Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali is Bollywood's biggest showman

No film in recent times has perhaps faced the kind of ferocious protests that ‘Padmaavat’ did before its release. Karni Sena, a Rajput outfit, went on a rampage across the country and indulged in flagrant violence. Some of its leaders even issued death threats to the lead female actor of the movie, Deepika Padukone, and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali – without even watching the movie – on grounds of distorting history and showing Rajputs in a bad light.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali

The CBFC passed the film only after changing its title and then too it was not released in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Originally slated to release on December 1, 2017, the period drama eventually hit the theatres on January 25, 2018. The odds were stacked against it – a huge budget, a no show in three big states and reluctant exhibitors who feared that protestors might cause serious damage to their properties.

Additionally, for a mega-budget movie to be profitable without the presence of a male superstar appeared to be a tall order. But ‘Padmaavat’ and Bhansali surmounted it all. At the time of writing this article, the film had made Rs 270 crore (nett) in India and is a massive hit throughout the world. The producers, distributors and exhibitors are all minting money.

A filmmaker of immense substance

Each member of the cast and crew, of course, deserves the credit for this resounding success, but the man who deserves the largest chunk is Bhansali. From conception to execution, from the script to the screenplay, from extracting stellar performances to cocking a snook at all the pre-release troubles and traumas – Bhansali demonstrated exemplary equanimity and fortitude in taking everything in his stride.

This isn’t the first time the director has overcome impediments of mammoth proportions.

His last movie, ‘Bajirao Mastani’, also a massively mounted Magnus Opus, copped more than its fair share of difficulties. Bhansali wanted to make this movie with Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai in 2003, but due to a fallout between the then couple, he had to wait 12 years for his dream project to get underway.

When it was finally released, in December 2015, Ranveer Singh was not a huge star and the movie’s budget was gigantic. It also clashed with ‘Dilwale’, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. This was a colossal risk and the entire industry was of the opinion that ‘Dilwale’ would steamroller ‘Bajirao Mastani’. As it happened, Bhansali’s spectacular skills trumped the star power of ‘Dilwale’, despite the absence of a male superstar.

A ‘showman’ in his own right

Bhansali started his directorial career with ‘Khamoshi – a musical’ starring Salman, Nana Patekar and Manisha Koirala. The movie had a tuneful musical score and received critical acclaim, but came a cropper at the turnstiles. Shunned by the industry, the filmmaker was inconsolable. By his own admission, only Salman stood by him during that phase. His next venture, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, with Salman and Aishwarya as the lead pair, met with a rousing response, both critically and commercially. It won all the major awards and was the 3rd biggest hit of 1999.

Then came ‘Devdas’, at the time the most expensive Bollywood movie made, with SRK, Aishwarya and Madhuri doing the star turn. The movie took three long years to be made and was bogged down by several hassles. An accident on the set led to the death of a unit members and the media went to town labelling it a ‘jinxed’ project. However, ‘Devdas’ defied all the negative pre-release speculation and set the Box Office ablaze.

Bhansali next helmed Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee in ‘Black’ – his most experimental project till date. Made on a relatively moderate budget, the film was a success and bagged a string of awards in 2005. Amitabh’s performance was hailed as one of his best.

Sanjay Bhansali with his old friend Salman Khan

A barren period, both professionally and personally, then ensued between 2005-2012. His much-hyped ‘Saawariya’ (2007), the debut vehicle of Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, tanked. Bhansali also fell out with his long-time friend Salman because he chose Hrithik Roshan over him in his next enterprise, ’Guzaarish’ (2010). But even the hit pair of Hrithik-Aishwarya couldn’t salvage this one as it bombed badly.

Sanjay Bhansali with Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

A section of the media wrote him off after two consecutive failures. Not one to be bogged down by the vicissitudes of life, he bounced back with a vengeance with ‘Ram-Leela’ (2013), which proved to be a hit with Ranveer and Deepika at its epicenter.

It is arguable that no other contemporary director has the vision, resolve and passion for film-making as does Bhansali. In an era where few directors have a distinctive style, he stands out like a colossus. Ornate sets, lavish costumes, riots of colors, soul-stirring music and cut-glass artwork are part of his signature style. These elements are intricately woven into a solid screenplay to create a mesmerizing effect.

Bhansali belongs to a rare breed of directors who have the ability to marry artistic ethos to a mainstream storytelling style. His movies are visual spectacles that appeal to a large segment of the audience. At a time when footfalls in cinema halls are dwindling alarmingly, and it is becoming increasingly tougher to draw viewers into theatres, his work is still best enjoyed on a large screen.

With his uncompromising, gargantuan and ambitious style of making movies backed by breathtaking vision, it wouldn’t wrong to state that Bhansali is indeed the rightful inheritor of an epithet that once belonged to legends Raj Kapoor and Subhash Ghai – ‘Bollywood’s biggest showman’.

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