Salman was a good man but tried to be a brat: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 50, is most comfortable only with himself. While he is fond of his mother and sister, he can be most honest and transparent only with himself. He is extremely observant and sensitive and has come to the view that relationships don’t work for him. He gives all to his work and lives his life through his characters. Ahead of his upcoming film Ram-Leela, he talks to TOI about his love-hate relationship with his father, his mentor Vidhu Vinod Chopra and what made him add Leela to his name. Excerpts:
How did you think of becoming a filmmaker?
My grandfather was a rich man who stayed in a bungalow in Walkeshwar, but by 25, he went bankrupt and we had to move into a 200 sq ft place where, for a bathroom, you had to wait in a line for two hours. My father produced films in the 50s, but they were films like Jaazi Lootera that I have never seen. I was five when he took me with him to a studio, where a cabaret was being pictured. I was wondering why this girl was wearing so little clothes, was eating an apple and was jumping on a man with equally little clothes and then they kept throwing this apple at each other as it was not reaching the correct point. I was fascinated. I would wait for hours to listen to Vividh Bharati and would look at the small mirror and dance to Shammi Kapoor songs. I had to go through the red light area to go to school, as we lived two lanes from there. That one lane had six theatres, so life was fascinating. Then one day, a makeup trunk came with all kinds of wigs and costumes and that was the Pandora’s box for me. I decided to be a director. Even though I was a brilliant student, going to college were the worst years of my life, as I was going there only to complete my graduation. I joined the film institute in the editing course and that is where I thought I would blossom. I lost my father while I was at the institute and did not know where to start till Vidhu Vinod Chopra came there and hired me to shoot a song in Parinda. I then landed up assisting Vinod for seven years.
I learnt the courage to speak and be fearless from him. He would write on his board — ‘Damn I am good’ with his autograph. He taught me to believe in my work and pushed me to speak. He would say, ‘If you don’t speak, how will you arrange your monies, how will you speak to your actors?’ That was the opening phase. Of course, once I started speaking, I was told to speak less. I learnt the discipline and focus with which he worked. I would go for all music sittings with him and would sit at RD Burman’s feet while he was composing his songs for 1942: A Love Story. Burmanda would say, ‘If you want to celebrate a good song, you must eat and celebrate and order good food immediately. In 50 minutes flat, he made Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, threw the pen and said, ‘Machhi mangao’ and went straight to the kitchen to cook food. That innocence to discover and being excited about your work is what I learnt from these two people. Of course, RD passed away and did not live to see the success of his music.
Talk about RD Burman?
He was gorgeous, sitting in his black silk kurta and black silk lungi, records beautifully lying and stacked there in his white room with white gaddis and his harmonium with his unclear conversation and a sparkle in his eye, to listen to some new sound. I was mad about that man’s music. His openness made him a great music director. Nobody lives music the way he did. I learnt to listen to people from him, even if it was from an assistant. Never to feel afraid of criticism is what I learnt from him. He was going through a critical time. The industry had moved him out. He had no work. A music company came to Vinod and said, ‘Move him out of 1942 and we will give you double the money’ and, of course, Vinod did not agree and asked them to leave the room. Burmanda was large-hearted. A man who would feed people when he made a good song. It was 7.30 in the morning and I was listening to a song from Kati Patang when Farah (Khan) called me to say dada was gone.
Let’s talk about your father?
All through my childhood, I was told that films did not make money and that it was a world not meant to be in. There were a lot of people we had to take money from and a lot of people we needed to pay money to. I remember my grandmother would take me walking from Bhuleshwar to Colaba to collect 10,000 from a producer we had lent money to, in the past. That man would make us wait for hours and all through walking back, she would keep telling me how not to be in films. And yet my father took me 18 times to see Mughal-e-Azam. He introduced me to all kinds of music ranging from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab’s to Dada Kondke’s. So I was completely confused as a child. We would be put into a good school, but would need to borrow money from our relatives to pay the fees. They would procrastinate giving it to us. The fact that they would come and ask for the money back would make me not come out of the house. I started feeling isolated. I relied only on music for anchorage and I would go into my imaginary world. My father had a love for life and lived it king-size even though we could not afford it. So I went to the other extreme of complete deprivation and simplicity to save for the times to come. I loved him immensely, but could not express it. Today, I regret that. I wish he was alive today. I get my angst, aesthetics and suffering from him. I feel the presence of the man as I am too average a person to have made the films I have. I still go to our old house, playing old music in my car to experience him. I am fulfilling what he dreamt.
Are there stars you worked with who are your friends?
They come and go and all the relationships are transitory and transactional. But I would call Salman and Rani my friends. They have been people I have been closest to and have loved immensely. I realise that I don’t want anything from them and nor do they. Salman was temperamental. Sajid and Farah Khan had talked to him about me being this struggling director during Khamoshi when I first went to meet him at Filmistan. It was my birthday and he made me wait for six hours. But surprisingly, when he saw me, he said, ‘I know you. We have some karmic connection.’ He was a good man and cared for small things, but tried to be a brat. Inside he is a fakir, who lives a simple life. Rani lives for her parents and people she loves and is very expressive. They both gave me a lot of belief in myself.
Are you insecure?
Terribly. I am insecure about the fact that if my film does not do well, I will not be loved and there will be nobody to listen to or talk to. So I work very hard for people to appreciate my work. I saw my father and so many great stars, including RD Burman, go through that. I wait for that one call to come after the trailer that says people have liked it. Saawariya did not do well and I can never forget that Diwali sitting alone in the house. There were crackers bursting all around and there were newspapers slamming me and nobody at home, except my mother and me in our own rooms. I cried immensely. That wanting to be loved comes from my childhood and is a part of all my characters. Be it Salman in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Shah Rukh in Devdas or Hrithik in Guzaarish or Ranbir in Saawariya. It is actually me seeking love. It is a residue of the emotions in my childhood, of me being the ugliest cousin, of seeing the treatment meted out to my family for basic survival.
What makes you possessive?
I have anger and angst towards life. To get that one meal or that school fee for the month, to get that ability to get what I want and cling on to it, is my state of mind. It comes from there that I won’t let anybody take away what I have created. So I am possessive only about what I create as it is impossible to do that, given the circumstances I grew up in. My cinema is very personal. I remember my grandmother taking out her last silverware and taking it to Zaveri Bazaar to sell it. I would see that she would strangely go down, avoiding talking to me. That became Helen selling the piano in Khamoshi. My father loved his drinks. I made Devdas as a tribute to the half bottle my father last drank from, saved by my mother. And then when my grandmother came back from Zaveri Bazaar, she bought me a plastic pigeon from the money she had got. And that became Magic (Hrithik’s pigeon) in Guzaarish. I was very attached to her. She had a box of coins and worked till she died. Every morning she would empty the jar and count the coins. That is the scene in Guzaarish. My childhood sounds and images are what is captured in my films.
All your films are seeking love. Where does that come from?
I have seen a stormy relationship as far as my parents are concerned. But my mother was too much in love with my father and my father loved us all a lot, but never expressed it. There was a big turmoil about how to handle relationships. It led to my isolation. But the day my father was in coma, despite everything, my mother refused to go home and kept sitting besides him holding his hand and praying. And for the first time, all he kept saying was Leela, Leela, Leela… I went to him and said, ‘All your life you did not bother, now why are you calling out her name?’ But that is the day I decided to add my mother’s name to mine and from Sanjay Bhansali I became Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I realised that love is not about what you get, but about what you give. I understood what love stories were made of. All that he could not express in his life, he was expressing in that sub-conscious state.