Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali sells dreams through his movies. In the process, he recruits historical figures, traditional ambience and rich Indian culture-and he tells us a story which Indian audience like to see.
He is one of the few Indian filmmakers who have offered some colourfully extravagant stories on screen which have been an innovative take on history and tradition. Instead of plagiarising international hits, Bhansali has been original and has translated some interesting stories which were fictionalised version of history.
His movies have a strong following. His fans wait for a splash of colourful exaggeration and imagination on celluloid, backed up with an over-the-top script.
But all this has come with a price. Bhansali has always paid a price for dealing with history, which he has conveniently twisted to make a movie.
Realism has never been Bhansali’s strength, but storytelling is. As a result, the filmmaker has found himself in the middle of controversies, where groups of unnamed protesters have demanded an apology every time he uses his ‘creative liberties’.
The filmmaker has never been popular with the self-appointed moral police and the custodians of Indian tradition.
Since Hindu nationalists have given a new meaning to patriotism in India, it has come as no surprise that the Hindu custodians were threatened right from the time Bhansali announced his new project.
His new movie which is based on the life of Rajput queen Padmavati has invited the ire of Hindu group Rajput Karni Sena, who recently vandalised the expensive sets in Amer, Rajasthan.
For the uninitiated, Padmavati is a movie based on the life of the Rajput princess married to Chittor ruler Rajput Ratan Singh. Historical scriptures dating back to 15th century confirm Padmavati or Padmini’s beauty.
Turkish origin ruler Alauddin Khilji allegedly attacked Chittor to loot the rich ancient kingdom and also to catch a glimpse of Padmini, who eventually performed Jauhar, after Ratan Singh died fighting the war against Khilji.
Bhansali reportedly was banking on the much-talked about real life romance between Deepika Padukone, who plays Padmini and Ranveer Singh, who plays Khilji in the movie.
Karni Sena attacked Bhansali, as they were allegedly misinformed that the movie has a dream sequence depicting simmering romance between Padmini and Khilji.
Members of Rajput community are reportedly irked over the fact that Bhansali has been trying to distort facts and show Padmini (who is considered a symbol of women power by the local community) in poor light.
Despite Bhansali’s repeated attempt to clarify that the movie is being made strictly on the basis of historical facts collected through extensive research work, protesters have stuck to their position.
The strangest part of this episode is that the movie is still in the making, and protesters are raising objection, largely on the basis of hearsay.
The controversy has now snowballed into a war between Bollywood and where the nationalists are claiming to safeguard Hindutva. VHP general secretary Surendra Jain, has cautioned that the Hindu sena in the country will not allow any filmmaker to ‘disrespect Hindu history’.
Bhansali’s tryst with protest is nothing new. In the past, he has found himself in the middle of several similar situations which were an outcome of the ‘controversial’ content of his movies.
Hardik Patel, who has been demanding reservation of Patidar (Patel) community, has warned Bhansali to assure proper portrayal of Rani Padmavati.
The filmmaker has a reputation for giving extravagant touch to his movies, in order to make them populist and please the mass audience. His movies such as Devdas, Bajirao Mastani, Goliyon Ki Raasleela-Ram Leela and Guzaarish have had a fair share of controversy, but were still applauded by the audience.
Devdas, released in 2002, was way off mark from the original story in Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel. The two protagonist, played by Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit were shown dancing together while the original story never saw them meeting. Bhansali had gone on to make several changes in the life of Devdas, played by Shah Rukh Khan, who depicted the life of a failed hero.
Bajirao Mastani, another Bhansali movie released in 2016, was about the life of Maratha warrior ruler, which again made people sit up and take note of several discrepancies in the plot. Keeping up with the mood of the taste of the audience, Bhansali introduced a dance number Pinga, which had both Peshwa’s wife Kashibai (played by Priyanka Chopra) and Mastani (a Muslim nautch girl) dancing together.
Despite Bhansali’s claim of making a musical which was not meant to hurt sentiments of any community, his comments did not comfort the protesters.
After the release of Guzaarish, which was based on the life of a quadriplegic patient pleading for mercy killing. Bhansali, braved challenges such as when a lawyer filed a legal suite for promoting Euthanasia.
The movie Ram Leela, again starring Deepika and Ranveer, was condemned as it supposedly presented Hindu God Rama’s name in unflattering context. The hardliners also objected to the use of word Ram Leela, which referred to a religious event ahead of Dussehra. The pressure increased to such an extent that finally Fox Studio decided to rename the movie and release it as Goliyon Ki Ras Leela: Ram Leela.
Bollywood has never really had a track record of making authentic historical movies. Most filmmakers have resorted to history only to cash in on audience curiosity and mass adulation for musical extravaganza. Their productions have been corny and unrealistic. Most have met with controversy..
A melodramatic twist to the narrative has been a norm in Bollywood However the audience have generally enjoyed this license except hardliners who fail to differentiate between fictionalised history and historical documentaries. They misunderstand Bollywood creativity as an attack on their culture and tradition’.
So ironically people don’t mind a fictionalised biopic like Azhar, MS Dhoni-The Untold Story, Mary Kom and more. But, a story on historical figure and religious idols is considered to be unforgivable distortion of cultural past.
The hardliners have grown in power and have increasingly resorted to arm twisting in the name of ‘safeguarding Indian culture’.
Kudos to creative people like Bhansali who remain determined to tell a fictional version of history, as per their creative imagination, braving all the disapprovals.