The music of Padmaavat director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinematic world

For a man whose childhood was spent listening to radio and whose first major assignment as a filmmaker was to be a “song director” on 1942: A Love Story, it is hardly surprising that music dominates Bhansali’s cinema – and life.

Written by Shaikh Ayaz | Mumbai | Published: January 25, 2018 9:24:27 am
sanjay leela bhansali music Sanjay Leela Bhansali started off his career as a song director.

In media interviews, which he grants ever so rarely, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has always emphasised his undying love for Hindi film music. The director (some call him auteur, and deservedly so) of the much-hyped Padmaavat that releases this week was quoted in one interaction as saying that whenever he feels low he turns to the comforting world of old Bollywood songs and life seems fine all over again. A self-confessed Lata Mangeshkar fan, he recently said that it was Lata’s divine voice that gave him the strength to tide over Padmaavat’s endless controversies, death threats, isolation and victimisation! Bhansali has “learnt filmmaking by listening to the emotions in Lataji’s voice,” one Web site report about a possible collaboration between the two once declared. Bhansali who started out in 1994 as a song director on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942: A Love Story said in a recent interview that he imbibed music while “sitting at the feet” of the legendary RD Burman. 1942: A Love Story was Burman’s last big score and was an instant hit but the music maestro was not alive to see its success. When Burman died, Bhansali was believed to be listening to a song from Kati Patang, one of Pancham’s classic scores.

Listen to a few of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s best tracks: 

From all these anecdotes, the picture that emerges is of a man who lives music and lives for music and there’s little disputing Bhansali’s personal care and attention in that department and the vital importance he accords music in his films. Music is the backbone of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema and you frequently get the impression that he conceives a film on the basis of songs. What came first, chicken or the egg, is a question that has baffled us for centuries but in Bhansali’s case, we do know that the songs come first, before the film. In fact, he sometimes shoots even scenes like a song. Take Devdas’ climax in which the camera tracks Aishwarya Rai, clad in a Bengali sari, running inconsolably towards her dying Deva. Or, the jhumar scene between Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, in which Bhansali uses the chandelier as a character than a mere prop to craft one of Bollywood’s most popular romantic scenes. The lyricism of these scenes and many more remind you of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and K. Asif and other filmmakers of the Golden Age who revealed an innate understanding of the finer nuances of music and the art of using songs to not simply advance the story but often, to tell the story itself.

Padmaavat songs:

What else can you expect from a filmmaker whose childhood had been shaped by music? Radio, the filmmaker has pointed out, was his boyhood obsession and an escape. The boy from Bhuleshwar was perhaps destined to follow in his parents’ footsteps, his father being a film producer and mother, a dancer. When Bhansali who was strictly kept away from films after the family suffered financial blows prompted by his father’s dipping fortunes in the show business, resolved to fill in Bhansali Senior’s shoes, his first major assignment came in the way of songs. It was Bhansali who shot the songs for 1942: A Love Story and his own directorial debut became Khamoshi: The Musical, a heartfelt and personal film that conjures up the connections between the voice of music and the sound of silence. “As long as your heart beats music is alive,” as the grandmother played by Helen (a Bhansali favourite, she returns as Salman Khan’s mother in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) observes to a young Annie (Manisha Koirala), underlining that film’s central message. A piano, Annie’s favourite “friend,” becomes an excuse for a bittersweet song set in Goa’s coastal landscape.

Khamoshi Jukebox:

Bhansali’s second film, the multi-starrer Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, was definitely grander – a far cry from the small and intimate Khamoshi: The Musical. Both films, however, have autobiographical strains. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s soundtrack must be a personal triumph for Bhansali, who as a Gujarati, borrows from folk influences. For example, Dheel De De Re, set around the famous kite flying festival celebrated across Gujarat and Dholi Taro while Nimbooda reveals influences of Rajasthani folk. The ‘chhail chhabeelo’ (from Lambo Daglo) refrain of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is carried forward in Saawariya in a hat-tipping twist by Rani Mukerji. As Bhansali’s films started becoming larger-than-life, so did his music to match his impossibly high ambition and dreams. In Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Bhansali returned to his Gujarati and Marwari roots, with the filmmaker in fine folkish form with Bhai Bhai, Mor Bani Thanghat Kare and Nagada Dhol. The filmmaker seems to have a soft spot for the ‘dhol’ as an instrument.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam Album:

Having said that, there’s much in Bhansali’s cinema that feels secular and inclusive. But it all stems from the regional. In Khamoshi: The Musical and Guzaarish, the characters are Christian whereas Bajirao-Mastani is equal parts Marathi and Muslim in its ethos. In Guzaarish, Aditya Roy Kapur plays a Muslim magician and RK’s object of affection in Saawariya is a Muslim, too. So, you get an Eid song (Yoon Shabnami) majestically conceived, shot and choreographed on Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, just as you have Chand Chhupa (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) on Karvachauth, Dola Re (Devdas) on Durga Puja and Lahu Munh (Ram Leela) on Holi.

Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela songs:

Is there any other Bollywood filmmaker who celebrates India’s diversity and uses our colourful festivals with such visual aplomb than Bhansali? Though he isn’t a trained musician it wasn’t surprising to see the Padmaavat maker turn music director with Guzaarish. The operatic influence on his music has been evident since Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (the liberal use of violin, dhol and ballads matching the orate havelis) but now, with Padmaavat as another case in point, his soundtrack seems to be going even more theatrical. Time will tell if his compositions are at par with his filmmaking skills, but so far, the Bhansali-composed tunes have received strictly mixed signals.

Bajirao Mastani songs:

Interestingly, Black is his only film with just one song. It must have been difficult for Sanjay Leela Bhansali, ever the music maven, to make a film with just one song. But then, Black compensated for its song-less existence with an overwhelming background score and pervasive lyricism.

(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)

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