He’s been called ‘temperamental’ and ‘unapproachable’, and makes only the kind of cinema he believes in regardless of tags and trends. But what do you know? Sanjay Leela Bhansali is now a changed man. Here’s the maverick filmmaker in conversation with Vajir Singh
Rowdy Rathore is a big hit. You must be elated?
(Laughs) It’s a fantastic feeling. There are ‘house full’ boards across the cinema halls for my film. Everyone I meet tells me, “Badi acchi film hai yeh.” The collections of the film are really good.
Manoj Desai the owner of Gaiety-Galaxy cinema called and said, “Bahut dino ke baad kissi film ke liye log line laga kar khade hain.” He also said that he hasn’t seen so many people queue up so early in the morning outside his cinema to buy tickets in advance since Amitabh Bachchan’s Shahenshah. The acceptance our work is receiving is phenomenal. I haven’t stopped grinning.
Did you expect Rowdy Rathore to be such a huge success?
I watched the film at Chandan Talkies during the 6 pm show on its first day. I sat in the first row and my family in the last row. When the audience saw me during the interval, they shook my hand and said, “Sir, thank God you have made this film. You are back, and how!” And I said, where had I gone?
When Sabina (Khan) and I watched the original version of this film (Vikramarkudu), we knew we had to make this film. We then decided on things like, when to start the movie when it had to go on the floors and so on. So I feel that sahi din pe shuru hui, sahi din pe Prabhudheva miley, sahi din pe release hui. In fact, Aamir Khan’s Talaash was supposed to release on June 1 but that was shifted and we advanced our movie. So everything fell into place for this film and you can see the result.
Rowdy… was not made with the intention of producing a blockbuster. You can never plan these things. You only find out whether a film is a blockbuster or not when it releases on Friday.
People used to say it is difficult to work with Bhansali but now Bhansali has started working with other people. How did this happen?
It had to happen. There comes a time in your life when you want to expand, diversify and do more films. I want to be a part of so many films, even those that are not my forte. You feel that way, especially when you grow up watching that kind of cinema.
When you have the expertise of over 20 years, you must share that platform with other filmmakers. It is your time to give to other people and do the kind of films you have never done before. Every film I have done has been different from the others. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was different from Black, which was different from Guzaarish. You feel good when you work with new people and different creative minds. It is a growing experience. Whether it’s screening, distribution or production… you have to keep in touch with the times, with the viewer’s mind and cinema thinkers. Itna kuch badlaav aaya hai naye logon ke saath, you also have to change with the times.
So am I meeting a ‘new’ Sanjay Leela Bhansali?
No, I was always like this. I was always very sentimental about my films. I was always ambitious. When I was making Devdas, I lived in a one room apartment. I did not even have my own bedroom. People didn’t know who I was. I have a wicked sense of humour, which is as sharp as ever. Maybe, I am becoming a little more extroverted now. People used to tell me I didn’t mingle but I felt I was happy with what I had. I used to be quiet and reserved. But I am not like that any more. Your magazine, Box Office India, is three years old, right?
And this is my first interview in these three years! You had never approached me for an interview because you had heard that I was temperamental. You were biased because that’s what you had heard. One should form an opinion based on one’s experience. You can’t judge a person based on what other people say. The audience has not been told that I am temperamental and they come to see a work of art. The audience is never biased. Desi janta ko yeh maloom nahi hota hai kaun kaisa hai, they only appreciate good cinema.
Having said that, I don’t want to set up an empire, I don’t want to set up a studio, I don’t want to do that. I will do films that I like and that will be enjoyed by the audience. Thoda commercial ho. Ek zamana tha, when we knew what films would work. Shayad aaj mainstream cinema hi theek hai audience ke liye as the joy of seeing people enjoy your film is great. Every film requires money.
So are you saying it is important to make commercial films?
Completely! See, I’ve never treated a film as a product or a means of making money.
Guzaarish was mainly about human suffering, constant pain and in that circumstances of life, you still remain a good human being. It’s an important lesson. I have never treated a film as a product or felt the need to market or advertise it. Abhi bhi, mere liye tricks of the trade seekhna, commercial cinema banana mushkil hai.
When I say I enjoy commercial cinema, I am talking about a certain genre of cinema, a dramatic pitch, entertainment value.
What do you think went wrong with Guzaarish?
I guess, it was the audience’ state of mind. That Hrithik Roshan dies in the film. Probably that is what they didn’t like.
Did it not occur to you when you were making the film that the people wouldn’t like Hrithik Roshan to die at the end?
No, it never occurred to me. Why should it have? I have never forced people to watch my films. I made a beautiful film, and films are not only about smiling and laughing and coming to the cinema with popcorn. Aap kuch toh art form mein translate karo. Cinema is an art form, which requires money. It is expensive. The returns should be there par ek art ka bhi darja dena chahiye cinema ko.
No doubt, commercial films are more successful than other types of films. People watch them, critics say they are good, trade people say the film is outstanding, and that this director is the best or second best. But art too is important. Films like Guzaarish are also important. It went to Cannes, to France and Korea, it travelled to international festivals, so uska bhi importance hai. It is our duty to leave some art for the future generations to look back at and appreciate. Nowadays, we chase numbers… films making Rs 200 crore, etc. But we sometimes neglect art.
Today, when the stakes are very high and the audience pays a high price to watch a film at the cinema, how does one maintain the art form?
I respect the fact that it is expensive. Filmmaking is an expensive art form and filmmakers, directors and actors are charging huge sums these days. Everyone has gone mad. Yet, despite the chaos, we should respect filmmaking. It is a great time to make cinema as everything seems to be working these days. Even parallel cinema is doing well.
Look at the love that Rowdy Rathore has received. Prabhudheva, Akshay (Kumar), Sonakshi (Sinha)… everyone is so proud of the film. Everyone… UTV, Siddharth (Roy Kapur), Sabina (Khan) and I… everyone is proud of the film.
First Rowdy Rathore and next Shirin Farhad Ki Nikal Padi…Is this a ‘new’ SLB as a filmmaker?
(Laughs) I like to play very loud music. If my father made me watch Dada Kondke’s movies, he even made me listen to Bade Ghulam Ali saab. My father trained us to appreciate art. Yes, I want to hit the louder and higher notes. With Guzaarish, I have used a certain kind of look and sound and I am satisfied with that. But now I want to try new things. Rowdy Rathore, Shirin Farhad… I enjoy this type of cinema as well.
Since you’re a changed SLB, will you be allowing the media and others who are not associated with your film to visit your sets?
(Laughs) No, no one will be allowed. The reason I don’t allow people is because they start bitching about things. They come with their own assumptions and perceptions and if they see something different, they say just about anything. Hero aisa lag raha tha, heroine aisi lag rahi thi. It’s a complete mess!
You are not allowed to enter a courtroom when a trial is underway. Filmmaking is also sacred and equally important and, thus, decorum should be maintained.
There’s a new trend in the industry to hold a ‘Focus Trial’, where the film is screened for a select audience for their feedback. Do you believe in that?
Woh toh aap kisko bhi film dikhaoge he or she will give their version. It can get confusing. Focused screenings and ‘scientific analysis’ are useless. When a film hits the screen, it has magic. It has a special appeal and it is up to the audience to decide how good it is.