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.
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!