With our increasing exposure to world cinema, Indian film music, as we have known it, is an endangered species. As more and more filmmakers are beginning to shun traditional songs, Sanjay Leela Bhansali seems to be embracing them more than ever. He belongs to the school of filmmakers which believes that song-and-dance sequences are a distinct identity of Indian cinema. His latest film, Bajirao Mastani , hasn’t just proven him right by turning out to be one the biggest recent hits but has now got international endorsement too. On February 4, it bagged five nominations at the Asian Film Awards (including for Best Original Music and Best Film), second only to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s internationally acclaimed Taiwanese film The Assassin .
Bhansali speaks to The Hindu about the deep connection between music and Indian cinema, on making music without the technical know-how, and on shooting songs.
One of the most integral but less spoken about aspect of your films is music. How important is it to you?
It is everything. My life revolves around music. The first thought of making a film comes with a certain song in mind. Radio, which during my years of growing up was Vividh Bharati, has been very important. The first thing I do after I wake up is switch on the music player and the last thing I do before going to sleep is stop it. I need music while taking a bath. I need it in the car. On the sets of my films, I switch on my iPod after a shot is done. The sur [melody], laya [tempo] keep me in a zone.
This has been the case since childhood. I would come back from school and pray that the radio plays my personal favourites. I associate most of my favourite actors and actresses with music. My all-time favourite is Helen. As a child, when I watched her films, I realised that nothing else in a movie gave me as much joy as seeing her dance.
Even when she was dancing in a cabaret wearing strange clothes, I felt she was connected to god. Helen, Sandhya, Hemaji… they are all goddesses in my life.
You said the first thought of making a film comes from a song. Tell us about a few.
For Bajirao... , my inspiration came from songs from K. Asif’s cinema. A lot of what Kishori Amonkar has sung in Raag Bhoopali. I’ve used that inspiration in the new version of ‘Albela Sajan’ from Bajirao… Purists will kill me for using an Ahir Bhairav composition in Bhoopali but I just love it. Then there’s Shiv Kalyan Raja, the Marathi album by Hridaynath Mangeshkar. It’s about Chhatrapati’s bravado. When you hear it in Lata ji’s voice, it gives you goosebumps. Marathi folk and classical music were a big inspiration for Bajirao...
I used to obsess over ‘Mor Bani Thanghat Kare’, the Gujarati folk song, and I’d tell myself that I need to make a film on mor [peacock]. It became Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela . A lot of A.R. Rahman songs were my inspiration for Saawariya . Lagaan ’s music had a lot to do with Devdas . As I was shooting the climax of Devdas , the Lagaan theme would be playing in my head.
Blackhad no songs. Do you think you can make another film without songs?
If I do a thriller tomorrow, I may not have songs. But that would result in me suffering throughout the making of the film as in the case of Black . I had almost stopped shooting midway and was going to give an SOS call to choreographer Saroj Khan. Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee held me back. But even during a song-less film like Black , I managed to play music on the sets to enhance the mood and performance. The truth is I can’t think of my life without music. If you take away music from me, I’ll die. Basically, main tamashgi hoon, bhaand hoon (Basically, I’m a court jester/a performer). Woh gaana bajna chahiye , Laxmi Chhaya, Padma Khanna dance karni chahiye (I need song, music, Laxmi Chhaya and Padma Khanna to dance). I need harmoniums and dholaks around me. I’m used to having choreographers rehearsing with dancers counting the beats ‘1, 2, 3, 4..’ and trying to figure out how to shoot a song.
Actually any good film is like a song. It is all about being in a laya [tempo]. There is timing, a musicality. It should be sureela [melodious]. If it isn’t, then something is wrong.
You have had great collaborations with composers such as Ismail Darbar ( Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas ) and Monty Sharma ( Saawariya, Black ). Why did you feel the need to take up composing?
Both did some incredible work. Ismail went on record and said that I was holding him back from taking up other offers whereas I had invested in him and presented him to the world. I had problems working with him in Devdas . Monty, too, started feeling that my voice was getting stronger. It was getting difficult to explain my musical ideas. That ‘lost in translation’ had begun to happen. Also, the making of my songs is a long process. I record each song three-four times to work with singers and take four days to mix, so that each element comes out as desired. At the end of the process, they would say they feel traumatised and want to run away from me. Today’s film music doesn’t have my kind of temperament, I think.
It got me thinking. I work so hard on others, who are, of course, far better musicians than I ever will be. But since I enjoy it so much, I thought I might as well do it myself in Guzaarish . I had created some of the tunes in Devdas and Saawariya as well, but I was struggling in the beginning of Guzaarish . I had more fun in Ram-Leela because by that time I had got a better grip on it. I enjoyed myself the most during Bajirao… Now I don’t know if I will compose anymore. I am getting tired.
Maybe now it is time for a new thought; you have to keep reinventing yourself. I was expecting offers as a music director [he jokes], but I doubt if my music connects with people that much. I don’t know if I will continue composing. But yes, I enjoy doing it a lot.
You had famously given breaks to singers such as Shreya Ghoshal. Today, playback singers are under threat from autotune.
Yes, and that’s very sad. Singers are very special to me. Shreya knows me well. Arijit Singh is very special. I know him from the time he took part in the reality show ‘Fame Gurukul’. I remember calling him up and telling him that even if he lost the competition, he is a great singer. I made him sing ‘Yun Shabnami’ from Saawariya ; it never got used. He got eliminated from the show, got lost for a while and look at him now.
Shail Hada is another singer I’m very fond of. He plays a big part in designing my songs although he has now become a composer and is doing his own thing.
What is your process like as a composer? How well do you know the technical aspects?
I don’t know the sargam nor am I aware of the raag when I’m composing. There’s not much thought about structure. My songs come from not knowing much and therefore they are pure and innocent. I believe there is a certain simplicity in my songs. But it makes me happy when people like Amjad Ali Khan and Lata ji compliment me on a song like ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’. I composed the song while I was waiting at the airport after my flight got cancelled. Twelve years back, just like that, while taking a shower I composed ‘Deewani Mastani’. That was the first time I had thought of making Bajirao... In fact, I’ve composed quite a few songs while having a bath. Every time I get a song during a shower, I run to the recording studio, half wet. It’s a funny sight, but the joy and purity is unmatched. Paani ki purity ke andar jo gaane bante hai woh kabhi galat nahi hote hai (The songs that are inspired from the water’s purity can never go wrong).
There are arrangers and programmers. They come and do their job and I keep working and reworking on it. The string segments, for example, are obviously their ideas. But if I have in mind something about how I am going to shoot the song, I have a lot of say with regard to the rhythm patterns.
You started out as a choreographer for Vidhu Vinod Chopra. You have a way of imaginatively shooting songs.
My father, who was a film producer, would take us to watch a film three-four times. He would show us Mughal-e-Azam and say, “You see, this is a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb song, observe how K. Asif moves his camera.” At that time I didn’t understand what he was saying. But he inculcated the culture in me. Listening to music, I would always wonder how I would have shot it. I have grown up obsessing over how K. Asif, Mehboob Khan, V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt shot their songs.
Expressing through songs is our biggest identity besides melodrama. Most films today don’t create situations for songs where the hero and heroine can sing. That legacy needs to be there. It’s the reason we have a unique identity in the West, other than our parallel cinema. Even if you consider parallel cinema, the works of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak had a deep connection with music.
How spontaneously do you shoot a song?
It is as spontaneous as the making of the songs. Let people analyse and dissect after they see the film. It is later that I am able to see what I had in my subconscious. My subtext is very strong. But it is my subtext and I can’t impose that on my cinematographer, editor, sound designer and art director. My subtext is my own subconscious reservoir that has visual references from my life like my father’s eyes, mother, friends or films that have refused to leave my system. So, if you look closely, you know there is a lot more than just another film because I come with all the legacy of the golden era of Hindi cinema. I pay tribute to them all the time. Not everybody necessarily gets the layering, the subtexting and the texturing. But sometimes I just do things out of the blue. For example in the scene in Bajirao… where Mastani is taken to a brothel, she just expresses her anguish through the sword. In the script, the scene has proper dialogues but during the shoot I felt Mastani’s character could express her anguish best through the sword at a time when the warrior in her is being questioned.
It’s like how Lataji would extemporise during her live performances. If you ask her why she did it she won’t be able to tell you. Similarly, I get inspired by the energy with which Helen’s dance movements reach out to the audience or by Shammi Kapoor’s ability to communicate anything with spontaneity and flamboyance. This unstudied art is the most exciting for me. I find that in Ritwik Ghatak’s use of music, camera and sound. When my actors tell me that I’m confusing them, I tell them it’s good to be confused. When I open the door, I don’t know who I’m going to meet outside. When you don’t know what to expect from yourself, you play it differently and your performance is elevated. I have discovered a lot of joy from the unstudied and unexpected. That’s why, perhaps, my behaviour too is sometimes unexpected.