Sanjay Leela Bhansali Talks Padmaavat Trauma, Devdas Cannes Triumph as he Reflects on a 25-Year Career (EXCLUSIVE)
Indian film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has seen it all – from being physically attacked on the sets of “Padmaavat” to walking the red carpet at a triumphant Cannes screening of “Devdas” – in his 25 years of filmmaking.
A graduate of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune, Bhansali equally consumed the oeuvre of Tarkovsky, Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart.” While he could not fathom the Russian auteur’s work in its entirety, “something about how a visual works on the soul of the audience if it’s receiving correctly, and the power of the images, is what I imbibed more than anything else,” Bhansali told Variety.
These days, striking imagery and grand storytelling is what Bhansali is best known for.
He made his mark choreographing the songs of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “1942: A Love Story” (1994), starring Anil Kapoor and Manisha Koirala, where he achieved his ambition of working with one of India’s all-time great composers Rahul Dev Burman, in what would prove to be one of his final works.
The “1942” song visuals got Bhansali noticed and he soon received a call from Universal Music’s Polygram Filmed Entertainment enquiring if he had a script. Bhansali did have one, typed on Chopra’s office computer from dawn until work opening hours every morning. The result, “Khamoshi: The Musical” (1996) was Bhansali’s directorial debut. The film follows the daughter of deaf-mute parents who seeks their understanding when she discovers a love for music, and boasted a star cast of Salman Khan, Nana Patekar, Seema Biswas and Koirala.
Despite winning acclaim, “Khamoshi” was not a box office success. Around that time Bhansali was pitched Maitreyi Devi’s 1974 novel “Na Hanyate,” which he loosely adapted as “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” (1999). The musical love triangle, featuring Aishwarya Rai, Salman Khan and Ajay Devgn, featured what would become Bhansali’s signature style of lavish visuals, high melodrama and soaring music and was a major critical and commercial hit.
Bhansali’s next film was “Devdas” in 2002, another love triangle, this time based on an oft-adapted classic of Indian literature, featuring Rai, Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit. Khan plays the titular character, a tragic romantic alcoholic.
“This was a tribute to my father and his love for alcohol, and it’s a tribute to that half-consumed liquor bottle in my mother’s cupboard,” said Bhansali. “When I made that as lavishly as I could, I was quite mad. Actually, I went completely out of control.” The budget spiraled from $6.5 million to $18.5 million, making it the most expensive Indian film of that time. The film screened out of competition at Cannes.
“The experience was fantastic. I was being thrown into this lavish world where you see stars walking the red carpet, and you’re walking with them,” Bhansali said about Cannes. “It’s a three hour film without an interval. I was so worried, as I was wondering what would happen would people see such a long film? But I think it was fabulous, it went very well. It’s a memory that I will cherish all my life.”
This was the first time many Western audience members were exposed to mainstream Bollywood and they were struck by the sheer opulence of the enterprise. “Devdas” scored a BAFTA nomination and won numerous Indian awards.
Bhansali won acclaim with “Black” (2005), the tale of a young woman who can’t see, speak or hear and the teacher who brings a ray of light into her world, starring Rani Mukherji and Amitabh Bachchan. Bhansali also won plaudits for epic historical “Bajirao Mastani” in 2015. However, his “Padmaavat” another historical movie, based on a fictitious poem, drew the ire of fringe groups who claimed that the 2018 film was based on a real life Hindu queen whose memory the film apparently disrespected by suggesting a romance with a Muslim king. The film’s sets were vandalized, there were sporadic cases of arson, and a politician offered a bounty of $1.5 million for the decapitation of lead actor Deepika Padukone.
“It’s very traumatic, because when you make a film there is no intention of wanting to harm anybody, or there’s no intention of what they’re accusing,” said Bhansali. “There was a constant threat because I shot ‘Padmaavat’ with 50 cops surrounding the set and I’m shooting inside or there were big cop vans following me everywhere, you’re constantly living in fear. There was a physical attack on me in Jaipur.”
“But having said that, when I go to the floor, and I’m shooting, I forget about everything, I get so lost in what I’m doing, and I do it with so much commitment and hard work,” Bhansali said.
Next up for Bhansali is “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” starring Alia Bhatt as the leader of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district, based on a chapter in S. Hussain Zaidi’s book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai.” The filmmaker describes it as his most personal work to date as he lived next door to the area for 30 years. “I know that place in and out. I know the people. I know the smell. I know the way they look. The way they talk. The way they think,” said Bhansali.
The film is completed and Bhansali is waiting for cinemas to fully reopen after the pandemic to release it. And after that, the filmmaker journeys back in time to another red light area, this time in Lahore, for Netflix series “Heeramandi.”
“I’ve gone through it all, and when I look back at it’s tiring, it has affected me over the years, but I still continue to make films, I love making films. Too much,” said Bhansali. “I love it so much that I don’t care what happens to me, it’s important to keep making it. Say what you have to say and finish saying it before it’s too late.”
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