Maverick filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali is perhaps the only director from Bollywood to be invited to Paris' prestigious Theatre du Chatelet to direct an opera. He is overwhelmed by the experience but admits facing a language problem.
Excerpts from an interview
How did it feel to represent India on a stage as prestigious as the Theatre du Chatelet?
It still hasn't sunk in fully. But, yes, I've been able to put on stage whatever I had visualised. I was working with an international cast and team from different countries. And I got their full cooperation. I had my own wonderful team from India - Tanushree Shankar's choreography, Rajesh Pratap Singh's costumes and Omang Kumar's art design. I feel the level of commitment that I found in my team in Paris was exemplary.
I was completely bowled over by the experience. I felt so proud to stand over there representing the country and the film industry in such an unusual capacity. Not once did those seasoned opera artistes make me feel I was new to the vocation.
Yes, there was an initial communication problem and I was sometimes exasperated by the French language. What we say in three words in Hindi takes three sentences in French. Sometimes at the start I felt like saying, 'Can we get along with the show?' We soon got comfortable with one another. It became a wonderful exchange of ideas.
Strangely you had never been to an opera before?
Yes, that is right. But I feel you need to connect instinctively with music to understand the opera. For me, the starting point for all my creativity is music. Even after doing Padmavati, I don't fully understand the opera. I got the actors to use the space on stage and to perform the way I intuitively thought right.
I didn't need to be a maestro and know the ins and outs of the opera. As long as I understood the soul of Padmavati, I was happy. My music conductor, Lawrence Foster, told me I was able to express dramatically the feeling in the music. All the movements just fell into place. This is my only work where I feel no changes can be made.
Don't you feel the same about your films?
Of course, I'm much closer to filmmaking, but I always feel there is room to improve in my cinema. I was seduced by the thought of doing an opera. I'm told my films are operatic in mood. I do what comes spontaneously to my heart.
The director of the Theatre du Chatelet, Jean-Luc Chopin, told me there's a lot of opera in Devdas, Black and Saawariya. I can understand the whole operatic tradition of singing emotions. In that sense, V. Shantaram has always been a huge influence right from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Even Black was in the same league as Shantaramji's cinema. I love his colours, vibrancy and theatricality. My cinema is also a little theatrical.
The reviews for Padmavati in the international press have been glowing.
More than the reviews I feel gratified by the connection I made with the local people. I feel there's a close connection between France and me. Devdas is a cult film in Paris.
During the opera I one day went to buy bread. The lady at the counter asked me if I was Indian and if I had seen Devdas. She called it a very good film. That felt good. My French assistant was amazed. So many people told me in Paris Saawariya was so beautiful. I think the French understand my style. French audiences are very hard to please. They can boo you off stage if they don't like your work. But here at the opera they stood and clapped and shouted, 'Bravo, Encore!' I think I'm specially connected with France.
The Theatre du Chatelet wants you back?
Yes, I'm seduced by the idea of performing for a live audience. That excitement of getting all the energies right, the stress and tension of going live is intoxicating. And when it works out right the satisfaction is immense.