Sanjay Leela Bhansali shares his excitement with Subhash K Jha.
Ram-Leela opened last week to stupendous reviews and roaring audiences. How are you feeling?
It feels…liberating! I’ve finally slept peacefully the whole night. The last few weeks have been traumatic. The protests left me shaken and drained. But now that the film is being so appreciated I’ve blocked out all the troubles. When your work is being seen and appreciated, you feel all the effort has been worth it. I am happy to see the audience is getting the nuances in the narration. The passion of the entire cast and crew has paid off.
Ram-Leela comes after the failure of two of your films?
Yes, we had worked with equal passion on Saawariya and Guzaarish. Both the films are as precious to me as Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. But somehow our efforts did not connect with the audience in my last two films. That broke my heart. I got back to direction determined to get back my audience. I needed Ram-Leela to reach out to the widest possible audience. Not that I made Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela to prove anything. I made the film I enjoyed making and I hoped audiences would share my pleasure.
While Devdas the film from your oeuvre comparable with Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela was panned by some Indian critics, this time your work has been appreciated by critics across the board?
I’d be lying if I said critical appreciation is not important. Interpretation and deconstruction are important to any work of art. If there are is an art behind making a film, viewing films is also an art.
The critics have gone wah-wah in one voice this time?
One shouldn’t get too carried away by praise or too disheartened by criticism. I feel very blessed that the nuances layering and artistry of the film, and I don’t mean just my vision but Wasiq Khan’s art direction and Ravi Burman’s camerawork, the dialogue writers and the costumes, have been understood and appreciated. Bad reviews are the writer’s prerogative. I don’t mind criticism as long as it is not biased. Devdas was panned by some Indian critics but was unanimously praised by Western critics. It’s often a mixed bag. I understand the critic also has his moods. He may be watching my film after a fight with his wife or a run-in in the traffic with a commuter.
Somewhere this film seems close to the environment you grew up in?
The Bhansali clan is extremely robust frank and colourful in their language. I grew up hearing my aunts say the most outrageously uninhibited things as though they were the most natural thing in the world. I realized the language I heard in my childhood is the spoken idiom of today’s youngsters. And I am not talking about using abusive terms and four-letter words. There is just that sense of candour and directness in the way the young talk. And audiences have warmed up to the celebration of physicality in the love relationship. As a filmmaker it’s very liberating to explore the union of body and mind in a love-relationship. It’s no longer enough to show a boy and a girl looking at one another when they fall in love.
And yet your lovers Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh don’t really sleep together in the film in spite of all the bawdy and the body exchanges?
That’s the irony which took me away from the original Shakespearean play. For me it was important to show that the lovers could only be united completely in death. I wanted to hold back the consummation of their love.
How hard was it for you to make Ranveer and Deepika convey the sexual tension?
I just had to explain to them what I wanted. They had never played such unabashed characters. Once in a while, Deepika would get taken aback by her character’s uninhibited behaviour. But she would convey exactly what I wanted. Both of them are marvelous actors. There’s so much innocence in their expression of sexual curiosity about one another. If I said to them that the lovers don’t talk anymore but kiss because there’s nothing more to be said, my actors knew exactly why dialogue was no longer required. They made the expression of love so effortless and magical. Ranveer and Deepika have conveyed the feelings between the lovers so beautifully. I don’t think any other two actors could’ve done what they’ve done. They have conveyed the purest form of love.
Pure is a strange word to use considering how physical they are?
Why do you say that? Look at Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam. That scene where he tickles her with a feather is so sensuous. In Raj Kapoor’s cinema there is so much physicality in the love-relationships. Or the ‘More Piya‘ song in my Devdas, where that one gesture when Shah Rukh removed that thorn from Aishwarya’s foot was so sensuous. I feel the sexual tension between Ranveer and Deepika is very innocent.
You’ve turned Romeo & Juliet into something Shakespeare wouldn’t have recognized?
Romeo & Juliet is the mother of all love stories. It has gone through so many cinematic interpretations. The challenge was how to do something different with it. I couldn’t make it the way Shakespeare wrote it. Yet I had to keep the theme of misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. But I had to transpose the lovers to another level. The idea of a feud between two families that destroys everything really appealed to me. I had to shoot the balcony scene in a very playful way. The whole execution of Shakespeare is more flirtatious and voluptuous. Thanks to my team I could pull it off. I could put to film what I thought to be the best interpretation of Romeo & Juliet. This was the film that I wanted to make right after my first film Khamoshi: The Musical. It was marinating in my mind for a long time.
For the first time you shot a film almost entirely on location?
That’s how I designed my Romeo & Juliet. Lots of street rowdyism and gulli-mein-hungama, the desert and the lake…Likewise Saawariya had to be shot entirely in a make believe world created in a studio. Going out and shooting was a big challenge. It was also so interesting to shoot so many different kinds of architecture. Putting my lovers in a real space was very liberating. I was reacting to spaces very differently this time. But even parts of Hum…Dil De Chuke Sanam and Guzaarish were shot on actual locations.
What about the guns and violence?
I loved it. It’s very important for a filmmaker to get out of his comfort zone. Violence is such an integral part of Romeo & Juliet. My action director Sham Kaushal always wondered why I asked him to be part of my films. The most violent thing that has happened in my cinema so far was a slap. Thistime Shyam has justified his pay cheque.
Relief, joy, great satisfaction. Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela has been an exhausting liberating experience. I am so much consumed by the film. I am so happy by the way people have reacted. Everyone from Karan Johar and Rishi Kapoor to Asha Parekhji and Javed Akhtar Saab loved it. I am not even thinking of what film I will do next. Right now I am happily jobless.