Padmavati, and the signature sumptuous aesthetic of Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Aparna Pednekar

Sep 23, 2017 11:06:24 IST

In my mind, Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam released around the same time. Perhaps it had something to do with love blooming in noisy, joint families. In reality, Bhansali, the Bhuleshwar-born Gujarati boy, was still an assistant director — on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942: A Love Story — when young Barjatya’s sophomore film was being shot.

It was physically painful to watch Barjatya’s magnum opus — from Madhuri’s ghastly red polyester frock and green-white lehenga to Tuffy the dog wearing cheap plastic sunglasses (with label intact, cause really, who cares when we’re on our 100th antakshari ‘function’) frolicking in a bungalow that looked like an enlarged plastic doll home perennially stuffed with people and plastic balls bouncing near the indoor swimming pool. Of course it was the '90s and Salman Khan looked good, even in an ill-fitting ochre  suit with dhinchak embroidery by the panel, some sort of ukulele in hand, and a grinning Renuka Shahane by his side, resplendent in the brightest shades of the rainbow. But the visuals in Indian cinema’s biggest hit were so strong (or traumatic) that they stayed… until Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam came along. There was one particular frame that I remember very clearly, a top shot during the 'Nimbuda' song, when the female background dancers’s georgette dupattas in lemon, lilac, kesariya and cornflour blue whirled in tandem around the room. In one pastel sweep, Bhansali had wiped out the aesthetic trauma of the '90s.  Of course, Hum Dil…had its fair share of high-pitched theatrics. But how lovely was the colour palette! Salmon pinks, lime greens, tangerines, marigold, bandhani, plain cotton saris with a mood-coordinated colour scheme and the works. Bhansali, the artist, the aesthete and the perfectionist — all rolled into one beady-eyed, more-passionate-than-thou, uber intense package — had arrived. Self choreographed, of course.

Padmavati, and the signature sumptuous aesthetic of Sanjay Leela Bhansali

First look of Padmavati. Image courtesy Twitter/@RanveerOfficial

Nineteen years later, Padmavati’s first look is out. Tweeple are ga-ga over Deepika’s unibrow and salivating at the promise of another visual extravaganza on screen, masterminded by 54-year old Bhansali. Not to be insensitive, but I don’t care if Rani Padmini and her ladies jumped into a pyre en masse or went horse-riding across Chittor. I just want to know what they’re wearing and for God’s sake, in which meticulously crafted Sanjay Leela-land they’re living, loving, suffering, flinging weapons and, of course, dancing feverishly.

 Bigger, brighter, louder

Upping the ante in every new film is Bhansali’s shtick. After Hum Dil De Chuke’s success, he’d pulled out all the stops for Devdas. Between 260 shooting shifts over two-and-a-half years, the death of two crew members in accidents and 16 months of jail for producer Bharat Shah, Bhansali managed to zip to Kolkata with costume designer Neeta Lulla to handpick 600 saris for Paro. The simple Bengali girl lived in a haveli in a room fitted with 1.22 lakh pieces of stained glass. Chandramukhi’s costumes cost Rs 15 lakh each often weighing over 30 kgs which la pauvre Dixit had to wear and dance in at the kotha that cost Rs 12 crore to construct.

Clearly nobody flocked to the screens to see Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s tragic Devdas. That had been managed exquisitely by Bimal Roy. But even in this alarmingly dialed-up pitch — women simpered “shotti, shotti” and SRK hammed through it all — Bhansali’s Devdas was a visual extravaganza. The climax, with Paro sprinting in white and red sari, an XXXL pallu trailing through her husband’s haveli and sweeping down the stairs (ah, stairs!) was enough to give every viewer goose bumps, even if you didn’t buy into the love and the passion. It would take an exceptionally hard-hearted, unaesthetic and vulgar person to remain unmoved by Bhansali’s commitment to his craft.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's (clockwise from top left) Bajirao Mastani, Devdas, Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ramleela, and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's (clockwise from top left) Bajirao Mastani, Devdas, Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ramleela, and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Jewels in the crown

In a stray scene (Is anything stray in a painstakingly crafted Bhansali opus, though?) in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Supriya Pathak's Dhankor baa is in the midst of her evening shringar with girls blowing dhoop (or whatever) under her hair when she gets a call. While she’s speaking, my eyes were fixated on her jewellery trunk, overflowing with the most bomb silver jewellery ever. Not the random jhumkas and baalis of the average Indian woman on screen, these heavy-duty vatla, nagali, thoriya and bungri echoed the Saneda clan power and baa’s personal swag. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bhansali camped with designer Anju Modi in the scorching Rann of Kutch to personally hunt down every stunning piece and lug it back with a treasure of patchwork ghagras, cholis and kediyu to dress the entire cast of his high-octane film set in another fantasy Sanjay Leela-land somewhere on the border of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Ensemble offensive

Of late (better late than never) Sooraj Barjatya’s garish world has mellowed. In Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, Sonam was a vision in elegant chiffons, Hepburn sunglasses, sumptuous diamonds and kundan while Salman’s Prem finally ditched those dreadful polyester suits for regal bandhgalas and ruby-emerald malas. But merely getting the costumes and sets right, and nabbing grand locales isn’t enough to pull a Bhansali, qui? Like a temperamental choirmaster, Bhansali directs his ensemble — cast, sets, music, costumes, story and emotional heft — to run relentlessly parallel, often take brief detours but eventually reach a crescendo together. In the face of this visual, audio and emotional offensive, what audience dare look away!

The stupendously mounted Bajirao Mastani took several liberties with Peshwa history and culture, but why niggle and nag over royalty dancing like common courtesans when their aubergine polka dot nauvaris (draped so wrong) were so yum. It’s best to keep hurt anthropological or any other sentiments aside in an SLB show. Authenticity is for unimaginative bores… and people who can’t appreciate the gentle sway of a glistening 20 mm peral bibbali lodged on Bajirao’s ear as he takes his maiden shot at taalis echoing in the theatre.

With Padmavati, it’ll be interesting to see how the auteur ups the stakes. Never mind if Allaudin Khilji was bisexual or metrosexual or Bhansali has veered crazily away from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 15th century poem, Padmavat. Don’t be a party pooper and prepare for the grandest spectacle of 2017.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 11:06:24 IST

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