Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema is a paradox.
On the one hand, we do not have a filmmaker in Hindi cinema who meticulously crafts every detail of every frame the way Bhansali does. On the other, though, despite the sensory experiences his films offer, you wonder if perhaps the universe he creates misses out on real people and emotions.
Take Salman Khan’s Sameer, Ranbir Kapoor’s Ranbir Raj or even Ranveer Singh’s Bajirao, for instance. It’s hard to explain where they came from; people like them scarcely exist outside the confines of Bhansali’s mind. That isn’t to say that a filmmaker owes the audience only characters drawn from the realities of humankind, but in a career spanning over two decades and eight films (Padmaavat will be his ninth), he has wowed audiences and disconnected from them in equal measure, even as his films have only gotten progressively bigger in vision and scale.
Here then, ranked in ascending order of where they stand in retrospect, is the filmography of Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
8. Guzaarish (2010)
Bhansali’s most forgettable film to date, the film had an outlandish plot about jealous magicians and a singularly schmaltzy fellow wanting to end his life. There is so much pain and pathos in the story, but it always felt like Bhansali was concentrating less on the soul of the film and more on craft. It all seemed too affected, with too much effort put into intangible output.
The film lacked the deftness of touch required to make the audience empathize with the character. Instead, it was the sort of film that alienated viewers. And there’s no better proof of this fact than the casting of Suhel Seth. I’d say the film goes further downhill when he turns up, but the truth is that it started from mean sea level in the first place.
7. Devdas (2002)
Devdas isn’t as much a literary character anymore, as it is an all-encompassing word that instantly conjures up images of a spurned lover. There are times when Bhansali’s adaptation is truly arresting, but for the most, it is a bloated retelling of a familiar tale, Bhansali’s only addition to it being its visual opulence and ensuring it had a stellar soundtrack.
With the cast he had, it’s a pity that the film didn’t turn out to have the longevity it should have had, and that’s only because in that film, Bhansali just had nothing to offer us. For perspective on what an auteur’s point of view can do to a familiar story, you have to look no further than the cult following attained by Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D. Bhansali’s Devdas, in comparison, seems like an elegant trainwreck.
6. Khamoshi: The Musical (1996)
Even a decade after its release, Khamoshi held up well. With its balance of sensitivity and melodrama (coupled with Bhansali’s penchant for terrific music), it was a film that grew better with age, but only for a short while. It was also emblematic of the struggles a visionary filmmaker had to face in his early days.
However, everyone associated with that film – including Salman Khan, make no mistake – has gone on to be a part of cinema with far more nuance and heft. Khamoshi just doesn’t hold up the same way anymore, because it now comes across as too basic.
5. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)
This is possibly the film that changed Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s career. He managed to get his then-unbelievable Rs 50 crore budget for his next, Devdas, because of how Hum Dil established his ability to translate pain into cinema. And you felt everyone’s pain – the girl, the boy, the mature husband, the girl’s aging father, and even the uncle whose ‘honour’ was ‘besmirched’ because his daughter fell in love.
Incredibly enough, despite its jagged edges, the film is still an emotional experience to this day. Also, this remains Bhansali’s one film where the craft never overshadows the content. (And yes, put the entire soundtrack of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in your playlist right now. Thank me later.)
4. Black (2005)
Bhansali seems to have a particular affinity towards his lead or major characters being disabled persons, and also Catholic. In that regard, Black stands out because of how well he married form and emotion in the film.
Never had Indian cinema witnessed a song-less film that was so rich in music. Even today Ravi K Chandran’s iconic cinematography in the film stands tall like a beacon of visual magic for Hindi cinema. It also gave Amitabh Bachchan something new to do, and even though the thespian (we should really start calling him that) hammed it up more than once in the film, he managed to make it feel like a character quirk. Rani Mukerji, though, is who really powers the film with her Helen Keller-esque Michelle.
However, Black does suffer from that seemingly recurring Bhansali problem – it hasn’t aged as well as you’d expect, because Hindi cinema’s standards for emotional manipulation have evolved significantly in the last decade.
3. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013)
This one was an underdog from the word go. Romeo and Juliet set in a strange contemporary-traditional hybrid Gujarat; a post-Cocktail but pre-Piku Deepika Padukone essaying a complex role; even the now-in-demand pairing of Ranveer and Deepika hadn’t yet established itself; and the encumbrance of that horrendous post-controversy title; Ram-Leela was an easy film to write off.
While it didn’t particularly win everyone’s heart, it finally seemed like a reinvention for Bhansali because it seemed his career was sagging after Saawariya and Guzaarish. For the first time, he had also produced three films between two directorial projects.
But Ram-Leela ended up a visceral bit of work, rich in visual polish, shaky once in a while from the screenplay perspective; but some thoroughly original imagery, outstanding music and one of the best lead pair casting decisions in recent popular Hindi cinema made the film a staggeringly daring rendition of the most famous love story in pop-culture.
Go watch a slice of all this in the song 'Ishqyaun Dhishqyaun', and you’ll know what I meant earlier when I said Bhansali didn’t give us a proper perspective when he adapted Devdas, because he does that with such flair in Ram-Leela.
2. Bajirao Mastani (2015)
You know a director is worth his or her title when, largely, their later work is their better work. If Ram-Leela was visceral, this one was quite simply ferocious.
Mastani ‘Bai’ was one of the strongest female leads written in popular Hindi cinema, and Deepika Padukone sunk her teeth into that role like it was the best b*** steak in the world – and it isn’t even an all-time top-3 performance for the young lady. (Piku, Tamasha, Finding Fanny. And then some. Go ahead, ‘@ me’.)
Ranveer, on the other hand, gave the hair on his head for the role, and the tonsure didn’t go in vain. Bajirao Mastani is indulgence done right, and done with heft.
Despite being set in a time when contemporary standards of gender discourse couldn’t be applied, Bhansali essentially made a feminist film, without explicitly taking the time to call it that. Music? Outstanding as always. Craft? Bhansali brought his A-game. Screenplay? Less questionable then every other film he has made so far, without exception. This is how you create, this is how you stage, this is how you transport an audience into another universe. If it wasn’t for the next film on the list, this would’ve been my pick for Bhansali’s best film yet.
1. Saawariya (2007)
This might seem like trolling, but it isn’t. The reason Saawariya is Bhansali’s least-liked film is because it was the most ahead of its time. Bhansali had begun to find out that his strength lay in creating a whole new world in his films, and this was the one he got wrong before he started to get it right.
The colour palette, the postcard frames, the confluence of music and narrative, and even the risk of two new-comers in the lead, with Sonam Kapoor’s bland performance derailing the film often, nearly everything about the film turned people off.
But this is also the film in his filmography that has aged the best, if you’d dare to watch it again. The sparkle in Ranbir’s eye, a fresh and in-equal-parts nuanced and melodramatic take on unrequited love, Rani Mukerji’s brief but stellar role as a sex worker – there’s so much to take away from the film even today. Sanjay Bhansali hasn’t ventured that far out into the unforgiving cold since then, but if he does, Saawariya will be both – his reference point as well as his warning sign