All the cinema in Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB)’s dazzling oeuvre ends on a note of the darkest tragedy. This is true of every glistening masterpiece from Khamoshi: The Musical (1996) to his latest Padmavati where Deepika Padukone’s character perishes in the holy fire of jauhar rather than succumb to the advances of the enemy.
“Pain, suffering, hurt and eventual healing…These are the constants in my life and they’re bound to show up in one form or another in all my work,” says SLB who had to face a lot of opposition to Padmavati which eventually went on to become a blockbuster. “I am no stranger to pain and suffering. It’s happened in one form or another throughout my life,” says SLB cryptically. Making his directorial debut in Khamoshi: The Musical was not easy. There are mythical stories of wild arguments on location in Goa with Nana Patekar who wanted to interpret the character of the deaf and mute possessive father in his own way while the director pulled the other way. Khamoshi was meant to end with the tragic death of Anna (Manisha Koirala), but the producers forced SLB to go for a strained happy ending. He regrets giving in to pressures. “But I had no choice. If today I had to remake Khamoshi The Musical I’d restore the original tragic ending.”
SLB’s second film Hum…Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) had a happy ending for Ajay Devgan’s love story. But a very sad ending for Salman Khan. Ajay got Aishwarya, while Salman didn’t. Salman was so pissed off with the finale that he got his mentor Sooraj Barjatya to come and convince SLB that Aishwarya’s character should go with Salman. SLB stuck to his guns. “One man’s grief is another man’s joy,” he says. “In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam both Amitabh Bachchan Saab and Rajesh Khanna Saab wanted to die at the end. Hrishida announced the winner’s name by putting a garlanded photograph of Khanna Saab on the set.” Next up, Devdas. The ultimate romantic tragedy. It was shot under the most gruelling circumstances, what with the producer under the police’s scanner for underworld links going in and out of the hospital. Recalls Sanjay, “I’d shoot one day then wait for the money for next day’s shooting…” It came to a point where the actors were shooting without pay, until one day, one of the leads refused to shoot.
“Pehle paise phir shooting,” proclaimed the lead. “I had to rush out of the shooting and somehow arrange for the money before we resumed shooting,” recalls Sanjay.
SLB’s next Black again had a grim tragic death at the end. When the director shot Amitabh Bachchan’s death sequence he went into a deep depression for days thereafter. “Bachchan Saab is the kind of actor who makes dying on screen seem like a poetic statement. Think of all his famous death scenes. I still get goosebumps…We were all in a depression for a very long time,” recalls SLB. The filmmakers was determined to not let the finale of his next film Guzaarish become dark and tragic , although it was about a quadriplegic man opting for euthanasia. “We were determined to not show the death of the hero (Hrithik Roshan) even though the film was about euthanasia. By then I had enough on death and dying,” says SLB. By the time he came to Saawariya death was the last thing on his mind. But yes, the film was an opera-on-film about the death of love. Ranbir Kapoor doesn’t get Sonam Kapoor in the end. Then came the three back-to-back costume dramas. Goliyon Ki Raas Leela Ram Leela, the gujju Romeo & Juliet and then Bajirao Mastani, both ended on notes of abject tragedy. The same is true of Padmavati where the Queen’s struggle for self-preservation ends in mass self-immolation. Fire, death, suffering, hurt….these have dominated Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vision throughout his career so far. How does he manage to keep himself from falling apart under the weight of the endless creative angst? “I don’t know. I think it’s the suffering that propels me forward. I feel if I don’t have to struggle to make a film it may not be fulfilling at all,” says SLB.