B2B Bhansali's Bajirao
This clash has created awkwardness between Shah Rukh and me — Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the box-office battle with Dilwale and why he enjoyed being lost in the world of Bajirao Mastani
- Published 2.12.15
It’s the morning after the release of the trailer of Bajirao Mastani and as t2 walks into Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s office in Mumbai’s Juhu on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, there is none of the frenzy and frenetic activity that one had witnessed the previous evening. Posters of his films — Saawariya to Ram-Leela — adorn the walls and the tastefully done-up office affords a view of the Mumbai skyline. Bhansali, dressed in a mustard-coloured kurta, is sitting on a sofa with an assistant reading out tweets in praise of the trailer. But he wraps up quickly and turns his focus to the t2 chat.
Over the next 30 minutes, the man known for films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Black chatted about his passion project — starring Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra and set for a December 18 release — and why there’s an awkwardness now with his ‘Devdas’, Shah Rukh Khan.
Do you think a well-received trailer is half the battle won or does it actually create more pressure on you when it comes to the film?
It works both ways. The initial reveal that you do is a very important part of filmmaking today because people decide on the basis of the trailer whether they want to watch your film or not. When they like a trailer as much as they have liked this one, then you get worried that now the responsibility is on you that they like the film as much (smiles). But in this case, I am quite confident that they will like the film. The trailer has not only impressed visually, people are also liking the emotional troughs and crests of the characters. They want to know more about the characters... they feel for what Priyanka (as Kashibai, Bajirao’s first wife) is saying... they feel the love story that exists between Ranveer (Bajirao) and Deepika’s (Mastani) characters. It’s the emotional connect that works best for a trailer and Bajirao Mastani has achieved that. And yes, to answer your question, I am very happy, but nervous as hell too! (Laughs)
When did you first hear about Bajirao and Mastani and why was it important for you to tell their story?
I wanted to tell it because it’s a love story. A love story that has all the dead-ends… all kinds of challenges… seems impossible to achieve. Love stories have always been my forte. I hadn’t done a period film since Devdas (2002). I was intrigued about going back 200 years into our history and telling the story of two people who defied everything, just to be in love with each other. It’s not a story that you will find in any textbook in the world... the fact that so little was known about these people is what intrigued me. I loved the Maratha backdrop and the fact that two religions — Bajirao was Hindu, Mastani was Muslim — were coming together, really pushed me to keep wanting to know more about them. In those times, people were offended by the same things that offend them today... religion and love. Through this film, I want to show that love is the greatest religion. Mujhe lagaa ki yeh ek story hai jo aaj itni hi relevant hai jitni ki do sau saal pehle thi.
This is a film that’s given me the opportunity to be a director, write the lyrics and score the music... I love architecture and design and picking a story like this made me travel back in time and live in that era... what more could I, as a storyteller, want? It’s been 12 years since I first decided to make Bajirao Mastani and I enjoyed making the film so many years later in exactly the same way as I thought I would when I first heard the story.
The story stayed with you for years and became your passion project, but you struggled to put it together. How tough has the wait been?
With every film I wrapped up, I wanted to make Bajirao Mastani (smiles). I wanted to make it after Black, after Guzaarish.... I kept trying to revive it over and over again, but if there is one thing that filmmaking has taught me, it’s that every film has its own destiny... jab usko banna hota hai, woh tab hi banta hai (smiles). And I strongly believe that the souls of these three people — Bajirao, Mastani and Kashibai — wanted us to make this film only now. There were so many filmmakers who wanted to make Bajirao Mastani... Muzaffar Ali saab wanted to make it... even Manmohan Desai had started it, so had Kamal Amrohi... but every project fizzled out.
I have struggled 12 years to put it together... and I am happy I have made it and I am grateful that it has stayed alive in my heart with as much conviction as it did 12 years ago. And I am happy that I made it now because I am a much better filmmaker than I was 12 years ago (smiles).
Did you ever feel in these 12 years that it wouldn’t ever get made?
There were many, many times when I did think it was impossible, but then I would shake myself up and say: ‘No, no, but there is magic to it’ (smiles). I am a very resilient person... once I decide I want something, I make sure I go after it and get it. Honestly, I want very few things in life... so I know that I am resilient enough to get them all! (Laughs) Deep down, I kept asking for the universe to let me make this film. When you dream very genuinely, then I believe you also get the power to fulfil it. In pursuing Bajirao Mastani, I have been resilient and very focused. I have sacrificed a lot of things... I have felt humiliated every time my plan of making this film fizzled out when people I had signed on deserted me. And I would think: ‘Why can’t the world see that I am trying to do something special here... why can’t they understand my vision?!’
When did you feel that Ranveer and Deepika could be your Bajirao and Mastani?
During Ram-Leela (2013). Working with Deepika then, I realised what an evolved artiste she is… what a beautiful actor she is and mind you, I am not just talking about her physical beauty here. Ranveer impressed me with his dedication and his chameleon-like quality. I formed an equation with them as we worked together on Ram-Leela… and then I started loving them (smiles). Priyanka did a song (Ram chahe Leela) for me in the film and then, finally, I spoke to all three of them in the last phase of Ram-Leela. And they were on board in a heartbeat (smiles).
Despite you being so much in control of your material, did it get overwhelming at any point?
(Pauses. Thinks) I have worked damn hard on this film. I took all my feelings of awe and shoved them out of the window. If there was a set that had to be 200ftx200ft, I was sure it didn’t change by an inch and if that meant longer days spent at work and double the headache, I was ready for that… for this film, I was prepared to push myself to places I hadn’t been to before. We’ve spent a lot of money (Rs 150 crore) on this one… and yet it’s not about the money. I was never overwhelmed by the scale or the magnitude of what I had taken on. My actors would look this tiny (gestures with his thumb and forefinger) when they walked on set. There were days when I would get lost on my own set because it was that huge! (Laughs out loud) But I enjoyed being lost in the world of Bajirao Mastani. I just enjoyed the fact that a handful of us just got together to make something unimaginable… what Hollywood creates with more VFX and more green screens… we created at about one-tenth the budget because of the kind of massive talent we have.
For a film like this, how do you walk the thin line between keeping it historically accurate and also Bollywood-ise it?
Number one, it’s a love story between Bajirao and Mastani and is something that is not necessarily chronicled in history books. There is a lot about Bajirao the warrior and his philosophies and ideologies, but not about his love story. There are many versions of their story and how they met as there are many versions of the equation between Kashibai and Mastani… Kusum Choppra (in her book Mastani) writes that the two wives were very cordial with each other. We have made the film based on the book Raau by (N.S.) Inamdar saab. When you are focusing on a love story as we are, you have to exercise some kind of cinematic licence. As a filmmaker, you need to build the drama… perhaps highlight a certain incident and make it a little more explosive or you could sometimes take an explosive moment and keep it subtle because you don’t want to ruffle feathers.
Yes, it’s a very responsible job to make a historical, especially when it’s a love story. How much of Anarkali or Mughal-e-Azam is true? We don’t know. There will be certain sections that will object to certain things in a historical. I have taken a lot of care to respect everyone’s sentiments, but yes, you have to Bollywood-ise and take the story to the whole nation… it’s not a Marathi film… it has to appeal to a pan-Indian audience.
Do you think some of the romances you have shown so far — Raj and Annie in Khamoshi, Sameer and Nandini in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Paro and Devdas in Devdas, Ram and Leela in Ram-Leela... — were a build-up to you telling the love story of Bajirao and Mastani?
(Pauses) I don’t think so. They were all different love stories… and all of them were pure. If you look at it, none of them achieved their love… there was no denouement to their love story, except for Khamoshi (1996, starring Salman Khan and Manisha Koirala) where I was forced to keep them together and have a happy ending… that was not the ending that I wanted. But Sameer and Nandini don’t come together… Devdas and Paro, of course, don’t… in Saawariya, Ranbir and Sonam don’t come together and in Ram-Leela, my protagonists die. (Smiles)
My love stories are not about ending on that horizon shot and having them lip-sync to a song… it’s about realising that even if you can’t have that person, do you stop loving them? I think that’s what matters in a pure love story, whether it is in reel or real. Bajirao… is a love story that goes beyond the physical… it’s an impossible love story. Now that I am talking to you, I realise that it’s star-crossed lovers that attract me the most. Kyun hai woh mujhe nahin pata… aur poochhna bhi mat! (Laughs)
Does this image of being a larger-than-life filmmaker who only works on ‘projects’ stop you from telling smaller, intimate stories?
Was Guzaarish (Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) a project? It had Hrithik, who everyone calls a Greek god and who dances like a dream, lying in bed throughout the film without moving a limb. After a failure like Saawariya, I made Guzaarish and not a mainstream film. Yes, I would one day want to shoot a film on real locations with a hidden camera and with lesser-known actors. I would want to expand my CV as a filmmaker (smiles), but all my films have been different from each other… Black was different… for the first time I explored violence in Ram-Leela. My dream is to make a film like Meghe Dhaka Tara… my source of inspiration is Ritwik Ghatak… if I don’t make a film like him one day toh unke bhakt hone ka kya fayda? (Smiles)
Honestly, I am not larger-than-life, my films are… they are a representation of the world I create in my mind. It’s far more difficult to make the films I make than those shot in real locations. But yes, now that Bajirao… has been made, I plan to liberate myself and make various kinds of films (smiles).
Does that mean you will now direct a Rowdy Rathore instead of just producing it?
Meri basic fitrat toh wohi hai! (Laughs) As a kid, I never watched Hollywood films… it was always hardcore Bollywood like Sholay, Pratigya, Fakeera…. That’s why I produced Rowdy Rathore (starring Akshay Kumar) and even then, I knew that I could make that film equally well, if not better, than Prabhu Deva. I will definitely direct a film like that one day.
Coming back to Bajirao Mastani, there are so many Fridays in a year and yet you are releasing on the same day as Dilwale. Has this become an ego issue and doesn’t the prospect of a divided audience and deflected collections worry you?
(Pauses) The day we announced Bajirao Mastani, we announced our release date too. Dilwale (directed by Rohit Shetty and starring Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol-Varun Dhawan-Kriti Sanon) is coming on our date… that’s an important thing to register. But I feel that in the multiplex times of today, a lot of simultaneously running films do well. We have that many screens and that volume of audience for all to co-exist side by side and also do well. These are two different films with two different ideologies and made by two different directors… and I feel people will enjoy them both. I wish Rohit Shetty and Shah Rukh all the best and I wish all the luck to myself too (smiles).
But that’s not an ideal situation for anyone, is it?
No, it isn’t. Honestly, we aren’t coming on anyone else’s date… the choice was for them to come on another date and that would have been nicer for both of us. But now it’s decided and no one can do anything about it. Shah Rukh is a very close friend… we did Devdas together… I love him a lot and he loves me a lot and I don’t think there is any sense of competition. But what I don’t like is that this clash has created awkwardness between Shah Rukh and me and I don’t like it… I don’t like at all (smiles wistfully).
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