As Bhansali celebrates his 55th birthday, let’s take a look back at a story from MW’s June 2002 issue where Rajeev Masand had interviewed Bhansali when a similar magnum opus was on the anvil: Bhansali had spent a frenetic two years making Devdas, coming rather close to breaking the spirit of his assistant directors in the process.

Deepika Padukone - Padmaavat - Films Stills
Deepika Padukone in a still from Padmaavat

The best thing about Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the manic passion with which he approaches his job. It is also, as people who’ve collaborated with him on his movies will tell you, his worst trait. Stories about his temper tantrums, his bouts of depression, and his obsession with details are all now part of Bollywood folklore.

In the five years it has been since his debut film Khamoshi opened to rave reviews but empty halls, the film-maker is considered among the country’s most impressive emerging talents. He is known to be among the most demanding and difficult persons to work with. Almost a dozen assistants worked with him during the making of Devdas. Some were sacked by Bhansali himself, who didn’t find them “committed enough” to the job at hand, others left the project midway, unable to take his maniacal ways. “It’s a sacred medium. You can’t afford to take things lightly,” he says, defending himself against all the accusations. “To me, my film is like my little baby. If I see my assistants poke my baby, pinch him, and drop hot tea on him, I’m not going to be able to take it,” he says exasperatedly.

As Devdas inches towards a nationwide release this month, Bhansali says he’s growing more and more anxious by the day. “So much is riding on this film,” he says, insisting that the audience’s approval of Devdas will be the perfect ending to the two-year struggle it has been to bring Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s classic novel to the screen once again. Controversy and bad luck dogged the project through much of its making. Accidents on the sets claimed the lives of two unit workers, financier Bharat Shah was arrested for his alleged links with the underworld, Bhansali himself received extortion threats, and shortly before the film’s background score had been composed, music director Ismail Darbar walked out of the film after his umpteenth row with the film-maker. “On so many occasions we felt the film was doomed. That we might never be able to complete it. But perhaps it was destined to happen, and that’s why it has,” he says.

According to Aishwarya Rai, who stars in the film as Paro, “This film would never have turned out the way it has, had it been conceived and executed by another director.” Rai says Devdas bears Bhansali’s stamp all over it— “It’s entirely his vision, everything. From the fabrics used for our costumes to the chandeliers on the set, he’s handpicked everything himself”—and believes that contrary to popular belief, the audience will not be tempted to compare Bhansali’s version to those made by Bimal Roy and P C Barua “because his is so different and unique, and because it is clearly a very personal interpretation of the story.”

“On so many occasions we felt the film was doomed. That we might never be able to complete it. But perhaps it was destined to happen, and that’s why it has.”

Providing the film the kind of grandeur that has not been seen on the Hindi screen since the days of Mughal-e-Azam was also a personal statement. Devdas cost Rs 50 crore to make, easily the most expensive film ever made in this country. Rs 12 crore was spent on constructing Chandramukhi’s kotha alone. Birju Maharaj was brought in to train Madhuri Dixit to dance in the kotha which was lit by power provided by 42 generators.1,20,000 pieces of stained glass was used to create the mirrored walls of the room in which a heart-broken Paro, played by Aishwarya Rai spends her time. Shah Rukh Khan’s suits came from London stores that still stock vintage suits. 

Much has been written about the liberties Bhansali has taken with the original story, and the film-maker himself has made it more than clear that he could never have done this film any other way. What he has not perhaps made public knowledge yet, is his real inspiration behind choosing to tell this tale. “My father was a lot like Devdas. We never really got along when he was alive, but on his dying day when I saw him reach out to my mother in a state of coma, I realised that the bond they shared was much deeper than can ever be put into words,” the director says. “Far from being a loser who wastes away his life, I see Devdas as a man who is so passionate about his love that it eventually consumes his entire being,” Bhansali adds.

Born to middle-class parents and raised in a noisy Bhuleshwar chawl in South central Mumbai, Bhansali was consumed by the lure of celluloid early in life. “My first memory of the film business is going for a shooting with my father when I was barely four,” he reveals. “It was some cheesy B-grade film, and they were shooting a cabaret song. But just watching them work dedicatedly, trying to get the shot perfect, I lost my heart to the job.” What followed was a stint at the FTII in Pune (where his sister Bela was training to be an editor), after which he briefly assisted film-maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

Bhansali’s first film was a statement that he did not want to be counted among the kind of film-makers who were out to make a quick buck out of ‘safe’ entertainers. Despite its box-office failure, Khamoshi gave ample evidence of his talent, and with his second film, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Bhansali proved that one does not have to compromise on artistic integrity to make a successful, commercial potboiler.

“To me, my film is like my little baby. If I see my assistants poke my baby, pinch him, and drop hot tea on him, I’m not going to be able to take it.”

His mother Leela, after whom he takes his middle name, says she’s confident Devdas will not let down the director’s admirers. “It might sound a little shallow because I’m saying this of my own son, but I’m unsure if you’ll find a director here who’s as consumed by his job as Sanjay. He’s really completely possessed when he’s making a film,” she says. Bhansali, meanwhile, who counts his mother as a considerable influence in his life (he based Seema Biswas’ character in Khamoshi after his mother), says she’s the biggest strength he has on his side. “When I come home every evening after fighting the odds and dealing with every negative force there is out there, she comforts me with her positive energy, her belief in me, and the faith she has in fairness,” he says. At 37, he doesn’t refute the charge that he’s still a mama’s boy.

Despite the clout he wields in Bollywood, Bhansali can never compare with the savvy of Karan Johar, the cucumber-cool attitude of Farhan Akhtar, or the composed genius of Ashutosh Gowariker. Unlike them, he’s not a page-three celebrity, and he never makes news the way they do. “I’m just not a very social guy,” he attempts to explain. “He’s always been a lonely child,” his mother adds. “Parties and social occasions don’t interest me. I’d rather curl up with a book,” Bhansali insists. “In fact, I can safely say that there’s very little to me apart for my interest in film,” he quickly adds.

Strangely, for a man who claims movies make his world go round, he’s not an avid fan of contemporary cinema, Indian or foreign. He jogs his memory to come up with the name of the last film he watched (“It was probably Lagaan”), and simply refuses to stretch his memory far back enough to remember the last film he truly enjoyed. Even then, he’s ecstatic that Devdas was invited to the Cannes Film Festival for a special screening, and says he couldn’t have asked for a more prestigious platform for the film’s first unveiling. 

“I’m unsure if you’ll find a director here who’s as consumed by his job as Sanjay. He’s really completely possessed when he’s making a film.”

As he gets ready to get Devdas out of his system, Bhansali says he really has no clue what he wants to dive into next. In passing he mentions that he’d like to direct Amitabh Bachchan someday, “and I’d like to cast him in a role that does justice to his talent”. He’s also fascinated about finding an appropriate part for Naseeruddin Shah, “who deserves so much more than he’s been getting lately.” But of late, he confesses he can’t look beyond Shah Rukh Khan, who he says has surprised him completely with the delicateness it took to portray Devdas. “At the cost of never being able to get another actor to work for me again, I’ll say that no other actor could have played the role the way Shah Rukh has.” Bhansali says the actor searched deep within himself to find some of the emotions it took to play the brooding protagonist of his film. “I think that somewhere the film has forced Shah Rukh to ask himself a lot of questions and to come to terms with a lot of issues going on in his mind,” Bhansali says, then refuses to elaborate any more on the subject.

The Manic Obsessions of Sanjay Leela Bhansali

“I don’t know where I go from here,” he says rather pensively, “in scale, I’m not sure I could find a bigger film to make than this, but I know there are stories dying to be told. I know that irrespective of the fate of Devdas, I will go on making movies of the kind I like. I will never compromise on my integrity and I will never sell my soul for commercial gains.” For the moment, he yearns for the audience to appreciate Devdas. “It will break my heart if the people for whom I made this film don’t embrace it with all their heart. After all, considering everything that’s gone into the making of this film, I don’t want to be the only one in the cinema hall watching it,” he says, crossing his fingers for luck.

This story first appeared in MW magazine in June 2002 (Issue 28)

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Film stills, and video stills

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