By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Mumbai, Feb 20 (IANS) As accolades
pour in from every corner for the exemplary "Black", director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is on top of the world.
"I feel like singing 'Aaj main oopar...' that Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote for my 'Khamoshi'. I feel my convictions as a
filmmaker have paid off," Bhansali declares in an interview to IANS.
It had been a challenge, a journey against popular beliefs, an experiment once again, for the director who's always dared
to tread the untaken path. "Black", he says, was his most fearless film, and now it has all paid off.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Why did the trade pundits declare "Black" a non-starter?
A: They're still living in the 1980's and 90's. They must change with the times. If you use the power of the pen to
deprive cinema of the cyclic change that's inevitable and imperative, then you're doing society a great disservice. I've had
audiences telling me, "Thank God there're no songs and dances in 'Black'." That doesn't mean they're rejecting the formula.
They're just in pace with the changing requirements of every genre in cinema.
"Black" has created an impact in every social strata. I've never seen such love for my work before. They're mobbing me! I
feel my convictions as a filmmaker have paid off. The film wasn't about finances, it was about feelings. I felt the entire
industry came to the premiere to support me. They wanted the film to succeed as much as I did. I now believe the industry
does want a good product to succeed.
Amitabh Bachchan, Rani and I have been flooded with praise. It's overwhelming. They're calling Amitabh Bachchan god and Rani Mukherjee, the ultimate actress we have today. Little Ayesha Kapoor and Shernaz Patel too - it's so reassuring that our hard work has paid off.
I feel like singing "Aaj main oopar..." that Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote for my Khamoshi.
Q: No one thought a film about a deaf-and-blind girl would create such a roaring impact. Isn't it?
A: Why do we undermine the audience's intelligence? It started when the star system came on, when some filmmakers decided,
"If we've a big star in the film we don't need to work hard". I think the star system brought in a kind of complacency.
Recently sleaziness also has crept in. The content had almost gone from our films. I decided to go completely by content
in "Black", against the genre of my last two films "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam" and "Devdas'. Those films had worked.
I was worried about moving away. I never doubted the audience's intelligence and aesthetic sense, but in "Black" the theme
of the relationship between a teacher and his pupil was exceptionally "commercially non-viable". No exposure, no flesh, no
shaadi-baraat, no bhaiyya-bhabhi.
Every box office norm was broken and Amitabh Bachchan at this stage in his career has done his most unconventional role.
At the peak of her career, Rani has done a de-glamorised role that requires her to go from teens to the age of 40.
I think this kind of rule-breaking required a lot of guts. But I always believed god, mother and my audience were with me.
I always knew the audience would go for a well-told story.
As a child I always liked to hear new stories. And the way our grandmother told them made all the difference.
The intelligence that Raj Kapoor, K. Asif, Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray or Ritwick Ghatak granted their audience was exemplary.
I'd like to strive for the same. Why did we start questioning the audiences' intelligence and aesthetic sense in the
mid-1970s and 1980s?
Q: The power that you command among the audience gives you the freedom to do practically anything.
A: Where does that power come from? I worked my way to reach there.
When my first film "Khamoshi" didn't do well, I didn't buckle under pressure.
People called it the "Razia Sultan" of the 1990's. I accepted the fact that maybe there were flaws in the film, or that it
came at the time the shaadi-baraat trend had just started.
Still, many people loved "Khamoshi". They said it was my best film. That's where my power came from.
No matter how "Khamoshi" fared, I still had the courage to take up an unconventional theme in "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam".
They said the Indian audience would never accept the theme of a husband taking his wife to her lover.
I placed the theme in the song-and-dance format. And the audience loved "Hum Dil...". I was convinced that all the things
believed about audience's tastes are hogwash.
When I was told I can't spend Rs. 500 million on a film about a lover who dies under a tree near his beloved's home
("Devdas"), I didn't bother. I put Rs. 600 million where I wanted to. Again it worked.
I was that child who loved to hear the grandmother's tale. I realized the audience too had a child in their heart that
wanted to hear a tale. I used the folk form to reach to the masses. Audiences came to see the operatic, nautanki treatment of
Now when I have the audience with me, I knew I had to reach beyond where I had already reached. I don't believe in
demanding from an audience. I believe in giving to them wholeheartedly. That is when they reciprocate your overtures.
Q: So is "Black" your least compromised work?
A: I wouldn't say the songs and dances of "Hum Dil..." and "Devdas" made them compromised. I love songs and love shooting
them too. I'm a dancer by temperament.
Songs and dances belonged to those films. They weren't part of "Black".
This time I wanted to explore a dark area of my mind and bring my vision into the light. "Black" is my most fearless
I never thought I was throwing my success away. I was renewing it with "Black". I had so much faith in what I was doing. I
couldn't possibly make what the audiences want. How would anyone know what one billion people want?
Q: But aren't you shocked by the impact of "Black"?
A: I was told it's a multiplex film, whatever that means. Emotions have no niche. Mother-son, saas-bahu, teacher-pupil,
these are bondings that can reach everywhere. Human emotions have nothing to do with schooling or economic strata.
If I strike a chord with the audience, a film is bound to work. Maybe, some people felt "Black" was too delicate a film to
hold the masses. Maybe, they thought the formula film had a better reach.
But I feel "Black" has the grace the pace and frenzy. The editor (Bela Sehgal) has worked bang-on. She has cut the footage
faster than one would, in a film of this nature.
My team-Bela, Ravi Chandran (cinematography), Oomang Kumar (art direction), Sabyasachi (costumes), Prakash Kapadia
(dialogues), have given me the inspiration to do what I did in "Black". They believed in my convictions.
Q: So you think rapid fire editing got the audience involved in Black?
A: No, it's the visual energy. If a film has the visual synergy, a director can tell any story he wants to.
My frames open very powerfully, and then they allow audiences in. I've visited theatres screening "Black". They were
glued! They were watching "Black" like any international audience, in pin-drop silence.
Because I gave respect to their intelligence, they were giving my film the dignity it deserves.
People in every part of the country are giving the film a standing ovation that's unheard of! I'm so grateful to the
Q: Why have you returned to the world of the physically challenged?
A: The conflict and the protagonists in "Khamoshi" and "Black" are different. In "Khamoshi" the protagonist had to enter
the physically impaired world of her parents. In "Black" I've gone many steps ahead to show the protagonist moving from
darkness to light.
There's a given area of creativity where I'm bound to keep moving. I'm terrified of disability. On some level we all have
to keep struggling to overcome some disability. I'm fearful of not reaching out to the world and vice versa.
I'm constantly making films about characters who have a communication problem. But Rani's journey in "Black" is very
different from Manisha's in "Khamoshi". I knew I couldn't go wrong because "Black" is a very positive film.
In spite of the dark title, I got audiences to believe that this is a story of positivity. At the end of Michelle's
struggle, audiences want to get up and clap for her. It's my greatest achievement.
I feel people who embrace both sorrow and joy in equal measures are complete human beings. Both Debraj and Michelle are
incomplete people who find wholeness in each other's unfinished lives.
I wanted to say every life needs a god even if he's cranky, loud, melodramatic, temperamental and drunk, like Debraj. I
feel a life is worth remembering only when it works for the betterment of others.
The purity of the soul is in every life. We just need to reach into it. Incidentally none of these ideas was designed in
Q: A lot of Amitabh Bachchan's and Rani's gestures and mannerisms in "Black" are yours?
A: Everything I've experienced goes into my characters. My actors are very intelligent. They observe me and imbibe what
I'm doing. This often happens without my knowledge. I've never acted out any scenes for Amitji or Rani. I'd never have the
audacity to tell Amitji how to enact a scene. But he was watching the crazy churning in my mind. I feel that for too long
now, filmmakers have depended on Bachchan's innate charm. They've seen him pulling it off from 1968 to 2005.
In "Black", he encountered a character he had never met before. He had to go into the deepest recesses of his mind and
heart to do justice to his character. He was placed in an ambience that was creative, and see how he soars. I provided Amitji
and Rani the environment, never over-instructed them. We worked out the basic body language.
Q: You've repeatedly saluted Charlie Chaplin, for instance in Rani's walk?
A: No, that was an imitation of a girl at the Helen Keller deaf and blind school. I guess it was close to the way Charlie
But yes, there're references to Chaplin in "Black". For me he's the most poignant character ever seen in cinema.
Chaplin's pursuit for goodness recurs in my films. Michelle epitomizes Chaplin's loneliness. Finally she has to walk
Q: Did you set the film in the 1950s' upper-middle class to give it an international look?
A: No no. No such design. The silences and grace of the homes in Simla lend themselves to a quiet and gentle atmosphere
that I needed to explore post-Devdas. In my next film I may need to explore another ambience and I will. I need to be
fearless every time.
I can't have the box office breathe down my neck. I live only to make films. I work 18 hours a day. I don't know what people expect from me next. But I do know about what I expect from myself.
It's important for me to move to a new level with every film. I want to always explore unfamiliar territories. Otherwise I'd be bored.
I don't know what I'll do next. But I'll launch my next film soon. I have to make films to feel alive. The idea will come to me. I can't do anything else.