There couldn’t be a more apt name for the building Sanjay Leela Bhansali calls home: Magnum Opus. The Latin phrase that translates as ‘great work’ is used to describe larger-than-life epics, and for nearly two decades now, that has been the phrase used to describe Bhansali’s films.
It’s been four months since Bajirao Mastani released – the stunning love story of the Peshwa warrior Bajirao I and his second wife Mastani. Here is some more math: Bhansali had been trying to make the film for 12 years. He managed on the third attempt. After that, it took him a year to make the film, with his team working 20 hours a day. Bajirao Mastani cost Rs 140 crore and earned Rs 357 crore. It won seven National Awards.
So you expect to meet Bhansali glowing with satisfaction. Instead, he looks more tired than ever. “We worked like absolute mazdoor class – how else do you make a film of this scale in a year?” he says, as we settle down at the dining table. To his back is a small balcony, and across the balcony is the sea. “I worked so hard even after the release that I’ve fallen sick.”
Hard work is a recurrent theme in this conversation – it is the answer Bhansali resorts to with nearly every question. “I shoot like I’m never going to take another shot after that. Every centimetre, every millimetre of that screen frame matters to me.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bhansali’s career as a filmmaker. In 1996, his directorial debut film Khamoshi, although critically acclaimed, flopped. “So I shifted gear and did Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).” This is the film that is now considered the prototype of the Bhansali school of filmmaking: opulent backdrops, rich costumes and a story filled with longing – presented like high art to mainstream audiences.
“When I’m making a Bajirao, I know it’s going to be grand. But Ram-Leela was also grand. And Black was also grand,” says Bhansali, unable to explain his grandiosity. After Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas, when Bhansali first ventured to make Bajirao Mastani, Salman Khan, who was supposed to play the lead, had date issues.
“So I thought I’d make a small film – but Black became big. Maybe that’s my perspective on life. Maybe it’s what I see through the camera. Maybe because I grew up in a small house, I’ve always wanted things large.”
But could he make small budgets look grand? Can anyone? “You need to have a budget. People accuse me of wasting money. But you must know how to appreciate fine things. There are so many art forms that come together in a film – theatre, dance, music, painting, poetry – how do you put them all together to create a cinematic experience?”
I willed all of this
Sanjay Leela Bhansali grew up in a small one-room house in Bhuleshwar, Mumbai. “It’s a fear I grew up with: that the walls are going to fall, am I going to fall? I’m sitting across that aunt who’s sitting on that balcony, is that balcony going to fall? We were all at the edge of existence.”
Bhansali’s father Navin was a failed producer, an alcoholic who lost all his money. In earlier interviews, he’d spoken about creditors knocking on the door, and how his family hid under the bed. Leela, Bhansali’s mother (whose name he has adopted as his middle name) raised the children almost single-handedly. She scraped up enough money, insisted they were educated at English-medium schools.
“But I never could pay much attention in school. I was in a la-la-land. I never liked being told what to do, so even in school plays, I never liked being an actor,” he says. After school, young Sanjay would come home, turn on the radio and “my mind would picturise the songs. I naturally understood a film space.”
He was barely eight or nine when his father took him to a film set where a cabaret was being shot: a girl was eating an apple, a semi-clad girl with horns on her head was jumping on a semi-clad man. This was the moment he learned his calling. “This was the place I was destined to be… I knew I’d be making films that nobody had made, that would be way bigger than I could think of.”
Many well-known people have said the same thing: that even as children with seemingly average or even bleak futures, they felt as though they’d make it big. Oprah Winfrey said she knew she was “destined for greatness”, Dan Brown had epiphanies of himself on stage, and closer home, Sabyasachi Mukherjee knew he was going to be “India’s most successful designer”.
“You’re asking me how could I ever know that I would be here?” says Bhansali. “I was a middle class boy in a chawl in Bhuleshwar. I willed this.”
I didn’t get love – so neither do my characters
Bhansali’s work is autobiographical in many ways: the alcoholic Devdas was inspired by his father; Seema Biswas’s door-to-door salesmanship in Khamoshi was inspired by his mother; the fact that love in his films is nearly always (for at least one person) unrequited, or unfulfilled, or unfinished is from his own life.
“I fell in love, and I never fell out of it. Therefore what I did not get, my characters also don’t get in my films, so… they always have to part in the end. That will always remain one of the recurring motifs in my films.” He bangs the table for emphasis.
If audiences understand my films, I’ll make Rs 500 crore
In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (and in Ram-Leela), Bhansali showcased Gujarati culture (he is Gujarati). In Devdas, he portrayed Calcutta (because that is where the novel is set). Bajirao is a display of the culture of the Marathi Peshwas. Khamoshi was set in Catholic Goa. But none of this has been conscious, he says. “People say, arre aapne woh film toh Gujarat mein banai thi, then you went to Calcutta. Arre yaar. I’m only doing what comes to my heart. I’m not designing trilogies. I’m not designing culture shows,” he says. Ask him about his method – his daily working routine – and he’ll tell you it’s all a “vision”, that he is unaware of the “creative process”– almost as if films just somehow make themselves. It is a lot of hard work, he says, but finds it impossible to describe just how hard it is, or what the work entails.
He doesn’t like to talk about his life anymore “because I don’t have much of a life. And when I did, I succumbed to talking about it a few times and did not like it.” But if you do want to get to know him, he says, “I reveal myself in my movies. I take up only those stories, which are able to express a part of myself that is still lingering and not expressed.”
But isn’t the whole point of art that the viewers should be able to see themselves in it, not the creator? No, he says. “The day my audiences fully understand my work, I’ll make Rs 500 crore.”
I work like a dog, I do not know how to use a computer
“You have to present yourself, sell yourself. You have to find your own people who get their own people who together form a clique and try to achieve something together,” he says. At this point in the conversation, Bhansali finally seems comfortable, he’s talking about the way Bollywood works. But within a microsecond, the spell has broken: he catches himself just in time, and emphatically declares, “I’ve never formed a clique. I was an outsider, and I have remained an outsider.”
This is a strange response from a man who has spent more time in Bollywood than out of it. At 53, Bhansali has been part of the film industry for about three decades. He has worked with “almost everyone” (“except Aamir, because he has a different school of thought”).
He tries to explain again, but we’re back to talking about how hard he works. “Despite never having to sell myself, I reach out to people because they are good artists and they reach out to me because they respect me. I’ve been comfortable with my relationships in the industry because I work like a dog. I work like no one works in the industry, the hardest.”
But perhaps he wouldn’t know if others did work harder. Bhansali doesn’t like watching other Bollywood films. “I get jealous. A good story told well upsets me. I was very upset with Shoojit Sircar when I watched Piku. I called up Deepika and I said, I hope his mind stops working! I’m upset with Juhi [Chaturvedi] for having written it.”
What Bhansali is known for is being a hard taskmaster. In an interview with Bhansali, film critic Rajeev Masand mentioned stories about mobile phones being smashed if they rang during the shoot, for instance. Bhansali admits he is now more difficult to work with than ever. When you’re making a film, he says, “You’re imprinting something for a lifetime. If you don’t understand the importance of that moment, you shouldn’t be on my set.”
When Bhansali writes, he refuses to go out of the house till he has finished. “I don’t know how to use a computer – to switch on the laptop. Email, Facebook and Twitter – I don’t understand any of it, and I’m not interested also.”
Aishwarya was my muse. Deepika is getting there
Twelve years ago, Bajirao was supposed to be played by Salman Khan, Mastani by Aishwarya Rai, and Kashi by Rani Mukerji. Then the potential cast changed to Salman and Kareena Kapoor, but that didn’t work out either.
Apparently, the original idea was shelved after the very public Salman-Aishwarya break-up. Then, Bhansali himself shelved the film when Salman and Kareena signed on Kyon Ki (2005) because he wanted to introduce the pair first.
It’s a better film now than it would have been then, he says. “I’m subtler today. I find more in silences. Ten years ago, there were dramatic outbursts. In Devdas, for instance, the scene where Devdas is arriving goes like this: Devdas is arriving, Devdas is arriving, Devdas is arriving, Devdas is arriving. There were four scenes of ‘Devdas is arriving’. Now, I would finish it in one scene.”
It’s the job of a filmmaker – “to change a film according to the times, even if it is a historical film.” But, a large part of the Bajirao script remained as it is. “When Rani Mukerji was supposed to play Kashi, she’d keep coming to Prakash bhai [Prakash R Kapadia, who wrote the film] and say, ‘achha ab Kashi ke scenes padhiye aap’. Those were beautifully written.”
In 2007, Deepika Padukone’s debut Om Shanti Om was pitched against Sonam and Ranbir Kapoor’s debut Saawariya – both released on the same day. Om Shanti Om became a runaway hit, Saawariya became the butt of jokes at every film award show. So when Padukone began her career, she began it in the ‘other camp’.
“Deepika came to audition for Saawariy a, and she said, ‘you let me know and I’ll choose right now’. But by then I’d finalised Sonam who I love immensely also.”
They got to work together only when Kareena Kapoor walked out of Ram-Leela. “The set was made already, and it was shocking: her exit 10 days before shooting,” says Bhansali. “So, I went to Deepika. She was unwell and she had fever, and she was beautiful. The neck was so long and those watery gorgeous eyes! I thought, what is this girl all about?”
This is in many ways how Bhansali once talked about Aishwarya. “One has done three films with me, one has done two films with me. But both are beautiful, both are from Mangalore, both are wonderful girls, both are my friends…” he ticks off all the diplomatic boxes in the Aishwarya-Deepika checklist.
“Aishwarya was my muse. I could look at her and she would understand what I’m saying. Deepika has really evolved as an actor. What she’s given me, I don’t think anybody else will. Mastani was too special.”
I’m pursuing modern love
All of Bhansali’s films are anachronistic love stories, about a kind of love that no longer exists. But what about modern love?
“Love is timeless,” he says grandly. “Sure, now the changeover is faster. It’s not just about loving a person, it’s about loving yourself and so many things… but abhi bhi gile shikwe hote hain…”
And this – modern love – is what’s keeping Bhansali occupied: “That’s precisely what I’m pursuing, to change gears, and create a newer way of telling a story.”
First Things on SLB’s Mind
* One actress you haven’t worked with but would like to... Two: Vidya Balan and Alia Bhatt
* One actor you haven’t worked with but would like to...
Two again! Irrfan Khan and Naseeruddin Shah
* A yesteryear actor you’d like to direct: Sanjeev Kumar, if he were alive
* A Hollywood classic you’d like to remake: Citizen Kane
* Ranveer Singh’s biggest strength: He understands nuances
* And his biggest weakness: He’s too energetic
* Your biggest insecurity as a filmmaker: To get my shot right.
* On set, one thing that makes you really mad: Incompetence or indifference
* Also on set, one thing that makes you really happy: Peanuts, and my bowl of channa. If those are there, I’m very happy.
Photographs shot exclusively for HT Brunch by Prabhat Shetty
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From HT Brunch, April 17, 2016
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