In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, melody meets drama

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How Sanjay Leela Bhansali, completing 25 years of filmmaking, made music the mainstay of his stories

A Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie is like a long, layered song. His cinema combines the blossoming of a high-pitched nautanki with the nuance of a Broadway musical. From folkloric dholak and classic sitar to the lyrical influence of violin and piano, its musical set is always vibrant and diverse. At a time when songs do not assimilate to narration but remain adsorbed, Bhansali’s films are an exception. Apart from Vishal Bhardwaj, he is perhaps the only filmmaker who can sit behind the console to compose. He follows in the footsteps of parallel cinema leaders like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who understood the importance of music to convey ideas.

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Inspired by artists like V. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, Bhansali knows that a melody can convey emotion much better than dialogue. In Bajirao Mastani, he composed “Tujhe yaad kar liya hai aayat ki tarah, tu kayam rahegi rivayati ki tarah”, illustrating the beauty of the interfaith love story. Without forgetting ‘Aaj ibadat’. Composed in raag Yaman, it again displays multicultural roots.

Film music composition

A scene from Padmaavat

A scene from Padmaavat

In Padmavat, he ventures beyond safe territory to compose ‘Binte di’, a rare celebration of homoerotic imagery. However, one of my favorites is the understated “Tera zikr hai” by Guzaarish. The film was his first official attempt at musical composition, he had previously collaborated successfully with Jatin Lalit (Khamoshi-The Musical), Ismail Darbar (Hum Dil By Chuke Sanam and Devdas) and Monty Sharma (Black and Saawariya). With hindsight, we can see his imprint on the score of each of these films. And you understand why Darbar and Sharma often said that it was difficult to work with Bhansali.

In his interviews, Bhansali said it was the music that guided his story. Although he was not technically trained, his music evolved with each film. Inspired by the genre of music Naushad and Madan Mohan, there was a time when he was swept away by the AR Rahman wave and this was reflected in the scores of Saawariya and Guzaarish. The former continues to live on through his music, with songs like “Thode badmash” and “Jab se tere naina” still dominating the charts and hearts.

A scene from Saawariya

A scene from Saawariya

In Black, Bhansali used more instrumental music, emphasizing pauses and silence. There was a touching number of Prasoon Joshi, ‘Haan maine chhookar dekha hai’, on the album, but it didn’t make it to the screen.

Mix of styles

Anchored in traditional philosophy, he is always ready to experiment – whether by adapting “Albela sajan” in raag Bhupali in Bajirao Mastani or by mixing Garba rhythm and Marathi folk with western arrangements in Ram-leela and Bajirao Mastani or the ‘Mohe sonn do lal’ imbued with classicism in raag Maand and Puriya Dhanashree.

Under his care, the voices of Shreya Ghoshal, Arijit Singh and Kunal Ganjawala have found their reach. One of his little-known collaborators is Shail Hada, who has not only given his voice to popular songs like ‘Lahu munh lag gaya’ (Ram-Leela) but also helped Bhansali on music albums.

His period dramas are largely inspired by the breadth and sumptuousness of K. Asif’s vision. In an interview, Pt. Birju Maharaj, who not only choreographed but also rendered the Kathak bowls in ‘Mohe rang do’, had said that the set reminded him Mughal-e-Azam.

Bhansali is a trained Odissi dancer and, in fact, started his career as a choreographer with another multi-faceted director, Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Referring to this aspect of the filmmaker, Birju Maharaj said: “Sanjay Leela Bhansali knows the complex aesthetic of dance. This is reflected in the picturization and choreography of his songs.


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