He is one of the most-celebrated film-makers in Bollywood, who is known for his larger-than-life cinema. But a free-flowing chat with Sanjay Leela Bhansali at his quaint office in Juhu, gives a sneak peek into the fact that the 52-year-old film-maker’s inspirations and influences have been simple, and as diverse as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (late Hindustani classical vocalist) and Dada Kondke (late Marathi actor-producer). Here, he talks about his “claustrophobic” childhood, the criticism he’s faced, and more.
Did you have any particular plan in mind when you entered the film industry?
I wanted to be a director maybe because of the atmosphere at home [while I was growing up]. When my father’s (Navin Bhansali; producer) friends’ films would wrap up, trunks filled with costumes and make-up would come home. One day, my father took me to his friend’s shoot. A cabaret was being shot there. I was seduced at a very young age by what cinema can do; I was mesmerised. I realised that I wanted to be in the studio. A lot of it also comes with the angst that my father could not achieve the kind of success he wanted. I never knew what kind of films would I make or I am supposed to make. What I got as legacy was a poster of the film, Jahaji Lootera (1958), which was produced by my father.
What kind of a childhood did you have?
It was claustrophobic. I lived in a small house because of our circumstances, and where we lived, we were not allowed to go out and play too much. I was always a flaky child. When my cousins would come home, I wouldn’t interact with them. My mind was never into school, and education did not matter to me. Right from childhood, I would come back from school and listen to the radio. I was waiting to be part of that world. I was told, “Look how the film world has brought us so many problems and financial stress. Today, we are in the lower-middle class strata; we should stay away from films.” So, one part of me kept hearing that; the other part was dreaming cinema. I wanted to be in the world where Helen (actor) was dancing and Dilip Kumar (actor) was saying his dialogue. I still go to my old Bhuleshwar house, to smell the air there, and to see the rickety window. My childhood wasn’t about playing; it was about the fight to survive, only to be able to make films. I knew in the second standard that I have to be a director.
You are often criticised for being an indulgent film-maker. Does that affect you in any way?
If you put pressure on me, I will never succumb to it. I was devastated when Saawariya (2007) didn’t do well at the box office, not because of the numbers, but because of the kind of response [it garnered], and the language that was used [in the reviews]. I still went ahead and made Guzaarish (2010), which didn’t have Hrithik (Roshan; actor) dancing and Aishwarya (Rai Bchchan; actor) romancing him in the mainstream style. I was told, “It’s again suicidal.” And I said, “I don’t care. This is the film I want to make.” I am not afraid of criticism. But at that time, I thought the criticism was biased. People question my budget a lot, but I know that I need to make my Taj Mahals. If Shah Jahan (Mughal emperor) made the monument out of love and for love, then every film that I make is for my love [for cinema]. I don’t want a fancy office in a glass building. I would rather put all of that into my films.
Watch: Trailer of Bajirao Mastani
You are known to be a short-tempered person…
I don’t know where this came from. It’s a myth. Every director, actor and even producer gets angry on the sets. Why am I the only one being singled out for losing my cool or being talked about vis-à-vis my anger? Do you think actors or technicians would work with me if I was losing my cool and throwing things [at them]? People have the impression that I am brooding, dark and intense. Of course, there have been instances and angry moments. But get me three directors who have never gotten angry. Some people express it, and some don’t.
You have lived in places like Bhuleshwar and Bhindi Bazaar, and faced a difficult childhood. Still your films are very artistic…
My father would make me listen to Roshan Ara Begum (late Hindustani classical singer) in the chawls of Bhuleshwar. He was crazy about Bade Ghulam Ali saab. But at night, people also played Koliwada songs after drinking in the chawl. My father explained Dada Kondke’s works to me. To watch Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Chor Machaye Shor (1974) almost simultaneously, and the ability to have that range, to understand what Indian cinema is, is what helped me. I was an evolved child, and knew a lot of things way ahead of my time. I have not gone to a theatre or a restaurant in the past two years. I am not popular socially. I am uncomfortable around people. It (making films) has come through with so much grind and difficultly that for me, it is sacred. For me, the only way that I can get closest to God is when I am shooting.
You had a difficult childhood, partially due to your father’s struggles in the film industry. What was your mother’s reaction when you decided to become a director?
It was never questioned. It was my father’s unachieved dream that I make a film. She knew why I was shown Mughal-e-Azam (1960) 18 times. She knew exactly what he was trying to say. My interest in music and dance comes from my mother. It was very clear that failure did not matter. It had stayed in our house, and it was something that nobody was scared of. She was happy that I was making a film. They may not have wanted me to be at the Film and Television Institute of India to start with, but, deep inside, I was fulfilling my father’s dream.
What is your film-making process like?
My film-making process is like the life of fakirs. I need simplicity, and my mother’s ghar ka khaana (home-made food). I work quietly in my office. There are no frills. I still write with a pen, on paper. I don’t need to go to Khandala, Delhi or Shimla. I am not used to running away from anything in life. I write mostly from home. There’s no hard and fast rule to making a film. It’s just one of those days, when you write like you breathe, eat and talk. What’s the need to romanticise film writing so much?
Did you develop angst against this industry, because of the losses your father faced as a producer?
I am uncomfortable with the industry because of that. Therefore, I am an uncomfortable film-maker for other directors, contemporaries, actors and others. The discomfort is set into the body, and that cannot change. Awkwardness is part of being me. It comes out of the unexpressed anger. Thank God that I didn’t express it earlier, because now, I can do it through my work.
Shah Rukh (Khan) has categorically told me, ‘Your films are emotionally violent.’ They have no action, but there is a lot of emotional violence. My cinema is about finding strength in the most difficult moments. My stories can never be complete; I don’t like completeness. My father’s incomplete story keeps me going. If he was a producer and a fulfilled film-maker, I would not have had this madness.
Was it an uphill task for you to make your first film?
Of course. I was in FTII; I was the quietest guy. Rajkumar Hirani and Sriram Raghavan (now film-makers) were my seniors. And, I have never said anything beyond a ‘hello’ to them. I was quite a good student, but I was the first one to be thrown out. I was devastated. So, I told myself, “I will make a film before any of these people make one (laughs).” Then I started all over again, until my sister, Bela, took me to Vinod Chopra. She was working with him in Parinda (1989). Vinod made me shoot a song for the film, but when it came out, at Regal Cinema, people left the theatre. So, I took one more oath — in my next film, when I do songs, not a soul will get up and leave. So, when 1942: A Love Story (1994) released, no one got up. I worked for six years with Vinod Chopra. Then I wrote Khamoshi (1996), and told Vinod to make it. But he said, ‘It is very interesting, but you make it.’ I also worked on Bharat Ek Khoj with Shyam Benegal (film-maker), and learnt a great deal. The struggle to make my first film was a long one. I remember, when Khamoshi flopped, 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 (laughs).
You are not seen at many parties and events. Why?
I am the outsider, and I will remain one. I am slightly uncomfortable with people. Even if I love them, I don’t know how to express it to them. I have realised that one should just stay quiet, and do one’s work. My reactions are very honest, but they aren’t always necessarily friendly. So, I stay away.
Why did you take 12 years to make your next film?
If you can wait for 33 years to get your first shot in place, then you can do wait for 12 years to make your dream film. It has taken me 12 years to make Bajirao Mastani, as it was in my destiny, and it had to take that much time. Maybe, my hair had to turn grey, and I had to become wiser. Every film has its own destiny, and so, this had to be born in 2015. I have made this film with such joy and love. I have nurtured it.
Do you watch other directors’ films?
Not for what’s working and what’s not. These are trivial reasons to watch a film. When I saw Ship of Theseus (2012), I was blown away. I was like, “Iske director ko bulaao (Call the director of this film). I am insecure, and want to I stab him (laughs) before he makes another film.” He generated jealousy in me. I also watched Piku. Then, I cursed Shoojit (Sircar), saying, “Iski buddhi bhrast ho jaaye (I hope he loses his mind).’ He is a good film-maker.
Bhansali on enmity with anyone
I talk to Shah Rukh as well as Salman Khan. I met SRK the other day at Amitji’s (Amitabh Bachchan) party, and we hugged and chatted. Of all the actors that I have worked with, I have met Shah Rukh the most. I am not here to be enemies with anyone. I have great respect for him. His next film (a Rohit Shetty directorial) is different, and so is mine. They should both do well in today’s times, when there are so many screens. Why are we making an election campaign with these films, wondering which party will win? This isn’t politics, or a sport. SRK is a huge star, a great person and a wonderful friend. I don’t have reasons to spoil relationships with people. I enjoy my conversations with him. I am very fond of him.
Bhansali on loving his actors
I love all of them, as they create all those characters that mean a lot to me. I have been blessed to have them. I have nothing, but good words for them, and gratitude towards them. But I don’t want to limit or condition myself to relationships. I don’t even expect my actors to believe that I will cast them again, just because we are friends. If they have good or bad things to say about me, it’s all fine. I love them, though they don’t have to love me. Maybe, I am not a very loveable person.