Sanjay Leela Bhansali Curated
Director, National film Award winner
CURATED BY :
Padmaavat continues to go through a lot of strife…
Yes, but Padmaavat is blessed. There are creative angels who come and bless such films. There is some divine energy that says this is the way it should be. It is fascinating to go with the flow. If you are supposed to face the attacks or these kind of protests that we have gone through, it’s a part of the film’s destiny. All I can say is that it just makes you stronger and wants you to make the movie better. When your whole being is at stake and you feel that you are going to perish, you give the thing on hand your best shot. Then things unfold in a way. So, from January 27, 2017, when we were attacked in Jaipur to January 25 this year when the film released, it has been one whole year of strife. I cannot describe all that my team and I went through.
Why didn’t you speak earlier about the Padmaavat issue?
A lot of people said that I didn’t answer or defend myself. I didn’t come out in the open to speak or react. But my only reaction was to make the film better. If it hit the screen, which it seemed would be almost impossible at one point, that itself would have been a victory.At the cost of repeating myself, I must say that movies like Padmaavat are destined. How can the same set of people (actor, technicians) who have worked on this film and go to another film, are not able to achieve the same kind of results that this movie has? There is some divine energy. When a film reaches a theatre, that is the happiest journey for me because there is no greater joy than that final lap from the laboratory to the screen. That is what you live for. When the first frame is beamed on the screen, it is the most fascinating and satisfying moment for me even after all these years and so many films. It is a moment to die for.
Do you agree that you have achieved a cult status in Bollywood?
I don’t know who says what. All I know is that there’s a madness that is growing within me. I constantly strive to say something bigger and better. There is a time when you evolve. You feel that you have understood your craft, signature and style of filmmaking. You know you are more adept at doing things and find that rhythm slowly over the years. That’s what I think has happened to me. I found scale during my Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas days. But the journey between Goliyon Ki Raas Leela Ram-Leela and Padmaavat taught me so many other aspects. It is very difficult to make a big-scale film. What people call, ‘the big-screen experience’, is hard to achieve. All that I loved about music, drama; all that I have learnt from Raj Kapoor, K Asif or Kamal Amrohi, V Shantaram and Mehboob Khan, I started finding and putting it together. I have also deeply admired Ramesh Sippy (of Sholay fame). I’m constantly imbibing the energies of these great men with vision and talking to them. So, I’m discovering far more than the basic box-office collection.
You said Ram Leela was a learning curve…
I started finding the rhythm of the shot for the first time during Ram Leela. I made sure the sur and the scale didn’t go wrong. I found some joy in making Padmaavat irrespective of the problems that I encountered.
Is it right to say that you have been obsessed with your ideas long before your films went on floors?
I took 12 years to make Bajirao Mastani. I waited nine years to make Ram Leela and I had to wait eight years from the time I did Padmavati, the opera on stage, in Paris to get to the film. I’ve enjoyed making these movies so much. They were very challenging. How to put things into a big frame and how to spend money are things that I’m obsessing about all the time. You know budgets become available to you but how you spend that money in the correct way is important. And I really don’t care whether the films brought in the numbers at the box office or not. I never work with that fear.
One never hears of you taking a holiday…
People say why don’t you go on a holiday and I tell them I only want to go to the studio. I want to go to FilmCity and Mehboob Studios and sit over there. So often, when I’m crossing Bandra, I make it a point to drive into the Mehboob Studio compound, sit there and just stare. That is the kind of love that I have for cinema.
That’s why you have been labelled eccentric…
(Laughs) They can call me what they want. If I’m happy and I enjoy taking that detour into the studio compound and saluting the memory of Mehboob Khan, then let me be. Perhaps the energies of Mehboob saab will get into me and his soul will bless me. Who knows? I like doing that, so I do it. I go to V Shantaram’s Rajkamal Studio in Parel for my mixing. And when I stroll in that place, I can feel his energy and soul. His trophies... the smell in that re-recording studio which has been exactly the same over the years. I had gone there first when I was remixing for Parinda (1989) because I was an assistant with Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
It does matter right that Padmaavat will cross the 150 crore mark today?
It’s so nice to know that the audience wants to see your work. A film without an audience makes no sense. When they say, ‘We now understand your signature and style of filmmaking, so we come to see your film,’ it’s a great high. Whether it has Ranveer (Singh) and Deepika (Padukone which is an added attraction), they come to see my film. I personally thank god for this blessing because even if I’ve been cursed with all these innumerous problems — over the years which I have fought — inner demons and external problems — I’ve also been blessed by God because he has said, ‘Ok fine, you get a style and signature, you have an audience, you do not need anything more.’ Who puts in Rs 180 crore to make a film? It is easier said than done. I would say I’m more blessed than I’m cursed. Even though Padmaavat has gone through so many problems, today it is getting its due.
You have done three films with Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan) and three with Deepika. Is it time to look for a new muse?
Deepika is so fabulous; she is such a jaan. I just love her. All her hard work and brilliance that she brings to the set is effortless. She does her preparation but there is none of the—I AM PREPARED FOR A ROLE—heaviness around her. It is done with so much silence. It’s such a pleasure to work with someone who does what she is doing at that moment with absolute honesty. She’s an actor who feels so honestly and simply, but her performances are detailed and nuanced. I’m not done with her yet.
What about Ranveer Singh who seems to be your favourite?
No other filmmaker understands Ranveer the way I do. Ranveer and I have a great chemistry and understanding. I know how to direct him and I’m aware about his limitations and strengths. I know what to do with him. He’s a very special actor. He has so much energy. I only feel he puts too much effort into ‘I did my research and I went here and did that’, all that I understand. For him to pursue his greatness, he has to be a little more effortless. He is fantastic. I am not done with him either.
Shahid was the new energy on your set?
Shahid was a new energy on set because I hadn’t worked with him before. It was interesting to see how a new actor works. He is a great-looking kid. He is extremely talented and so effortless. He is constantly wanting to become better. He would say, ‘I’m unhappy with that shot. Can I do this better?’ And I would tell him, ‘Can you stop pushing yourself. And punishing yourself because I know what I want from you.’ It was great working with him. He gave Maharawal Ratan Singh such dignity and silence. It was a nuanced and delicate performance. I’m so proud of what he has done in this film. Ranveer obviously had the author-backed role and he has come out with flying colours in it because of the range, but to play a straight and understated part, yet to make your presence felt is very difficult. Deepika and Shahid look so good together. I wish they do more films with each other.
Aren’t you being too harsh on yourself by completely isolating yourself from the world?
I’m in a zone. I’ve not met anyone. I only live for my films. I do not feel I’m too harsh on myself. I’m enjoying it immensely. Once I start a film, I’m like that person who is sitting in a yagna completely consumed by the puja and the process. I’m in that meditative state where I see nothing, but my film. Even if I’ve been physically attacked or my set has been ransacked, my first reaction is, ‘Oh god, that shot, which we had set up, was so beautiful! Where will I take it?’ The humiliation and the anger of what I went through became secondary in so many ways. My film mattered to me. I saw a film called Sant Tukaram so many years ago. When Tukaram was asked anything, he would say ‘Vithal, Vithal.’ And you would wonder what he meant. Today, I understand what it means because for me it is only films. I have become Tukaram.
Doesn’t all work and no play make you dull?
The emotions that I may deprive myself of in terms of relationships don’t matter. I live my life through my films. It is such a joy. Nothing distracts me. I just want to make bigger and better films. I’m constantly asking myself, ‘How do I evolve further?’ I’ve done a lot of introspection to reach this stage. If a film worked, I’ve never got up and said, ‘Wow, my movie worked. Bro, let us have a party.’ For me, it is how do I get better. How do I get one more star from a reviewer? How do I become a better person and a better filmmaker? Which is why you are finding a slow growth in my films from Ram Leela to Padmaavat. The search for excellence doesn’t die. It is getting more and more pronounced. And I’m living it completely.
Padmaavat has earned more than Rs 100 crore during the first weekend. It is marching towards Rs 200 crore. What are you feelings at the moment?
(Sighs deeply) After what have I been through, it’s like being allowed to finally breathe easily. I can’t even begin to express the relief and gratitude.
Sanjay, how did you get over this period of vicious attack? Anyone else in your place would’ve crumbled…
Very honestly, I really don’t know where the strength came from. I guess it just comes to us when we need to be strong. I really don’t know how I got through this period. But after all of this, to have the film release finally in spite of all odds, and most importantly, to have audiences flocking to see it in spite of the threats… I can’t tell you what a relief and joy it is. Just hearing about the collections washes away all my pain of the last 8-9 months… well, maybe not all of it.
I can’t imagine how you will ever forget being assaulted in Rajasthan and then fringe hoodlums demanding your head and Deepika’s nose.
It was crazy. Through all of this, I was more worried about my mother and happy that she was with me. I don’t know how I’d have survived without her at my side. She kept saying, ‘Mere bete ke saath aisa kyon ho raha hai? Woh itni achchi filmein banata hai’. My mother was my pillar of strength. I would also like to thank Ajit Andhare and my co-producers, and the whole Viacom 18 Motion pictures team, who never stopped believing in me even during the darkest phase. And my own friends and team - Mahavir Jain, Shobha Sant, Chetan Deolkar. What would I have done without them?
Did you at any point think of just giving up?
Never. Not at all. Never! That would’ve been the end of me as a filmmaker.
Not even after being assaulted?
Not even then. Every time I was attacked, I used my pain and suffering as an impetus to work better. I channelised all my anxiety into making Padmaavat. I think suffering has always been an incentive for my creativity.
Coming to the film, please clarify once and for all whether it is history or not.
It is based on the poem Padmavat by Malik Mohammed Jayasi. But it also has figures and incidents taken from actual history. I’ve been fascinated by Rani Padmavati from my childhood. Her grace, dignity, valour and inner strength are very inspiring. I wanted to make a film on her life for a very long time. But before I could do the film, I got the chance to direct the stage musical version of Padmavati, an opera in two acts by the French composer Albert Roussel that I directed in Paris in 2008.
So is the film at all connected to the opera?
Not at all. That Padmavati was a staged musical done on a lavish scale with elephants, tigers and other animals on stage. It was an entirely different experience from the film. This is the first time I explored evil in such dark, deep detail. I had never before gone into this zone before. To portray evil on this scale was a new and challenging experience for me.
Ranveer Singh is getting incredible reviews for his villainous act. Were you at all unsure of his box office status after Befikre, Deepika Padukone after xXx and Shahid Kapoor after Rangoon?
Not at all! It made no difference to me whether they had successes or flops behind them. I wanted these actors and only these three actors. And I am so happy with the quality of performances they have given in my film.
It’s being predicted that this will be the biggest hit of your career.
What can I say? God has been very kind. I never thought my film would get into all this trouble. When it did, I never for a moment stopped believing that I had done no wrong. And now , to get this approval of the audience… it is very, very reassuring.
Did you ever think the film may never get released?
I was always sure it will. How could all my hard work go to waste? I’ve toiled over every moment of the film.
Considering what you’ve been through, would you ever go back to history?
Oh, any time! I would go back to history if I want to. One can’t allow oneself to be bullied into abandoning one’s dream.
How important has the success of Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-leela been to validate your position as a filmmaker?
I have never doubted myself as a filmmaker. It doesn’t make your work any less if the film hasn’t worked neither does it take away its cinematic brilliance. Just the other day I received a message from an unknown girl who wrote that Saawariya was like a beautiful painting. It didn’t connect to the people, fine. There must be something wrong then. But I will always believe in its cinematic brilliance. I didn’t want Ram-leela to succeed just to prove that I still have it in me. I will have it in me till I die. I have never been afraid of failures. My first film Khamoshi got great reviews but did poorly at the box-office. And it wasn’t as if the success of Devdas made me feel invincible. Everything is transitory. You have to keep reinventing yourself.
You have explored violent love in Ram-leela…
Like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (HDDCS) and Devdas, Ram-leela is also larger-than-life. But Ram-leela has aggression. Every human being is capable of violence. But we don’t express anger easily due to social pressure and rational constraints. Devdas had a controlled violence. In Ram-leela I’ve expressed it flamboyantly. My characters fall in love violently, I like that take on romance. Also, here folk theatre merges with Shakepseare’s Romeo & Juliet. If the sur (rhythm) of every film is the same, I’ll not grow as a filmmaker. I want to try different genres. Every filmmaker/artiste should tap the navras (nine emotions) – anger, jealousy, love…
So you have explored a dark side within you?
Dark was Black, in spite of it being a positive film! Dark was Khamoshi where the parents are jealous of their daughter. Their stance is ‘you can’t fall in love because then who will look after us, who will speak for us, who will hear for us!’ Those were dark subjects albeit dealt with sunshine. For me suffering, the fight of a human being as the character in Guzaarish wishing to celebrate life and death is tapping my darker side. Violence/aggression is not dark according to me, though considered uncomfortable. In Ram-leela, the protagonists (Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone) fall in love, face opposition, which results in violence. This one is a musical, one of the greatest love stories, ever!
Unlike your previous films, Ram-leela is sexually uninhibited…
(Laughs) Earlier I never allowed my characters to be physically demonstrative. They would always be left alone, pining… But kissing is a natural expression of love. I have explored sensuality not sexuality here. But Deepika and Ranveer’s kiss is about love, not lust. It’s poetry in motion; their bodies coming together as though in a dance. It was organic. What’s vulgar are pelvic thrusts and gyrations.
Did your successful run as a producer (Rowdy Rathore) implore you to add commercial elements in Ram-leela?
No, never! If I were that kind of director I wouldn’t have made Guzaarish – a film on mercy killing after Saawariya flopped. I’d have compromised and made a commercially viable proposition. Ram-leela is a celebration of joy. Post Saawariya there was a lot of depression and anguish, which I got rid of through my characters in Guzaarish. After Guzaarish, I’ve purged myself of several demons, it was a catharsis. I turned positive after Guzaarish. I took death on and could talk about it. If I had used mainstream formula I’d have completed it in 60 days. Why did I take 200 days to complete it?
Does your eye for intricacy and detail make filming a particularly difficult job?
I have to battle my own mediocrity. My team works on war footing. Till the paint, the thread is not of the right shade we will not shoot. You and I will not last but cinema will. I no longer remain aware of myself, my ego or my pride when I am working. Incompetence, even if it comes from me, upsets me. My team knows that it’s going to be a tough road.
You are known to be extra sensitive to criticism…
Criticism is as much part of a filmmaker’s destiny as praise. When it’s genuine, it’s fine. But when it comes with a bias, then it’s not right. Reviews are important but they should be ethical. Someone who doesn’t know filmmaking has decided to say, ‘I think this film is that and this’. But who are you? And why is it that your opinion is valid for the lakhs who watch. I believe a film released on a Friday should not be reviewed till a Monday. If you are going to take away the work of 200 people, who worked for two years and spent crores over it, just because you did not connect with it, it’s not right. The idea is to evaluate, not lash out personally. There are loaded subtexts in my work, a lot of layers of my life that I am unfolding. Sadly, we only inquire about the collections.
After the release of Padmaavat you just just disappeared. What have you been doing since then?
Do you feel healed?
In what way have the protests and the whole situation of Padmaavat changed your perspective?
Are you making a film with Shahrukh and Salman?
Even when your films are based in contemporary times, they are very much set in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali world. Do you have a god complex?
In few of your interviews, around Padmaavat, you said that I am dying to get back into the studio because the cinematic part of my brain is peeking. What do you mean by this?
Are you enjoying filmmaking today more than you did 10 years ago?
You dont watch films?
You favour your own company?
It doesnt mean you arent interested in people, because you do love people.
Where does this hunger for beauty come from?
You always had an eye for beauty. Did you cultivate it or was it just there?
You just said that the frame is sacrosanct, that is something that you really live by. You’ve also said that when you are on your deathbed and you are watching your films,you dont want to see a mistake in a frame and have to live with that.
When you are constructing down to the last detail, does it leave enough room for spontaneity or imperfection that actually lets it breathe a little?
But did you think of Jim Morrison the night before or did it come to you right then?
How many days did you take to make the film Padmaavat?
Do you let the producers come on set?
Ranveer has said that out of all the three films which he has done with you, Padmaavat is the most enjoyable one. How much of these characters come from you and how much of the residue do they leave behind?
How are you as a person?
But in life, you dont want to actually yourself live some of this?
There was one scene in Padmaavat, where Ranveer sprays perfume on a woman and then grabs her and smells her. Can you tell us a bit more about that scene?
What is the process of your film? How do you work?
Did you have any particular plan in mind when you entered the film industry?
I wanted to be a director maybe because of the atmosphere at home [while I was growing up]. When my father’s (Navin Bhansali; producer) friends’ films would wrap up, trunks filled with costumes and make-up would come home. One day, my father took me to his friend’s shoot. A cabaret was being shot there. I was seduced at a very young age by what cinema can do; I was mesmerised. I realised that I wanted to be in the studio. A lot of it also comes with the angst that my father could not achieve the kind of success he wanted. I never knew what kind of films would I make or I am supposed to make. What I got as legacy was a poster of the film, Jahaji Lootera (1958), which was produced by my father.
What kind of a childhood did you have?
It was claustrophobic. I lived in a small house because of our circumstances, and where we lived, we were not allowed to go out and play too much. I was always a flaky child. When my cousins would come home, I wouldn’t interact with them. My mind was never into school, and education did not matter to me. Right from childhood, I would come back from school and listen to the radio. I was waiting to be part of that world. I was told, “Look how the film world has brought us so many problems and financial stress. Today, we are in the lower-middle class strata; we should stay away from films.” So, one part of me kept hearing that; the other part was dreaming cinema. I wanted to be in the world where Helen (actor) was dancing and Dilip Kumar (actor) was saying his dialogue. I still go to my old Bhuleshwar house, to smell the air there, and to see the rickety window. My childhood wasn’t about playing; it was about the fight to survive, only to be able to make films. I knew in the second standard that I have to be a director.
You are often criticised for being an indulgent film-maker. Does that affect you in any way?
If you put pressure on me, I will never succumb to it. I was devastated when Saawariya (2007) didn’t do well at the box office, not because of the numbers, but because of the kind of response [it garnered], and the language that was used [in the reviews]. I still went ahead and made Guzaarish (2010), which didn’t have Hrithik (Roshan; actor) dancing and Aishwarya (Rai Bchchan; actor) romancing him in the mainstream style. I was told, “It’s again suicidal.” And I said, “I don’t care. This is the film I want to make.” I am not afraid of criticism. But at that time, I thought the criticism was biased. People question my budget a lot, but I know that I need to make my Taj Mahals. If Shah Jahan (Mughal emperor) made the monument out of love and for love, then every film that I make is for my love [for cinema]. I don’t want a fancy office in a glass building. I would rather put all of that into my films.
You are known to be a short-tempered person…
I don’t know where this came from. It’s a myth. Every director, actor and even producer gets angry on the sets. Why am I the only one being singled out for losing my cool or being talked about vis-à-vis my anger? Do you think actors or technicians would work with me if I was losing my cool and throwing things [at them]? People have the impression that I am brooding, dark and intense. Of course, there have been instances and angry moments. But get me three directors who have never gotten angry. Some people express it, and some don’t.
You have lived in places like Bhuleshwar and Bhindi Bazaar, and faced a difficult childhood. Still your films are very artistic…
My father would make me listen to Roshan Ara Begum (late Hindustani classical singer) in the chawls of Bhuleshwar. He was crazy about Bade Ghulam Ali saab. But at night, people also played Koliwada songs after drinking in the chawl. My father explained Dada Kondke’s works to me. To watch Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Chor Machaye Shor (1974) almost simultaneously, and the ability to have that range, to understand what Indian cinema is, is what helped me. I was an evolved child, and knew a lot of things way ahead of my time. I have not gone to a theatre or a restaurant in the past two years. I am not popular socially. I am uncomfortable around people. It (making films) has come through with so much grind and difficultly that for me, it is sacred. For me, the only way that I can get closest to God is when I am shooting.
You had a difficult childhood, partially due to your father’s struggles in the film industry. What was your mother’s reaction when you decided to become a director?
It was never questioned. It was my father’s unachieved dream that I make a film. She knew why I was shown Mughal-e-Azam (1960) 18 times. She knew exactly what he was trying to say. My interest in music and dance comes from my mother. It was very clear that failure did not matter. It had stayed in our house, and it was something that nobody was scared of. She was happy that I was making a film. They may not have wanted me to be at the Film and Television Institute of India to start with, but, deep inside, I was fulfilling my father’s dream.
Did you develop angst against this industry, because of the losses your father faced as a producer?
I am uncomfortable with the industry because of that. Therefore, I am an uncomfortable film-maker for other directors, contemporaries, actors and others. The discomfort is set into the body, and that cannot change. Awkwardness is part of being me. It comes out of the unexpressed anger. Thank God that I didn’t express it earlier, because now, I can do it through my work.
Was it an uphill task for you to make your first film?
Of course. I was in FTII; I was the quietest guy. Rajkumar Hirani and Sriram Raghavan (now film-makers) were my seniors. And, I have never said anything beyond a ‘hello’ to them. I was quite a good student, but I was the first one to be thrown out. I was devastated. So, I told myself, “I will make a film before any of these people make one (laughs).” Then I started all over again, until my sister, Bela, took me to Vinod Chopra. She was working with him in Parinda (1989). Vinod made me shoot a song for the film, but when it came out, at Regal Cinema, people left the theatre. So, I took one more oath — in my next film, when I do songs, not a soul will get up and leave. So, when 1942: A Love Story (1994) released, no one got up. I worked for six years with Vinod Chopra. Then I wrote Khamoshi (1996), and told Vinod to make it. But he said, ‘It is very interesting, but you make it.’ I also worked on Bharat Ek Khoj with Shyam Benegal (film-maker), and learnt a great deal. The struggle to make my first film was a long one. I remember, when Khamoshi flopped, my producer said, ‘Baith gayi,’ and I said, ‘Kaun baith gayi?’ He told me, ‘Picture baith gayi.’ After that, till date, I don’t answer the phone after my film releases on Fridays (laughs).
You are not seen at many parties and events. Why?
I am the outsider, and I will remain one. I am slightly uncomfortable with people. Even if I love them, I don’t know how to express it to them. I have realised that one should just stay quiet, and do one’s work. My reactions are very honest, but they aren’t always necessarily friendly. So, I stay away.
Why did you take 12 years to make your next film?
If you can wait for 33 years to get your first shot in place, then you can do wait for 12 years to make your dream film. It has taken me 12 years to make Bajirao Mastani, as it was in my destiny, and it had to take that much time. Maybe, my hair had to turn grey, and I had to become wiser. Every film has its own destiny, and so, this had to be born in 2015. I have made this film with such joy and love. I have nurtured it.
Do you watch other directors’ films?
Not for what’s working and what’s not. These are trivial reasons to watch a film. When I saw Ship of Theseus (2012), I was blown away. I was like, “Iske director ko bulaao (Call the director of this film). I am insecure, and want to I stab him (laughs) before he makes another film.” He generated jealousy in me. I also watched Piku. Then, I cursed Shoojit (Sircar), saying, “Iski buddhi bhrast ho jaaye (I hope he loses his mind).’ He is a good film-maker.
Bhansali on enmity with anyone
I talk to Shah Rukh as well as Salman Khan. I met SRK the other day at Amitji’s (Amitabh Bachchan) party, and we hugged and chatted. Of all the actors that I have worked with, I have met Shah Rukh the most. I am not here to be enemies with anyone. I have great respect for him. His next film (a Rohit Shetty directorial) is different, and so is mine. They should both do well in today’s times, when there are so many screens. Why are we making an election campaign with these films, wondering which party will win? This isn’t politics, or a sport. SRK is a huge star, a great person and a wonderful friend. I don’t have reasons to spoil relationships with people. I enjoy my conversations with him. I am very fond of him.
Bhansali on loving his actors
I love all of them, as they create all those characters that mean a lot to me. I have been blessed to have them. I have nothing, but good words for them, and gratitude towards them. But I don’t want to limit or condition myself to relationships. I don’t even expect my actors to believe that I will cast them again, just because we are friends. If they have good or bad things to say about me, it’s all fine. I love them, though they don’t have to love me. Maybe, I am not a very loveable person.
One of the most integral but less spoken about aspect of your films is music. How important is it to you?
It is everything. My life revolves around music. The first thought of making a film comes with a certain song in mind. Radio, which during my years of growing up was Vividh Bharati, has been very important. The first thing I do after I wake up is switch on the music player and the last thing I do before going to sleep is stop it. I need music while taking a bath. I need it in the car. On the sets of my films, I switch on my iPod after a shot is done. The sur [melody], laya[tempo] keep me in a zone. This has been the case since childhood. I would come back from school and pray that the radio plays my personal favourites. I associate most of my favourite actors and actresses with music. My all-time favourite is Helen. As a child, when I watched her films, I realised that nothing else in a movie gave me as much joy as seeing her dance. Even when she was dancing in a cabaret wearing strange clothes, I felt she was connected to god. Helen, Sandhya, Hemaji… they are all goddesses in my life.
You said the first thought of making a film comes from a song. Tell us about a few.
For Bajirao..., my inspiration came from songs from K. Asif’s cinema. A lot of what Kishori Amonkar has sung in Raag Bhoopali. I’ve used that inspiration in the new version of ‘Albela Sajan’ from Bajirao… Purists will kill me for using an Ahir Bhairav composition in Bhoopali but I just love it. Then there’s Shiv Kalyan Raja, the Marathi album by Hridaynath Mangeshkar. It’s about Chhatrapati’s bravado. When you hear it in Lata ji’s voice, it gives you goosebumps. Marathi folk and classical music were a big inspiration for Bajirao... I used to obsess over ‘Mor Bani Thanghat Kare’, the Gujarati folk song, and I’d tell myself that I need to make a film on mor [peacock]. It became Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela. A lot of A.R. Rahman songs were my inspiration for Saawariya. Lagaan’s music had a lot to do with Devdas. As I was shooting the climax of Devdas, the Lagaan theme would be playing in my head.
Black had no songs. Do you think you can make another film without songs?
If I do a thriller tomorrow, I may not have songs. But that would result in me suffering throughout the making of the film as in the case of Black. I had almost stopped shooting midway and was going to give an SOS call to choreographer Saroj Khan. Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee held me back. But even during a song-less film like Black, I managed to play music on the sets to enhance the mood and performance. The truth is I can’t think of my life without music. If you take away music from me, I’ll die. Basically, main tamashgi hoon, bhaand hoon (Basically, I’m a court jester/a performer). Woh gaana bajna chahiye, Laxmi Chhaya, Padma Khanna dance karni chahiye (I need song, music, Laxmi Chhaya and Padma Khanna to dance). I need harmoniums and dholaks around me. I’m used to having choreographers rehearsing with dancers counting the beats ‘1, 2, 3, 4..’ and trying to figure out how to shoot a song. Actually any good film is like a song. It is all about being in a laya [tempo]. There is timing, a musicality. It should be sureela [melodious]. If it isn’t, then something is wrong.
You have had great collaborations with composers such as Ismail Darbar ( Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas) and Monty Sharma ( Saawariya, Black). Why did you feel the need to take up composing?
Both did some incredible work. Ismail went on record and said that I was holding him back from taking up other offers whereas I had invested in him and presented him to the world. I had problems working with him in Devdas. Monty, too, started feeling that my voice was getting stronger. It was getting difficult to explain my musical ideas. That ‘lost in translation’ had begun to happen. Also, the making of my songs is a long process. I record each song three-four times to work with singers and take four days to mix, so that each element comes out as desired. At the end of the process, they would say they feel traumatised and want to run away from me. Today’s film music doesn’t have my kind of temperament, I think. It got me thinking. I work so hard on others, who are, of course, far better musicians than I ever will be. But since I enjoy it so much, I thought I might as well do it myself in Guzaarish. I had created some of the tunes in Devdas and Saawariya as well, but I was struggling in the beginning of Guzaarish. I had more fun in Ram-Leela because by that time I had got a better grip on it. I enjoyed myself the most during Bajirao… Now I don’t know if I will compose anymore. I am getting tired. Maybe now it is time for a new thought; you have to keep reinventing yourself. I was expecting offers as a music director [he jokes], but I doubt if my music connects with people that much. I don’t know if I will continue composing. But yes, I enjoy doing it a lot.
You had famously given breaks to singers such as Shreya Ghoshal. Today, playback singers are under threat from autotune.
Yes, and that’s very sad. Singers are very special to me. Shreya knows me well. Arijit Singh is very special. I know him from the time he took part in the reality show ‘Fame Gurukul’. I remember calling him up and telling him that even if he lost the competition, he is a great singer. I made him sing ‘Yun Shabnami’ from Saawariya; it never got used. He got eliminated from the show, got lost for a while and look at him now. Shail Hada is another singer I’m very fond of. He plays a big part in designing my songs although he has now become a composer and is doing his own thing.
What is your process like as a composer? How well do you know the technical aspects?
I don’t know the sargam nor am I aware of the raag when I’m composing. There’s not much thought about structure. My songs come from not knowing much and therefore they are pure and innocent. I believe there is a certain simplicity in my songs. But it makes me happy when people like Amjad Ali Khan and Lata ji compliment me on a song like ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’. I composed the song while I was waiting at the airport after my flight got cancelled. Twelve years back, just like that, while taking a shower I composed ‘Deewani Mastani’. That was the first time I had thought of making Bajirao... In fact, I’ve composed quite a few songs while having a bath. Every time I get a song during a shower, I run to the recording studio, half wet. It’s a funny sight, but the joy and purity is unmatched. Paani ki purity ke andar jo gaane bante hai woh kabhi galat nahi hote hai (The songs that are inspired from the water’s purity can never go wrong). There are arrangers and programmers. They come and do their job and I keep working and reworking on it. The string segments, for example, are obviously their ideas. But if I have in mind something about how I am going to shoot the song, I have a lot of say with regard to the rhythm patterns.
You started out as a choreographer for Vidhu Vinod Chopra. You have a way of imaginatively shooting songs.
My father, who was a film producer, would take us to watch a film three-four times. He would show us Mughal-e-Azam and say, “You see, this is a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb song, observe how K. Asif moves his camera.” At that time I didn’t understand what he was saying. But he inculcated the culture in me. Listening to music, I would always wonder how I would have shot it. I have grown up obsessing over how K. Asif, Mehboob Khan, V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt shot their songs. Expressing through songs is our biggest identity besides melodrama. Most films today don’t create situations for songs where the hero and heroine can sing. That legacy needs to be there. It’s the reason we have a unique identity in the West, other than our parallel cinema. Even if you consider parallel cinema, the works of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak had a deep connection with music.
How spontaneously do you shoot a song?
It is as spontaneous as the making of the songs. Let people analyse and dissect after they see the film. It is later that I am able to see what I had in my subconscious. My subtext is very strong. But it is my subtext and I can’t impose that on my cinematographer, editor, sound designer and art director. My subtext is my own subconscious reservoir that has visual references from my life like my father’s eyes, mother, friends or films that have refused to leave my system. So, if you look closely, you know there is a lot more than just another film because I come with all the legacy of the golden era of Hindi cinema. I pay tribute to them all the time. Not everybody necessarily gets the layering, the subtexting and the texturing. But sometimes I just do things out of the blue. For example in the scene in Bajirao… where Mastani is taken to a brothel, she just expresses her anguish through the sword. In the script, the scene has proper dialogues but during the shoot I felt Mastani’s character could express her anguish best through the sword at a time when the warrior in her is being questioned. It’s like how Lataji would extemporise during her live performances. If you ask her why she did it she won’t be able to tell you. Similarly, I get inspired by the energy with which Helen’s dance movements reach out to the audience or by Shammi Kapoor’s ability to communicate anything with spontaneity and flamboyance. This unstudied art is the most exciting for me. I find that in Ritwik Ghatak’s use of music, camera and sound. When my actors tell me that I’m confusing them, I tell them it’s good to be confused. When I open the door, I don’t know who I’m going to meet outside. When you don’t know what to expect from yourself, you play it differently and your performance is elevated. I have discovered a lot of joy from the unstudied and unexpected. That’s why, perhaps, my behaviour too is sometimes unexpected.
How do you react to the Time selection?
I would say it's something that needs to be told to the world. Because when Devdas went to Cannes, no one was willing to acknowledge the fact, as if some people wanted it to fade into oblivion.
How did you feel after the success of Devdas?
More than myself or Devdas, I feel proud that our cinema's given such a recognition in the west.
Many in the West say our mainstream cinema isn’t the true representation of our culture. What do you think?
I don't agree with that. Indians sing and dance on every occasion. Where else do you find such exuberance?
What do you say about parallel cinema in India?
To me Mr & Mrs Iyer is as important as Devdas. As are Ray's Pather Panchaliand Asif's Mughal-e-Azam. Let's celebrate the abundance of style and genres we have and let's not get snobbish here.
Are you still hurt with the scathing reviews Devdas got?
Devdas isn't real cinema. It is my tribute to all the mainstream masters. Critics should have criticised my film within the genre and format I have chosen.
Does the Time list increase Devdas’ chances at the Oscars?
That depends on the mood of the jury.
What are your plans for Oscars?
The full infrastructure is at work at LA. But we'll go for the final push only after it makes it to the nomination list.
What next for you?
I don't know. I may launch my next film in April-May.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has presented your Devdas again at Cannes 15 years after it release. Your thoughts?
It fills me immense pride and amazing memories of the times when we made the film against all odds, and took it Cannes. Devdas was selected in the non-competition section of the Cannes Film Festival .It was not easy making Devdas. I suffered a lot.When the film was invited to Cannes it felt like my two-and-half years of penance has paid off. It was God’s way of telling me, ‘You’ve suffered enough. Now it’s time for the happiness to begin.’ I had to move at twice my original speed to get the film ready in time for Cannes. We were caught completely by surprise. We had sent them an almost-finished film on BETA video. But there was no time for fine tuning. Devdas was meant to be seen on the large screen. That the Cannes jury appreciated it on the small screen is a miracle. When the e-mail arrived from Cannes it was a very important moment in my life. I felt happy from deep down in my being. For the first time in two-and-a-half-years I was excited about something other than making the film.
How did this honour fall in your lap?
The Cannes festival’s directorate contacted us. They normally visit various countries to check out the interesting films being made. Theirs is a thoroughly researched and foolproof selection procedure. The Director of the festival Christian June came to India . He met a lot of filmmakers and saw a lot of Indian films . He knew exactly what was happening in our cinema . He told me to send my Devdas over to Cannes as soon as it’s complete.I remember the last date for entry was 31 March. We weren’t ready with the finished product. So breaking rules we sent a scratch tape for approval. They were most co-operative. The Selection Committee saw the rough tape and nothing happened for a long time. I waited and waited to hear from them . I had almost given up when I was told we we’re on. I felt all the suffering that I went through to make Devdas was washed away.
I believe Devdas was the first mainstream Hindi film to be selected for Cannes?
Yes it was the first film in the popular format. Cannes is more into the avant-garde cerebral non-mainstream cinema. It ‘s a platform for committed filmmakers who get a voice and a market in the festival. Devdas’ selection made me very happy. To me , it seemed like an opportunity for a completely new kind of audience to see our cinema. When you don’t plan success it becomes far more important to you than otherwise.
Like your earlier work Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas also stressed exotic Indian culture. Do you think the earlier film prepared the way internationally for Devdas?
Not really . Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam did make a quite an impression in international cinema. But I don’t think that film would play any role in the impact of Devdas. The importance of the selection of Devdas for Cannes lay not just in it being a mainstream Hindi film but also its classical format of presentation. It was not about universal sentiments designed to cut across the world. My film’s sentiments and emotions were very peculiar and specific to a certain part of our culture and period in history. The songs, dances, costumes, performances and sets all revealed a culture that existed a hundred years ago.
We had Satyajit Ray’s cinema, then Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. Do you think these paved the way for your Devdas in the West?
Obviously an Indian film representing our country abroad which creates an impact, makes a difference to the way our cinema is perceived internationally . However when the Cannes representatives saw the film, Lagaanhadn’t become a big event outside India. Today when we look at Lagaan we feel it created a space abroad for Indian cinema. We now feel our content style and mood of moviemaking are being given a fair chance abroad. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shahji Karun and Lagaan did get our cinema recognition. At the same if a new film is selected for an international festival it isn’t necessarily because of those other films and filmmakers who gained international recognition earlier on. Cannes opened up a whole new world for Devdas.
What aspect of our films do you think international audiences enjoy the most?
I think our cinema is being appreciated for its melodramatic warmth. Even in the West people are now eager to express themselves more openly . They aren’t abashed by open expressions of emotions. Indian films exude a lot of warmth. At a time when the world is clogged with bitterness it’s reassuring to experience a cinema where the smallest of emotions matter. Also Indian cinema is celebratory in mood. There’s a song for every occasion. That’s again a novel experience for Western viewers. Indian films have their own distinctive stamp and audiences out there find them great fun to watch. That why they goodhumoredly call us Bollywood . You and I may hate the term. But that’s how Indian cinema is going to be known for a long time. When I showed Hum DilDe Chuke Sanam in Berlin they called it a ‘dancycle’. They were thrilled to see the musical celebration of universal emotions. They find the novelty of it all very endearing . They ‘ve seen and appreciated other cinema from Asia . Now it’s our turn .
Some quarters in Bollywood have been going on about “Black” being derived from Arthur Penn’s “Miracle Worker”?
Criticism is a healthy impetus for growth. Everybody doesn't have to like my film. If Jaya Bachchan hadn't constructively criticised "Devdas", maybe I'd have never made "Black". She spurred me to attempt something totally different. If some people have not liked "Black" it is fine. Better luck to me next time. But it is not "The Miracle Worker". It is the life of Helen Keller. Her life has a timeless quality. It can be expressed in any form - a play, a TV series, a film from India or Hollywood. If a director interprets Helen Keller's life in his own way it does not mean he is copying another film on the subject. If a director makes a film on Gandhi it does not mean he is stealing incidents from Richard Attenborough's film. Helen Keller's life is exemplary to all of us. I have personally learnt so much from her. I learnt the value of a teacher in any student's life. "Black" is my interpretation of the age-old teacher-student relationship. And the language was sign language, not Hindi and English. "Black" is about feeling, not speaking.
Corliss had also singled out “Devdas”…
It makes me happy proud and fulfilled. The more the people respond to my cinema the more alive I feel. To be in Corliss' list along with world masters like Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergman makes me feel extremely comforted. The fact that a story about a deaf-and-blind protagonist can be formatted in the popular genre was to me the biggest challenge. Every person whether Amitabh Bachchan in "Deewaar" or Rani Mukerji in "Black" is a hero deep down. Every person is capable of extraordinary achievements. For this film to get such widespread acceptance is a victory for all physically and mentally challenged people of the world. It is not just socio-political issues that make a film important. It is the ability to talk to the most neglected sections of our society that makes a film special.
Where do you think “Black” goes from here?
Where can it go? I only know how to make a film. I do not know how to market it. Once I make a film, I let it go wherever destiny will take it. Unfortunately I do not know the art of selling my film. I am deeply obliged to Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji. Look at their performances. Bachchan is world-class, incomparable. "Black" would not have been possible without him. Rani's is the best performance by a female actor since Seema Biswas in "Bandit Queen". And Ayesha Kapoor... Richard Corliss has spoken about the performances. This is a victory for all of us. It is a victory for Bachchan. I could not have asked for more.
Corliss has called “Black” the ultimate Bollywood love story?
Strangely it is apt. Love has many forms. "Black" is about the love between a girl and her teacher. They teach each other the dignity of living. To call "Black" a love story is a true compliment. "Black" is a pure love story.
Was your return to a vibrant and colorful world in “Ram-Leela” — after three “dark” films beginning with “Black” — influenced by the desire to reconnect with the audience as a filmmaker?
Yes, but more importantly, it was also the joy that I felt within after making “Guzaarish” that made me ready to take on “Ram-Leela.” This was a film I had planned on making even before “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.” “Guzaarish” is my most positive film. What can be more positive than a dying man granted the right to end his suffering and throwing a celebration party for the occasion? I became far happier in my personal life because my fear of death and my morbid attraction to it disappeared. This was the right time and mood to make “Ram-Leela!”
What was your mood before making “Guzaarish?”
When I made “Saawariya” and it flopped, it really upset me! In fact it is to my credit that I did not make a commercially safe film after that, because to me films are not about making money but taking up a subject you are passionate about.
Was its failure the reason you produced a film like “Rowdy Rathore?”
Not at all. “Rowdy Rathore” was made just to have fun. After all, I have grown up on that kind of cinema — on “Loafer,” “Yaadon Ki Baaraat,” “Chor Machaye Shor” and “Pratiggya.” These films are an inseparable part of my growing up — good stories with great music and emotions and other qualities. We must not forget the importance of those movies; they were mass entertainers and satisfied either angst or some cravings within us.
Are you happy that you made “Ram-Leela” now instead of then?
Definitely. There is better infrastructure today. And I was much less experienced then as a filmmaker. I always wanted to make a film with a character who shared my mother’s name, someone who was sharp, was “namkeen.” (Smiles) But I am really happy that I still have the energy and passion — minus the complacence or over-confidence that is fatal for any filmmaker — to make what I had first thought of making then!
You have worked with superstars like Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit and rank newcomers like Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor. How do you cast your actors?
It is about matching the role and character, not star status. I watched Ranveer Singh in “Band Baaja Baaraat” and was convinced that this boy is a “Delhi ka ladka.” Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a boy from Mumbai’s up-market suburb of Bandra! He could fit my character, too.
Deepika Padukone came in as a replacement for another heroine.
Yes, and that was lucky indeed. Her small head and exquisitely-shaped neck, like a “suraahi” or wine cask apart, Deepika’s spontaneity is remarkable. Her timing, rhythm and pitch were spectacular. I would often change scenes and lines after rehearsals and she would adapt despite all the pressures that are always there on the sets.
The film’s treatment is classic Hindi cinema.
Yes, the treatment is larger-than-life because that’s the way we Indians are — different in our display of emotions. We still follow the nautanki (folk theater) tradition and have an obsession for that form of telling a story. My all-time icon as a filmmaker is V. Shantaram, especially in the way he used music and dance. Here, I have put in all that I have learned from Shantaram-ji. I wish I could have shown the film to him and told him that!
What about choreography, with which you actually started in “1942 – A Love Story?”
A director motivates and guides all the creative people involved in his film. He should be clear about what he wants from everyone. After this, he should not ideally interfere. Though I am a choreographer, too, I have entrusted that department to Vishnudeva after sharing my vision with him.
What made you take up making music?
As I have stated on the album’s inlay, music is the only prayer I know! “Ram-Leela” has songs that were needed for the story, and they have been wonderfully written and woven in by Siddharth-Garima, my very talented scriptwriters. And how can we forget our roots? I would call my music a clutter-breaker in today’s scenario. After listening to our great composers, I cannot do anything else.
Where did all the music in you come from?
My father used to play a lot of music at home. Besides Hindi film music, I was exposed to a whole lot of Maharashtrian influences and classical greats in the neighborhood of Mumbai’s C.P. Tank, where I grew up among lower middle-class Gujaratis like myself and Maharashtrians. Gradually, that liking changed to deep love and the need for exposure to so much music. I would also buy song booklets of Hindi films in those days and set songs that I had heard to my own tunes, mentally realizing in most but not all cases that the official tunes were so superior! (Laughs) But the turning point came when I choreographed and filmed the songs of “1942 - A Love Story.” I saw Pancham (R.D. Burman) make songs both ways — the tunes would come first, or the lyrics. My childhood had two principal icons — R.D. Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal — and I was thrilled that I could meet one of them and watch him at work. I saw what made the difference between my work and what Pancham-da was doing right before my eyes!
Isn’t it true that you wanted Laxmikant-Pyarelal for “Khamoshi – The Musical?”
No, in fact I had spoken about it to Pancham-da and we had even finalized a song for it before he passed away! I was thinking of Laxmikant-Pyarelal for “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” but by then Laxmi-ji had passed away.
But why did you not compose yourself for your debut film?
I thought that I should learn more of the art and craft first, which is what I did from all my music composers till I was ready to take the plunge with “Guzaarish.” Jatin-Lalit in “Khamoshi,” Ismail Darbar in “Him Dil De Chuke Sanam” and Monty Sharma in “Saawariya” were like a complete education for me.
Why have you given only two songs to Shreya Ghoshal, whom you introduced in “Devdas?”
In the 11 years since “Devdas,” Shreya has evolved so much that she can sing anything. But young singers like Bhoomi Trivedi and Aditi Paul were, I think, the perfect casting for the songs I have given them.
Thoughts on Deepika’s Saawariya audition?
Deepika came to audition for Saawariya, and she said, ‘you let me know and I’ll choose right now’. But by then I’d finalized Sonam (Kapoor) who I love immensely also.
Thoughts on approaching Deepika for Ram-Leela when Kareena Kapoor walked out
The set was made already, and it was shocking, her (Kareena Kapoor) exit 10 days before shooting. 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?
Thoughts on Deeepika being your muse after Aishwarya Rai?
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… 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.
Has the film, Padmaavat turned out precisely how you wanted it to?
This is what I wanted to make. Obviously, any filmmaker would change a few things to make the final cut better, but, for me, this is the film that I had set out to make. There were no changes that I [was compelled to] incorporate, barring the alteration of the name to Padmaavat. And I agreed to do so because the film is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi's book by the same name. Rumours of us being forced to make X number of cuts weren't true. Prasoon Joshi [CBFC chief] gave us a fair certificate when you consider the pressure that was on him. And now, when one sees the film, s/he questions what the hullabaloo was all about? I released a video promising people that there was nothing wrong in the film. I am proud that I made the film that I wanted under such circumstances. I loved my work so much that I had to fight without getting tired. The media provided support, as did people from the fraternity.
Do you think the industry could have been a more vocal in their resistance against the fringe groups. On instances, celebrities simply responded to your circumstances stating that it was your film, not theirs.
This is my film, it is my battle. A few of them, like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Samir Soni, Sudhir Mishra and Ashoke Pandit, supported me earnestly and told me to stay strong. But, there was no obvious solution to my fight. So, everyone was helpless. They wondered where it is that Sanjay Leela Bhansali should go [for help]. No one understood the reason behind this uproar. So, I wasn't sure if things would have been different if I had received more support. But I am happy with the manner in which the industry backed me.
After this incident, do you feel artistes are being stripped of the freedom of expression?
We enjoy freedom of expression, but it comes with responsibility. I am a responsible filmmaker. When I say there is nothing amiss in the film, people should believe me. Why am I answerable to some fringe group that says we are the torch bearers of history? There is a government, and a Censor Board. I am answerable to them. Also, when the states decide against releasing the film [after the Supreme Court's approval], only because people are angry, that is a failure of democracy. The states should act against them [fringe groups] and show them their place. They should be told that they don't have a right [to cause a stir]. If they want to protest, they must do so in a civil manner. Yes, there is a sense of intolerance that is rising by the day. I hope artistes fight fearlessly. Such uproars cause distractions, drain our energy and lead to demoralisation. A musician can't be told to not sing a particular raag because it doesn't suit temperaments. A painter can't be stopped from painting something, lest someone protests by throwing acid on his face, or beheads him, or even cuts his nose. These were the threats that we received. This doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. It's very scary. I have overcome it, but the anger hasn't subsided. We have the right to say whatever we want to say. If it doesn't suit you, don't listen to me, or watch my film. People are protesting against elements that haven't even been showcased in the film. The greatest support came in the form of the audiences' decision to go to cinema halls and watch it. It was a message to those who protested, a sign that viewers aren't scared. If people's voices get louder, in the future, we won't succumb to them.
The depiction of Jauhar has received flak from a few, with Swara Bhaskar even recently penning an open letter criticising it..
Jauhar, in this context, is an act of war. Our men have died on the battlefield, but the war doesn't end there. They believe that the Rajputs have been vanquished. But, the women wage the [final] war. They decide that not a single woman or child would be subjugated to rape, or violation. That's what happened then. So, are people questioning Padmavati's decision?
I would assume they are questioning the decision to tell this story in this day-and-age, and the repercussions it may have..
This film is based on a story in which the character performs jauhar. The character doing so was convinced that it was an act of war. I feel it's an empowering thought. She didn't allow the enemy to win. It was a victory of dignity and honour. This is what transpired, and I can't question her. In those days, when there was no solution, harakiri [method of suicide] was prevalent. I can't question it. It is like asking why the Taj Mahal was made when the money spent in doing so could have been used for charity. Some will stand for it, some against it. And that is okay, because any work of art should be debated. But don't oppose my authority to make what I want to, or to narrate it in a particular way. No one is compelled to agree with everything that I have said. As long as we agree disagree, and the work is thought provoking, it's wonderful.
Have you fictonalised the poem Padmavat? According to the literature, it was Kumbhalne ruler Raja Devpal who kills Raja Rawal Ratan Singh [Shahid Kapoor]. But in the film, Ratan Singh becomes a victim of Malik Kafur [Jim Sarbh]…
That is why it's an adaptation. When catering to a different medium, a story must be open to interpretation. One has to dramatically tweak narratives when keeping the audience in mind. You will sketch an image of Goddess Lakshmi a manner that is at odds with how I will. This poem was also interpreted differently over the years. A film called Padmini (1964) showed the queen in a different manner. In fact, it includes a scene which features rani Padmini walking towards Khilji's tent and having a conversation with him. So, it is based on the poem. It's not the poem itself. In my case, the basic story was adhered to. Padmavat is the only document available about the incident. History books are have chronicled it in a brief manner.
People argue that Alauddin Khilji wasn’t the barbaric ruler that he has been shown to be. What are your views?
People say Ranveer's [Singh] Alauddin has been shown as a dark character. For me, he is the most colourful of them all. He had a sharp mind and an obstinate heart. He was a great emperor, and the empire thrived under him. I haven't enjoyed [showcasing] a character as much as I did this one. Art must be effortless and spontaneous. I would go on set and improvise. The scene where he throws ittar on a girl and then embraces her happened in the moment. I was enjoying myself. Ranveer is eccentric, and we brought his vivacious energy to Khilji.
Were you apprehensive about showcasing a mainstream hero as one that is bisexual?
It was documented. I asked Ranveer if he was comfortable with it and he agreed to do the role. We did not showcase it in a jarring manner. It was done with subtlety. Jim and he handled their act with delicateness and dignity. A lot was left for the viewer to gauge
The film, Black gives Mr Bachchan a completely new persona and impetus.
I’m grateful to Amitji for accommodating my film into his busy schedule. It’s fascinating to know that even today filmmakers are devising projects with him in mind. I think that makes him the greatest star-actor of our country. I’ve been his diehard fan from childhood. Ever since I started making movies it was my dream to work with him. Even my first film Khamoshi was written for Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan. But at that point of time he had taken a break from acting, and I felt with a baritone like his, he‘d never come back with a role that required him to be mute. For the fear of rejection I never approached him. But let me tell you, during Khamoshi I had already started to plan Black.
Black is ready for release. How does it feel?
Like delivering another baby (laughs). I’m relieved, ecstatic and tense as it goes into the world. Initially it was very tough making a film without songs. I can’t survive without songs. I listen to Lataji at least four-five hours a day. For me a film without songs was inconceivable before Black. But I wanted the challenge of attracting audience without my habitual leitmotif. The presence of India’s greatest star-actor Amitabh Bachchan helped me immensely. I’ve realized there’s no actor like him in Indian cinema. I’ve three idols Lata Mangeshkar, Birju Maharaj and Amitabh Bachchan. And I’m proud to say I’ve worked with two of them
Black departs from Devdas almost diametrically.
It was a spontaneous decision. After Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas I could’ve easily planned another film in the romantic genre. But I felt like moving away. My audience wants me to move on. Black is a subject I’ve lived with for six years. I just had to make it. Though Black has no songs it’s treated musically. The lyricism is inherent in the scenes which look like song sequences. A song isn’t the only way to interpret the lyricism. I didn’t miss songs in Black. They would’ve been a hindrance to the narrative.
Your Devdas was selected as one of the best musicals by Sight & Sound magazine…
Finally the hard work we put into creating the music seems to be paying off. I feel filmmakers need to create and cultivate tastes rather than pander to what the market thinks is the right product. For all the efforts that Ismail Durbar, Monty, Birju Maharaj and I put into creating the sound of Devdas everyone felt the music score in my earlier film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was better. But I feel we tend to revere the past unnecessarily. `Jo pehle hua wohachcha hai, jo ab hai wohtheek nahin hai…` We can’t cling to the past and rubbish the present. Film music needs to grow up. Songs don’t need to be designed for the television promotions. They must suit the film. Success on every other level must follow from that source. Images from the music should reflect the reality about the film. To get recognition for the music whose language is not accessible to the West is amazing.
Do you think Devdas got the recognition it deserved?
I feel Devdas has come a long way. It was premiered at the Cannes film festival –the first Indian film in years to get this chance. It got a BAFTA nomination. It got released in a dubbed French version in France with 50 prints with all the dances and songs. And people loved it! Everything went wrong during the making of Devdas. But it finally came out so right.
Do you think Black has the potential to create the same impact as Devdas?
When Lataji sings she doesn’t know she’s creating a monumental melody. Creation is about being fully alive. The whole nation has a heart. If a film has a heart it will reach out to everyone. Contrary to the title Black isn’t depressing at all. It’s an uplifting tale on the triumph of the human spirit. Incidentally black is my favourite colour and it’s got a universal resonance. I think it’s a powerful striking colour which describes the film’s sensitivities. Let me add that Black isn’t a small project that I’ve squeezed into my schedule. Certainly not! How can any film with Amitji be small? It’s going to be a very important film in my oeuvre. And Amitji’s and Rani’s performances will be remembered for a very very long time. That I'm very sure of.