In a conversation with Aamir Khan for India Today in 2017, Ranveer Singh referred to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who turns 56 today, as a deeply passionate filmmaker forever chasing the unchaseable. “Every day I see him persistently and doggedly chasing some level of excellence, just pushing himself and everybody around him to create those magic moments,” said Padmaavat’s boy wonder, still very much in awe of his mentor. “He’s the coal in my fire,” Singh had revealed. Sorry Ranveer but on his own, Bhansali is both the fire and coal. Here’s a classic case of a tortured poet who burns like a candle to give light to his cinema. Call him a dreamer, taskmaster, visionary, showman, auteur of magnum opuses or simply an overrated prophet of all-things-baroque and controversy’s favourite child but there’s no doubt that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is that rare filmmaker who has the courage and conviction to dream up a larger-than-life epic like no other.
Bhansali’s fondness for Mughal-E-Azam-inspired masterpieces is well-known. Beginning with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in 1999, SLB has remained loyal to the big-scale genre, often a doomed love triangle set to a musical opera where each song is as lovingly crafted as the scenes. He works no differently than a sculptor, obsessing over the minor details and torturing his sitters (in his case, actors) to create what many critics have billed “aching moments of beauty.” His last film, the highly controversial Padmaavat, is a testament to his manic pursuit of cinematic perfection.
On the Padmaavat maker’s birthday today, here’s an ode to what we think are the finest moments from his long (but not particularly prolific, which is understandable for he works meticulously and very slow) directorial career.
Man, wife – and the ‘other’ man
Despite the overwhelmingly mixed ratings, Padmaavat has a lot to root for. Besides an ethereal Deepika Padukone as the title character, the beautiful queen who kills herself to save her honour, there is Ranveer Singh, as the cardboard villain Sultan Alauddin whose desperate attraction towards Queen Padmavati sounds his death knell. But the other unrequited love story the director does not pursue for obvious reasons is between Sultan Alauddin and his slave, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh). The Bhansali touch is at its delicious in the boudoir scene where Malik Kafur, the male lover and royal wife Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari) braid the tyrant Sultan’s hair. Both Malik and Mehrunisa covet Alauddin’s love but he’s too drunk on power to care.
Look for the moon
As any Bhansali fan knows, his penchant for music eclipses everything else. Scratch penchant. The right word is passion. Music is the bedrock of all his films. Take any, starting with his 1996 debut Khamoshi: The Musical (don’t miss the suffix to the title which proudly announces what to expect) to the most recent Padmaavat, the music tells its own story. It was a matter of time before he would turn composer himself. “If you take music away from me, I will die,” he admitted to The Hindu in 2016. According to reports, the director has a soft corner for Raag Yaman. He based “Ek dil ek jaan” from Padmaavat (2018) and “Aaj ibaadat” from Bajirao Mastani (2016) on Raag Yaman. Obviously, being a consummate romantic and nostalgist, SLB likes his moon imagery, best encapsulated in the brilliantly-constructed “Yun shabnami” from Saawariya (2007) and the popular “Chand chhupa baadal mein” from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).
Only SLB could have pulled this off. Aishwarya Rai, whose ravishing beauty lights every frame of Devdas (2002) and Madhuri Dixit as the nautch girl who tends to Devdas’ (Shah Rukh Khan) broken heart. Bhansali plays Rai and Dixit, two of Hindi cinema’s most sensuous dancers, against each other in a jugalbandi to beat all jugalbandis. The result is “Dola re dola”, sublime creation not seen on a Hindi screen since.
A star-crossed love triangle
Quickly becoming a fan favourite and having stayed there at the top for two decades now, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) is vintage Bhansali — the story of star-crossed lovers whose love will be tested all along. Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai have never looked better together. Bhansali was probably the first filmmaker to present Aishwarya Rai the way she deserved — as a baroque beauty who could well belong in a Raja Ravi Verma painting. An under-rated turn by Ajay Devgn as a shy lawyer makes HDDCS one of Bhansali’s most enduring hits.
Helen and the death of the piano
It was Bhansali’s dream to direct Helen someday. How lucky! He got a chance to fulfil his dream in his debut itself. Khamoshi: The Musical, starring Nana Patekar, Salman Khan and Manisha Koirala, was his break-out after having cut his teeth filming songs for mentor Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942: A Love Story. Salman Khan’s musical turns in both Khamoshi and HDDCS some years later is more than coincidental. (News flash: The director and his original muse are teaming up for a new film, but that’s for another day). However, the star of Khamoshi is Helen, as the musically-inclined grandmother of Annie (Koirala). “Gaate the pehle akele” is picturised on the ace danseuse on Goa’s beaches and desolate church towns. Instead of mourning, Helen celebrates the funeral of the much-loved family piano. She dies in the next scene. But the gift of her music spills over not just through the rest of Khamoshi but Bhansali’s entire career arc. Helen is SLB’s lucky totem.