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The costume of realism

Aisa hai, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali still owes me R10,000 for some work I did on his first film in 1996. People agree that Bhansali is a gifted director, even if they don’t like all his films (and let’s face it, Hrithik laughing through his tears, tries even the most generous spirit). But the praise often comes with a caveat, sometimes stated, sometimes hovering — “if you like that sort of thing.” By “that sort of thing” people perhaps mean the melodrama, or the over-wrought ornamentality, too kitschy for some, in his work. Overall the implication seems to be, one may praise its exuberance, but you can’t really take it very seriously.


Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Of course, no one says to the fans of the au courant cinema of realism that it “is okay, if you like that kind of thing.” It’s as if a film whose description features any of these words: ‘realistic’, ‘gritty’ ‘political’ ‘burning issue’ and of course, that clincher, ‘world’ (or its substitute, Cannes) must be serious cinema. Realism is the new black. No doubt, realism too is a very important way of telling a story — but it is not the only thing that brings weight to one. Art holds a mirror up to society, sure, but it can also unleash imagination and fantasy to reshape reality by.

Critiques of Bhansali’s newest film have appreciated it in an arts-and-crafts kind of way — acknowledging its visual sumptuousness (“if you like that kind of thing”) and costumes. But they begrudge it its seriousness, perhaps because it does not wear a costume of realism.

The film declares its “Once upon a time” intentions at the outset and proceeds with fidelity to this intention, and tells its story in the bawdy, entertaining, excessive, I’ll-top-his-version/style-of-a-wild-folk-tale. Like all operatic pieces, it dwells not on the interiority which belong in other genres, but follows its big, broad themes of love, hate, war and human tragedy with a cinematic sureness and sensual momentum.

The film makes no claim to the political, yet so many themes we confront today roll through our minds as we watch. We think of khap panchayats,of the cycle of violence that can be broken only by a leap of faith, of reaching out to the other. The film also thinks about the nature of masculinity, offering a protagonist who is quite male, rather vain, muscular, but not macho or inadvertently misogynistic. Ranvir’s Ram never carries a gun through the film, contrary to the norms of his world — and is the only character in the film not to do so. He is an alternative idea to the weapon wielding Ram - his bow shoots arrows of love and regard and he dies for this belief.

A highly cerebral film tightly packed with lightly made references — from Raja Ravi Varma to Mirch Masala — Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela is a sensually immersive experience that trusts that the audience, guided by their senses, will arrive at an intuitive understanding of the film’s larger themes. It’s a film, not an exam, so it’s really ok if we can’t put it in words, as long as we get it in our gut.

Bhansali works like an artist — with passionate, perhaps megalomaniacal conviction and hence, the ability to take risks. Sometimes, as with Hrithik laughing through his tears, we must concede, these risks, um, don’t pay off. But for continuing deeper down his path, to a successful place, instead of doubting it — Sanjay Leela Bhansali ko, dil se, voh R10,000 maaf.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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