested— when it’s incomplete. That’s what is fascinating. Except Khamoshi which was a forced happy ending,due to producers saying ‘no if you don’t keep a happy ending,we are pulling out’,all my films are incomplete. That’s the only time I made a compromise—originally Manisha dies in the film and she goes into the world of silence when she is buried. The end of Khamoshi is the only false note in my repertoire.

Having taken on the producer’s mantle with some big successes like Rowdy Rathore and a few misses,would you say you have fulfilled your father’s dreams?

As a child I had seen people coming home ki humne aapko paise diye the picture mein lagane ke liye,mere paise vaapas de do.

Or sometimes,I would go with my grandmother to collect some money from a producer whose office was at Churchgate. So I became a producer much against my father’s advice,though I think his inner desire was that I become one. I wanted to become a producer,very badly. As a producer I wanted to do what my father had done. That man,who made us walk up and down for Rs. 5000,woh toh main interest ke saath waapas loonga hi loonga. Not to say the industry has to pay it,but whatever karmas I have,I will perform to get my dues. I started getting it through Rowdy…. Then Shirin Farhad Ki Nikal Padi now Mary Kom has happened. I feel very proud to get back at life in some way. As a producer I am too reclusive to be in the market and get money,arrange finance,talk to actors,sell it. I am too quiet a person to do all that,but there is some energy that is blessing me. During those walks,my grandmother would say,‘Picture banane ka nahin’,’ and after all that talk,I have gone and done the exact opposite. So it’s come back with interest. When I produce a film like Rowdy… I feel happy because it’s the kind of cinema I have grown up on. I would have never been capable of making it on my own because it’s not my zone and it’s a great film. Mary Kom is a very interesting production about a young legend,not someone who is dead and gone. Gabbar,which is coming up,is again a great film to be part of. I think God has been very kind to me to be able to produce this much. I may not be in the league of Yash Raj or other big producers,but I am very happy with what I am learning and collaborating with different directors.

You also produced Shirin Farhad…,directed by your sister Bela,My Friend Pinto and Guzaarish among others all with different results. And despite a good start with television,you have signed off. What has the journey been like?

Shirin Farhad… is one film I loved producing. When I see the film,I really think it’s beautiful. It was the closest to me in so many ways — my personality,circumstances in life. It was a very interesting way of putting one part of your life on celluloid. As a producer what is important is that you are happy and proud of what you have created. For me,those poignant moments that you forget to hug when you are 45 and 48 years old,you have forgotten how it is to hold a person or your back is hurting— made the film very special. We are not used to films like that. It was a wonderful performance by Boman (Irani) and full marks to Farah (Khan) for putting on the makeup,that is one film I am proud of.

Rowdy... was great too. … Pinto had flaws,but I feel the director was very talented and I would stand by it. You experiment. Fear of failure nor success should stop you from doing what you want to do. I just do what I want to do. Saawariya did not do well,but I still went ahead and made a film on a man wanting mercy killing,wanting to die because at that point I wanted to make a film from that point of view.

Black bhi to box-office pe koi dhamaal kar ke to nahin gayi,but was very well acknowledged,while ,Saawariya was panned on all fronts. So I never worry whether a film is mainstream or not. If I like a script,a character,I go ahead. I don’t want to disown a film and say I regret it,or I could have made it better. I enjoy producing to an extent that it is the joy of creating. Television is another ballgame altogether and requires a different mindset. Saraswatichandra came in the midst of Ram-Leela. I think I have a very large vision to be contained in a small box . It was a wonderful exercise,Star Plus was wonderful,but I cannot cope with making Gabbar along with everyday work on the episodes. I enjoy producing films more.

With the numerous hats that you have donned—choreographer,director,producer,editor,which is the one that you enjoy most?

I enjoy music immensely and I love editing. If someone can shoot the film and send it to me so much the better,because there will be no ego-hassles. I enjoy editing because it is all within my confined small space. While with direction,when I open up into that big set—it’s against my grain— so irritability,jittery nerves etc happen.

Between Bela and you,who is the better editor?

Bela is very critical of my work and I love my work (laughs). She is the only one who will say,‘Why is this scene here? Take it out.’

She edited my films till Black,but from Saawariyaonwards,she stopped—we would practically be beating each other up (laughs). But others get scared to tell me to cut a scene. If they point it out,I will say ‘nahin nahin bahut achcha hai’ so Bela keeps telling them,to cut whatever is not required and not listen to me.

priyanka.sinha@expressindia.com

For all the latest Entertainment News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results