Thursday, July 09, 2009

SANJAY LEELA BHANSALI: Sumptuous, Lush, Beautiful

It's been a while since I've done a Director's Round-Up... so here's one... with loads of screencaps... mainly of Aishwarya Rai... but please don't blame me for that if you're not an Ash fan - blame Sanjay Leela Bhansali!

I quite like Sanjay Leela Bhansali… he is a colourful figure – from his catfights with Farah Khan to his affection for kohl, to his occasional petulance and more-than-occasional pomposity; he has PERSONALITY. He can usually be found doing or saying something interesting – even outrageous - and that’s always fun. I like the fact that he puts himself out there and isn’t afraid to be mocked (which he usually is). I also really like his passion for film (and for actors) and his almost childlike response to both praise and criticism. But this post isn’t about Bhansali’s on-set tantrums, his complex relationships with other Bollywood personalities, his thwarted attempts to cast (and arguments with) Bebo, or his legendary love for his Maa… it’s about his work as a director.

Before taking on the directing mantle, Bhansali worked with prominent director Vidhu Vinod Chopra as assistant director (and screenwriter) on ‘1942: A Love Story’ (starring Anil Kapoor and Manisha Koirala), the classic gangster flick ‘Parinda’ (starring Nana Patekhar, Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor), and ‘Kareeb’ (with Bobby Deol and Neha). As an assistant director, SLB’s specialties were song picturisations, sound and dubbing – all very significant strengths that continue to be seen in the films he directs.

Since he started directing movies in 1996, Bhansali has certainly made a name for himself. More than that, he’s created a brand – there are certain things you can always expect to find in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Here are what I think are 4 of his most striking trademarks:

Visual Appeal: nothing if not an aesthete (and one of the highest order), SLB loves to create beauty onscreen. He does lots of close-ups of his (usually stunning) stars, puts lots of painstaking detail into the composition of his scenes, and just always goes for the pretty… even in a mostly sober film like ‘Black’.

He also has a distinct fondness for colour… while ‘Devdas’ overdosed on lush reds and golds, ‘Saawariya’ is bathed in hues of blue… a fact memorably lampooned by Shahrukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in their hilarious ‘Neela Neela’ sketch at the 2008 Filmfare Awards.

Romance & Tragedy: Bhansali loves a good, old-fashioned love story. Whether it’s a husband’s unrequited love (‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’), a student’s love for her guru (‘Black’), an unstable girl’s overwhelming yearning for her storybook hero (‘Saawariya’), or a prostitute’s love for a drunken loser (‘Devdas’), there’s always a love story at the heart of SLB’s films.

And there’s also always elements of sadness and pain – in HDDCS Vanraj’s adoration of Nandini is pitted against Nandini’s love for Sameer; in ‘Black’ two lonely souls can only help each other to a certain extent; in ‘Saawariya’ Raj ends up broken-hearted despite his best attempts to sabotage Sakina's romance with Imaan; in ‘Devdas’ Chandramukhi’s pure and selfless love is poor proof against Devdas’s determination to self-destruct. There is rarely a happy ending for the protagonists in SLB’s tales of love, and even where there is one (as in HDDCS), it comes slowly and at a price (and it’s worth noting here that there are many who would disagree with me about HDDCS ending happily.)

Grandeur and Luxury: Bhansali loves to do things on a soaring, sweeping, grand scale. He loves to create fantasy in his films – an epic place far away from our mundane everyday lives… a place where strange, eventful things happen everyday. It’s never boring in his world.

His sets are so opulent as well… he likes gorgeous, glamorous things. Lots of lush, expensive silks, flowers, crystals and precious stones…. Sometimes, as with HDDCS, I love it. Sometimes, as with ‘Devdas’, I think he just goes way overboard! There was just way too much bling in that film… it just hurt my eyes sometimes!!

Music: SLB is very adventurous when it comes to the music in his films. He clearly adores music – his first film, ‘Khamoshi – The Musical’ was, as its name implies, a musical, and all his films have a strong musical element and lots of song picturisations (something I think he’s very good at). I also think he has a fantastic ear – something he doesn’t get much credit for. He is happy to take a chance on fresh, lesser-known musical talent – like Monty Sharma, Anjan Biswas and Ismail Darbar.

The music in his films is always so distinctive, creative and well-suited to the film. I think he is a genius at weaving songs into the fabric of his films… you can’t hear ‘Nimbooda’ without picturing Ash in HDDCS, ‘Chhabeela’ without thinking about Rani’s sass, ‘Dola Re Dola’ without picturing Madhuri and Ash in mid-twirl, or ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’ without picturing Ranbir in that infamous towel.

Bhansali is currently taking his love for music a step further by composing the songs for his 2010 project ‘Guzaarish’, a film which he calls ‘a tribute to Lata Mangeshkar’. Aishwarya and Hrithik, who made an effective jodi in ‘Dhoom II’ and ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, are set to co-star…. I think this is a pretty bold move; there aren't a lot of directors that also do good music (in mainstream Hindi cinema, I can only think of Vishal Bhardwaj at the moment (do you know of any others?) and of course Clint Eastwood in Hollywood).

Like most directors, SLB tends to work with the same crop of actors: Salman Khan shows up in 3 of his 5 films; and Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee and Zohra Sehgal show up in 2 each. He isn’t averse to new talent, though - he famously took a chance on two fresh faces when he cast Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor in ‘Saawariya’. I think he gave each of them a really great showcase – the film may have flopped, but they each made very effective industry debuts. Others will disagree, but I think SLB is definitely an actor’s director. He may be a painstaking control freak, but I don’t think that he inhibits his actors – in fact, one might argue that he sometimes over-indulges them and fails to rein them in when necessary (case in point: SRK’s performance in ‘Devdas’).

I think he actually maximizes his actors’ talents – he capitalizes on Aishwarya’s beauty and formidable dancing skills while also giving her roles that maximize her modest acting talents. He capitalizes on Salman’s youthful exuberance while also allowing him to be shallow (apologies to Sallu fans – I like the guy, but I really don’t think he has loads of depth – and while we’re on the subject, I think SLB cast Salman appropriately in ‘Saawariya’ – let’s face it, his youthful charm has worn thin. This role (tiny as it was) had a little maturity to it, something Sallu Chacha desperately needs at this point). On the flipside, Bhansali gives Rani Mukherjee demanding roles (although he should have used her more in ‘Saawariya’ – she was the best thing about that film!), allowing her to put that powerhouse talent to good effect.

I also think the ability to write a screenplay that allows characters to grow, develop and express themselves through more than just their dialogues, is one of SLB’s strengths. I do sometimes think his focus on the characters’ nuances and foibles takes something away from the development of the story – sometimes (most strikingly in ‘Saawariya’) you’re just not sure where it’s all going. But I do think he writes a good screenplay.

Unlike Karan Johar, whose scriptwriting genius I find lies in his use of language and his ability to put together a thoroughly effective dialogue, I think Bhansali really knows how to ‘sketch’ a good scene – with SLB the body language and movements of the characters within their immediate environment is more important, more striking, than what actually comes out of their mouths. This I suppose is because he possibly thinks more in terms of visuals than words – something which can be a distinct strength (as in HDDCS – remember the chandelier scene, or the tram scene?) or a weakness (as in ‘Saawariya’ – great visuals, not a lot of substance). He seems happy to let someone else handle the dialogues while he focuses his energy on setting up his scenes and creating the ‘moment’.

Whew… who knew I had so much to say about Sanjay Leela Bhansali? He’s not even one of my favourite directors… anyway, to round off this roundup… I’ve seen 4 of Bhansali’s 5 films (I’m hoping to watch ‘Khamoshi’ soon – it’s generally very well-liked), and here are my brief thoughts on each of them….

BLACK: Rani Mukherjee hands in an amazing, sensitive performance as a blind, deaf and mute girl, Michelle McNally, who is helped by her teacher, Debraj Sahai (played by Amitabh Bachchan) to engage with the world around her. Later in life, Michelle gets a chance to return the favour. Ayesha Kapoor, the child actor who plays the young Michelle, is also pretty remarkable – speaking of which, Aamir Khan’s comments on the film kicked up quite a storm (see The Bollywood Fan's comments on the controversy here)…. I enjoyed this film for the stellar performances, the quietness, intensity and humanity of the drama, and the lovely dream-like quality it has.

HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM: HDDCS offers gorgeous visuals, beautiful music, and great performances by all the major players (especially Ajay Devgan, but Ash and Salman are very good too). Fake Italy (aka Hungary) really annoyed me – perhaps to an irrational extent, but I still really enjoyed it, and I love how it ended (although there are many who don’t). I think I’ve grown to appreciate it more with the passage of time, which doesn’t happen with a lot of films. I really love Filmi Girl’s 2-part write-up on the film – check it out.

DEVDAS: A very flawed film, but I think this is worth watching for the song picturisations, Madhuri Dixit’s poised, classy performance, Madhuri and Ash’s fantastic dancing, some excellent music, some very prettily staged scenes and Kirron Kher. I do so love SRK, but the less said about his highly annoying and unsympathetic portrayal of Devdas, the better. Oh dear.

SAAWARIYA: All the reviews of this film were so DIRE that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I didn’t love it, but it’s thankfully quite short, and worth watching for Rani’s sexy earthiness (especially in ‘Chhabeela’), Sonam’s gorgeousness, and of course, Ranbir in that towel… hot stuff. When I revisit this film, I watch ‘Chhabeela’ and ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’, flick through a couple of Sonam and Ranbir’s scenes, and really find that it’s not quite that bad!


shell said...

It must be a Sanjay kind of month! I just reviewed 2 of his movies, and then I find your wonderful recap on his work. I loved the breakdown of each of his movies and I was surprised we feel similarily towards them, though I've yet to see Black or Khamoshi - incidentally HDDCS so far is my favorite of the bunch. I absolutely agree that his movies are very beautiful. Everything from the sets to the dancing to the costumes is a treat to see.

I think watching a Bhansali film is kind of like going to eat at a buffet. Everything looks so delicious and you eat and eat and eat until you are stuffed and tired!

Wonderful post!!!!

bollywooddeewana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bollywooddeewana said...

Vah vah, vah kya baat hai, super awesome post on Bhansali, i'm sure if he reads this he would have a glint in his eye ;0)

Have you ever thought of becoming a screenplay writer or perharps producing your own film, you dissect filmmakers works so well

I hope this gets published in some magazine or something, its very well written and heartfelt

Shabash Mera dost

dustedoff said...

Ah, nice post, though I've seen even less of SLB's work than you have - I've still not got around to seeing Saanwariya. I think I like HDDCS the best (one of the few films where I thought Ash was tolerable; I don't like her much - lovely but so wooden!). Black too is beautiful, but not the sort of film I'd watch multiple times; it's just too sad for me. Devdas is - well, okay. SRK overacts, and I thought it just too opulent a production, overall.

Will look out for Saanwariya the next time it's on TV!

Daddy's Girl said...

@shell: Thank you so much! I really enjoyed your reviews, and we do have very similar thoughts about his films, especially HDDCS. Your comparison to a buffet is so very apt - sometimes (as with Devdas), it's all too much and you end up with a belly-ache - other times you have a very enjoyable meal!

@bollywooddeewana: Thank you so much for your kind words!

@dustedoff: I'm with you on Ash - she's gorgeous, and I think she's an excellent dancer, but not a great acting talent by any means. Saawariya on the whole is not a good film, but I thought it had a couple of nice moments... of course, after reading so many awful reviews, my expectations were extremely low and easily met! Do let us know what you think of it when you eventually stumble upon it...

Miss Iyabo Opeke said...

I know this is the only place I can still catch you. Was just thinking about how I miss reading from you today...How have you been?

I am one of those huge Ash fan too...

As per, d Saanwariya movie...I bought the movie for keep but I just have not summoned up the courage to watch it (can you imagine that?)
Anyways, do stay in touch...I think when I come to Naija, we may meet & chat...Take care

bollyviewer said...

Lovely recap of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. His colorful personality sounds more fun than his films, though. I too liked HDDCS (I am NOT a Sallu fan and thought it ended very happily!) but Devdas was a deal breaker. He took a bad story, made it worse, and then crammed it with sickening quantities of opulence! I've consciously stayed away from SLB's other films after being scarred by Devdas, but your comments give me hope for Saawariya!

Daddy's Girl said...

@Miss Opeke: Hey! I've missed you LOADS! How are you? I can't say I blame you about Saawariya - I had it for quite a while before I finally got to it as well. Take your time, you're really not missing that much! I admire Ash a lot for her business savvy and professionalism, and I think she's beautiful and a fantastic dancer - I am not a fan, though, as I think she is a little too cold and not a great actor - but it's good to know she does have fans like you! Would love to meet you when you visit - let's definitely keep in touch!

@bollyviewer: Thank you - I agree, SLB doesn't do fun in his films; he likes loads of drama and angst - he keeps all the fun for his personal life and his dealings with the film fraternity! He really went way overboard with Devdas - didn't display a great taste level there! But if it put you off his films, I'm not sure Saawariya will help - in fact it might make you swear off his work for life - it's just not a very strong or cohesive piece of work... perhaps you could try the songs on YouTube and see what you think?

ajnabi said...

Excellent breakdown of SLB's films. Add me to those who didn't hate Saawariya--it was a highly effective debut for Sonam & Ranbir, it had Rani looking utterly gorgeous and playing the most interesting character (very good), and I agree that it was one of the best performances Salman's turned in... Well, in a long time. (Although I did like him in Salaam-e-Ishq, my favorite part of that performance was when he was back at his hotel and in charge. He should play the older guy more often!)

I have Devdas but keep it solely for the songs and for the Madhuri scenes.

Daddy's Girl said...

ajnabi: What a relief to see that someone else didn't detest 'Saawariya' - it's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not quite as horrible as it's made out to be. You are SO right about Salman - he really needs to take a break from all the young loverboy roles, and do more mature stuff! The songs and Madhuri really are the best thing about 'Devdas'... it's almost shocking how badly SLB bungled that film.

Aparna said...

Great post, as usual...full of depth and breadth :) and great pics to match up.
You are pbly one of the very few who appreciated Rani's work in Sawaariya, and I agree.

Daddy's Girl said...

Hi Aparna! It's lovely to hear from you - it's been ages. Just been over to your blog and found out that you've embarked on a new adventure... congratulations! Glad to know you're keeping well. Thanks for your kind words... Rani didn't get the applause she deserved for 'Saawariya', and things haven't looked up for her since then! Really hoping she has a hit with 'Dil Bole Hadippa' - I'm still a big fan of the lady...

yves said...

Hi DG,

Well it's been some time I came here, and I'm rewarded by this very nice post on Bhansali, which even though he's sometimes over the top, I appreciate as a creator of lavish beauty and great picturisation. So thanks!

Here's the link to SLB's Jhamoshi, which perhaps you had not read:

Pessimisissimo said...

Welcome back to posting, Daddy's Girl! This is an excellent survey of SLB's strengths (and occasional weaknesses) as a director. I like Devdas more than you do, Sawaariya less, and Salman hardly at all, but I thought you described beautifully the elements that can make an SLB film compelling.

As an example of what SLB can do so brilliantly I think of "Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan" from HDDCS:

The subtle (and not-so-subtle) looks between Aishwarya and Salman, their flirtatious interaction, Salman's moment of fantasy at around the 2:40 mark (notice how the lamps Aish supposedly blew out still burn), the fluid camera that moves in and around all the characters, and the haunting music all combine to make an unforgettable picturization that reveals a wealth of detail about the characters. Wah!

Thanks so much for this thoughtful appreciation of SLB!

Daddy's Girl said...

Hi Yves: Thanks! Really enjoyed your post on 'Khamoshi', looking forward to seeing it.

Pessimisissimo: Thank you. I had forgotten how great the picturisation of 'Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan' is. Wah indeed!

Amaluu said...

Khamoshi is a brilliant, beautiful film that I hope you get to at some point. This movie never fails to reduce me to hopeless tears EVERY SINGLE TIME I see it. It is a simpler film, it lacks the lavish sets and colors and costumes of SLB's later films, but the story and the acting is heartbreaking and lovely and powerful. Nana Patekar is absolutely incredible, and Manisha Koirala has done the performance of her lifetime in this movie. I can't watch the song "Yeh Dil Sun Raha Hai" without bursting into tears when Nana Patekar starts crying. What an actor!

I hope you will update me when you do get around to this film!

Daddy's Girl said...

Wow, 'Khamoshi' sounds absolutely wonderful... can't wait to see it!