Auteur, dreamer, visionary, controversy’s favourite child, history-distorter, myth-spinner, impresario, tortured poet, lover of all things grand and music sage – Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been labelled all that and more. Only recently was the filmmaker of Padmavati, whose birthday it is today (he turns 54), got embroiled in a violent face-off during the film’s shooting in Jaigarh fort in Jaipur. A furious mob from a fringe group called Shri Rajput Karni Sena vandalised the sets and assaulted Bhansali, their primary bone of contention being the maker’s wrongful depiction of Queen Padmavati and for reportedly showing love scenes between her and Alauddin Khilji, widely seen as a barbaric 13th century ruler and plunderer of India. Padmavati restored her honour by committing Jauhar (self-immolation) instead of giving in to a lustful king.
As a premise, the story of Padmavati has all the dramatic highs and lows – or “emotional violence” — a vital element in Bhansali’s cinema as described by his onscreen ‘Devdas’, Shah Rukh Khan. But as retelling of history, it’s as about accurate as Mughal-E-Azam was.
Watch | Padmavati: This Is What Ranveer Singh Has To Say About Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Like Anarkali, historians believe Padmavati to be a creation of fiction and fantasy. According to one popular legend, Padmawat, a poem written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi two centuries after Khilji’s Chittorgarh siege, has helped propagate the myth of a Rajput queen’s divine beauty and valour and how she defended her honour against a lascivious Muslim invader.
For Bhansali, who imagines everything in technicolour, such historical legends are ripe subjects for the big screen. Padmavati brings back the hit Bajirao Mastani pair and off-screen lovers, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh. Shahid Kapoor plays the ruler of Mewar who married Padmavati. What makes Bhansali the numero uno in the historical epics segment is that there are so few filmmakers in Bollywood willing to take the risks involved in the making of magnum opuses. Ashutosh Gowariker springs to mind, but he clearly lacks the larger-than-life passion, obsession and imagination required to make a Devdas or Bajirao Mastani.
Bhansali’s epics have won him plenty of loyal following over the years. Still, his films elicit extreme reactions. If it’s a hit, it’s straight out of the park. But if it’s booed (Saawariya and Guzaarish), it sends everyone involved in the production into depression, especially the director who’s known to be extra-possessive of his work in a childlike manner. Critics, on the other hand, have never been too impressed with the showman, dismissing his cinema as an example of indulgence, megalomania and extravaganza. But even those who don’t think too highly of him admire his sheer craftsmanship in pulling off the money-spinning epics. Contrast this with the man himself.
All his grandeur is only for the silver screen. In real life, Bhansali is a man of frugal needs. On the sets, he is said to bring simple Gujarati food cooked by his mother, whose name he has taken on as a tribute. Coming from a family where films were both a passion and pariah, Bhansali was raised on a steady diet of Hindi cinema. His parents, however, were apprehensive about his professional leap towards cinema, lest he is punished for the sins of his movie-crazy father. By his own admission, growing up Bhansali was a social misfit who found solace in cinema and music. A film producer, his father suffered financial blows after which the Bhansalis ended up in a chawl in Bhuleshwar, a once Gujarati-dominated quarter in old Bombay. In an interview with Tehelka magazine, he said that he used to pass through Kamathipura, Mumbai’s infamous red light area, on his way to school. “All my early impressions are of prostitutes hanging around with clients and vivid colours.” When you watch a Bhansali film next and are struck by courtesans in glorious costumes, you know where he got that influence.
The best glimpse of Bhansali often lies in his music. His mother was a dancer. Bhansali, talking to Tehelka, said that he used to own a radio as a child and waited for months to hear his favourite song. “With every song, I imagined how I’d shoot it. What’d Helen do if I were doing that song?” Finally, when he got to make his first film, Khamoshi: The Musical in 1996, it was all about music as the chief cause of both tragedy and joy. (Were Parichay and Koshish an influence?) The danseuse Helen, of whom Bhansali was a fan, got carefree moments of abandon and freedom in Khamoshi as a musically-inclined grandmother. In one curiously whimsical scene, the Goan family grieve the parting of a much-loved piano and Bhansali, the poet of music, spins an elaborate fantasy-like song around it as if he’s celebrating music’s death with the mourners dancing their way to the graveyard.
A small and personal film, Khamoshi’s box-office failure shattered him. Talking to The Hindustan Times, he recalled that painful Friday of 1996, “My producer said, ‘Baith gayi,’ and I said, ‘Kaun baith gayi?’ He told me, ‘Picture baith gayi.’ After that, till date, I don’t answer the phone after my film releases on Fridays.” From his second film onwards – the Salman Khan-Ajay Devgn-Aishwarya Rai starrer Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam – he shifted to a bigger canvas. One can’t help but wonder what sort of films Bhansali would have made if Khamoshi had been a commercial success.
Given his passion for music, that Bhansali (who started his career shooting songs for Vidhu Vinod Chopra) would turn composer was a forgone conclusion. The question was never ‘if’, but ‘when.’ He finally made his debut as a musician in Guzaarish after which he produced soundtracks for both Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani. Music aside, there’s a strong argument to be made in the favour of Bhansali as an auteur. Despite the trademark SLB grandeur, much of his cinema is guided by personal stories – whether it is the grandmother’s character in Khamoshi, the music gharana of HDDCS, the courtesan of Devdas, the subconscious influence of FTII, K. Asif, Amitabh Bachchan and Guru Dutt, the recurring theme of illnesses, blindness or deafness (Khamoshi, Black, Guzaarish) or the reflections of music, Bhansali turns to the self for inner myths and mysteries. Black is his only film sans songs.
There’s much to admire in Bhansali as a filmmaker and music-maker. Through him, for one, the tradition of Bollywood music is alive and kicking. There’s something lunatic and exciting about the way Bhansali goes about filmmaking. Where you see decoration, the director sees details he has so lovingly crafted. He’s a director of the big scale, heroic spectacle and visual poetry but if you look closely you might find shreds of autobiography. Filmmakers like him don’t make films to nourish your mind – but to blow it.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)