There’s tremendous excitement in the air for Sanjay Leela Bhansali these days. And this time, it encompasses everything — his return after two-and-a-half years to direction; his movie, Ram-Leela, is mired in one controversy after another; and of course there’s the anxiety to present it to the audiences.
“However happy you are with it, finally it’s the film that people are going to see and judge. I am excited and dying to show this film to people” says the filmmaker.
Bhansali, who has undeniably gone through so much in overcoming his past issues, sailed through my interview with ease, but also found some of my difficult and obdurate questions to be “too tiring.” Nonetheless his responses are animated and candid.
We met at his Juhu office over evening tea. Excerpts from the interview follow.
After two unsuccessful films, is there a fear lurking somewhere now that you’re set to return after two-and-a-half years?
For a filmmaker, every film is always a test and each film has its own fate. It would be precarious and unjustifiable to let such an emotion overpower you in any way, especially after you start a project. In that case, I’ll stop making movies. And this one (Ram-Leela) has my mother’s name in it (Leela), so you know what I mean. Even if my previous two films haven’t been big hits, this one, I presume, will make its own mark because the subject, experience, actors and treatment is very new.
You have never spoken about your broken engagement with a well-known choreographer (Vaibhavi Merchant). Would you like to share anything?
There are some things in life which are beautiful and you want to retain the sanctity of that beauty. Those moments are mine. It’s important that I treat those moments with dignity as they are private moments. A relationship has to be given dignity whether you are in it or not. This is one side of my life that I will not talk about.
Sure. Are you open to love again?
How do you fall out of love in the first place? If a relationship doesn’t work, it doesn’t work for various reasons, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t love that person. If it’s not happening, it’s not happening. But how do I fall out of love? These are all personal crises that one goes through in life. That is all.
You turned 50 this year. Have you thought of settling down?
I don’t know, I can’t say. Life is so unpredictable. You don’t know where it leads you. Now I am happy with the way I am. I am comfortable. I have always done things my way. It’s a state of mind and I don’t know how to explain it to you. I feel a certain amount of incompleteness will always be there in my life. It’s a part of destiny and karma that I have decided to choose. It’s my choice and I did not want a certain lifestyle. These are all choices people make.
Certain viewers feel that you’re overly extravagant in your movies even though your subjects are simple love stories. What do you have to say to that?
I don’t understand how that affects their viewing. Yes, I spend a lot, but the money spent should be worthy of its expenditure. What you call over-indulgent is a tribute to the artistry of the artistes for me. I preserve legacy through my films — whether in music, art or great artistic works. A filmmaker should thoroughly know how to use money in creating the film.
Ram-Leela looks a lot like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).
That’s because Hum Dil… was also set in Gujarat, just like Ram-Leela is. But this one is more rustic and raw, with a lot of action. This one is full-throttle and open-hearted while Hum Dil… was more graceful and quiet. I have worked very hard on giving a different treatment to Ram-Leela. Sometimes, you might be seeing hints of Aishwarya (Rai) in Deepika (Padukone) with the Gujarati lehenga or a blouse but we have made all the efforts we could to make sure she looks completely different from Ash.
How much value do you put in money today?
Just enough so that money feels valued and respected. Nothing matters to me more than my films. If I earn a certain amount, I put it all back, including my fees in my next project. I want to be known for my films, not by my wealth. What’s the point of having a huge bungalow if you still have to go back and sleep in that little bed or eat from that small plate? So money is important as long as I get my returns.
Classics remain classics long after they have been released or their makers are dead. Do you agree? Or is a classic a popular choice?
It is very tough to answer what makes a classic. You cannot set out to make one. I think what makes a classic is the sheer genius of the person who creates that work. It can’t be recreated again. It stands the test of time and is always beautiful even after 100 years. It should still work emotionally whenever you see it. When I see Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) today, I weep and cry at the brilliance of the film, its story and music. It has to be relevant and important in today’s time and I’m not talking about social messages.
Does fame allow you to indulge in the little joys that were once a part of your life?
It doesn’t occur to me that I’m recognised or not. I can still walk around casually without being bothered. I go to the Worli Sea Face for a walk. I go shopping at malls; go down the road to the bhel wallah who is my good friend. Sometimes I carry my wallet,
sometimes I buy on credit from them. I don’t go to big hotels; I don’t have many luxury cars. But who cares?
I don’t want to lose contact with reality. I do this because I want to see real things around me and study faces. I don’t want to sit in a plush office and lose touch with the real world. My office is also not a plush director’s office. I enjoy the small things in life.
How did you take criticism when you last two movies failed?
My first film was a huge critical success but a huge box-office failure. I’ve seen failure and humiliation from the beginning. I’ve come through that space in my life. Guzaarish was a wonderful film. And Saawariya is one of my favourite works. But people’s reactions shook me to a great extent. I was hurt and angry. A lot of people went to the extent of saying that Sanjay Bhansali is over and no actor wants to work with him now. It was in the newspapers, radio and television. But then, life goes on. The best way of dealing with failure is an expression of my anger. It triggers a mad side in me. I’ve become unstoppable. I’ve seen too many struggles and hardships to take success or failure seriously.
Your anger is legendary in the industry. There are stories about you flinging phones and all that. Are they true?
People probably think I’m rude, arrogant, proud and inaccessible, but I’m nothing of those. I express myself openly and whole-heartedly. If there’s a shot I’ve set up and you walk by and drop a glass over there, I will shout at you. And that’s not to humiliate you, it’s because I care for my shot. It’s a shot we had set up. I have figured that as a filmmaker; I must clearly express all my
emotions — anger, jealousy, joy, love, happiness, greed or bitterness. And then maybe, I can tell those stories honestly through other characters and explain to them what it all means. Does expressing anger make me wrong or evil? It’s not that I’m an angry person. I’m very well-behaved. In fact I was happy and joyful about making this film. Also, you evolve and grow as a person.
Your next two films, the Mary Kom biopic and Gabbar are diametrically opposite again.
I agree and I’m very excited about them. As a producer I am enjoying that process as well. One is a film on a person that actually exists, a biopic of a person who is young and wonderful. As for Gabbar I’m excited about that as well because Akshay Kumar is in it.
Your films are seemingly contrasting in nature, feel and look. Either you explore the dark and deep space (Black; 2005 and Guzaarish; 2011) or it’s throbbing and vibrant (Devdas; 2005, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam; 1999 or Ram-Leela). Tell us, as a person, where do you fit in?
I am both. Very alive and throbbing as a person and I love laughing — something many people don’t know. I’m a sucker for beautiful things in life. It could be food or anything. I would go to any lengths or any place to see a great show, a good dance performance or good architecture. I would look at all these for hours without complaining. Essentially, I’m a very shaukeen (connoisseur) person. But there is a dark side to me too. I’ve become very lonely, and quiet. That’s because I’ve gone through a lot in life, perhaps that also leaves its mark on your personality. These experiences give shades to your artistic pursuits. But let me tell you that Devdas, though flamboyant, was a dark and intense film which hardly had any humour. Black and Guzaarish, on the other hand were positive films. One is about a woman who says I want to go and achieve it and the other is about a man who says I am not afraid of death and I want to enjoy my last moments on this earth.
Do you feel your films are on those lines?
How can I say that? Sometime back Amitji (Bachchan) and Jayaji (Bachchan) saw Saawariya (2007) at home and tweeted about it. It touched a great artiste somewhere who saw something nice in it. He didn’t understand why it was rejected. That message is beyond a box-office failure for me.
How many cars do you have own?
Three. One Mercedes and two very small economic cars. The Mercedes is for my mother’s comfort and also the fact that after a hard day’s work I want to put up my legs. It’s quite spacious. Even if my needs are small I’m earning well today and who else should reap the benefit of my success but my mother. And of course my sister ( Bela). How can I forget those times when my mother would put me to sleep, I would watch her tired hands, exhausted face and voice (when she sang my lullabies), she was drained out. Half asleep with her needlework in her hand at 2 am in the morning, she would work to earn that extra Rs. 25. She would stich borders on to saris to make money.
Bhansali’s five classic picks
Because it is Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari’s film. Because of its beautifully expressed anguish. And it’s a great film.
Mirch Masala (1987)
The interpretation of a village girl and a beautifully made film by Ketan Mehta.
Because it’s sheer genius. Every second of the film is excellent.
Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1967)
V Shantaram is my favourite filmmaker. I am most impressed, inspired and influenced by him.
36 Chowrangee Lane (1981)
Aparna Sen’s best work and it will always be. It’s a beautiful film and Jennifer Kapoor has given a wonderful performance.