Sanjay Leela Bhansali celebrates the success of his most controversial film yet, inspired to make more films 'abhi ke abhi'
Sanjay Leela Bhansali
What are you feeling at this moment?
I feel like making more films. People have given Padmaavat so much love that I feel, aur film banaya jaaye abhi ke abhi [more films should be made immediately]. But, I've told my staff to take a month-long break before we resume. There are mixed feelings because we have endured so much. We weren't sure whether the film would release. Then, when we got a clearance, there was a ban in select states. Even today, I pray that the film releases in those states. At the same time, I feel accomplished. The film had a difficult subject but it turned out the way I wanted it to. It has been executed to the best of my ability, almost near perfection. I don't think many would have been able to pull it off. It [enduring opposition] was humiliating and angering. There was injustice. But, I had a rare piece of work that I was trying to protect. It's been an experience of a lifetime.
Has the film turned out precisely how you wanted it to?
This is what I wanted to make. Obviously, any filmmaker would change a few things to make the final cut better, but, for me, this is the film that I had set out to make. There were no changes that I [was compelled to] incorporate, barring the alteration of the name to Padmaavat. And I agreed to do so because the film is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi's book by the same name. Rumours of us being forced to make X number of cuts weren't true. Prasoon Joshi [CBFC chief] gave us a fair certificate when you consider the pressure that was on him. And now, when one sees the film, s/he questions what the hullabaloo was all about? I released a video promising people that there was nothing wrong in the film. I am proud that I made the film that I wanted under such circumstances. I loved my work so much that I had to fight without getting tired. The media provided support, as did people from the fraternity.
Do you think the industry could have been a more vocal in their resistance against the fringe groups. On instances, celebrities simply responded to your circumstances stating that it was your film, not theirs.
This is my film, it is my battle. A few of them, like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Samir Soni, Sudhir Mishra and Ashoke Pandit, supported me earnestly and told me to stay strong. But, there was no obvious solution to my fight. So, everyone was helpless. They wondered where it is that Sanjay Leela Bhansali should go [for help]. No one understood the reason behind this uproar. So, I wasn't sure if things would have been different if I had received more support. But I am happy with the manner in which the industry backed me.
After this incident, do you feel artistes are being stripped of the freedom of expression?
We enjoy freedom of expression, but it comes with responsibility. I am a responsible filmmaker. When I say there is nothing amiss in the film, people should believe me. Why am I answerable to some fringe group that says we are the torch bearers of history? There is a government, and a Censor Board. I am answerable to them. Also, when the states decide against releasing the film [after the Supreme Court's approval], only because people are angry, that is a failure of democracy. The states should act against them [fringe groups] and show them their place. They should be told that they don't have a right [to cause a stir]. If they want to protest, they must do so in a civil manner. Yes, there is a sense of intolerance that is rising by the day. I hope artistes fight fearlessly. Such uproars cause distractions, drain our energy and lead to demoralisation. A musician can't be told to not sing a particular raag because it doesn't suit temperaments. A painter can't be stopped from painting something, lest someone protests by throwing acid on his face, or beheads him, or even cuts his nose. These were the threats that we received. This doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. It's very scary. I have overcome it, but the anger hasn't subsided. We have the right to say whatever we want to say. If it doesn't suit you, don't listen to me, or watch my film. People are protesting against elements that haven't even been showcased in the film. The greatest support came in the form of the audiences' decision to go to cinema halls and watch it. It was a message to those who protested, a sign that viewers aren't scared. If people's voices get louder, in the future, we won't succumb to them.
The depiction of Jauhar has received flak from a few, with Swara Bhaskar even recently penning an open letter criticising it...
Jauhar, in this context, is an act of war. Our men have died on the battlefield, but the war doesn't end there. They believe that the Rajputs have been vanquished. But, the women wage the [final] war. They decide that not a single woman or child would be subjugated to rape, or violation. That's what happened then. So, are people questioning Padmavati's decision?
I would assume they are questioning the decision to tell this story in this day-and-age, and the repercussions it may have...
This film is based on a story in which the character performs jauhar. The character doing so was convinced that it was an act of war. I feel it's an empowering thought. She didn't allow the enemy to win. It was a victory of dignity and honour. This is what transpired, and I can't question her. In those days, when there was no solution, harakiri [method of suicide] was prevalent. I can't question it. It is like asking why the Taj Mahal was made when the money spent in doing so could have been used for charity. Some will stand for it, some against it. And that is okay, because any work of art should be debated. But don't oppose my authority to make what I want to, or to narrate it in a particular way. No one is compelled to agree with everything that I have said. As long as we agree disagree, and the work is thought provoking, it's wonderful.
Have you fictonalised the poem Padmavat? According to the literature, it was Kumbhalne ruler Raja Devpal who kills Raja Rawal Ratan Singh [Shahid Kapoor]. But in the film, Ratan Singh becomes a victim of Malik Kafur [Jim Sarbh]...
That is why it's an adaptation. When catering to a different medium, a story must be open to interpretation. One has to dramatically tweak narratives when keeping the audience in mind. You will sketch an image of Goddess Lakshmi a manner that is at odds with how I will. This poem was also interpreted differently over the years. A film called Padmini (1964) showed the queen in a different manner. In fact, it includes a scene which features rani Padmini walking towards Khilji's tent and having a conversation with him. So, it is based on the poem. It's not the poem itself. In my case, the basic story was adhered to. Padmavat is the only document available about the incident. History books are have chronicled it in a brief manner.
People argue that Alauddin Khilji wasn't the barbaric ruler that he has been shown to be...
People say Ranveer's [Singh] Alauddin has been shown as a dark character. For me, he is the most colourful of them all. He had a sharp mind and an obstinate heart. He was a great emperor, and the empire thrived under him. I haven't enjoyed [showcasing] a character as much as I did this one. Art must be effortless and spontaneous. I would go on set and improvise. The scene where he throws ittar on a girl and then embraces her happened in the moment. I was enjoying myself. Ranveer is eccentric, and we brought his vivacious energy to Khilji.
Were you apprehensive about showcasing a mainstream hero as one that is bisexual?
It was documented. I asked Ranveer if he was comfortable with it and he agreed to do the role. We did not showcase it in a jarring manner. It was done with subtlety. Jim and he handled their act with delicateness and dignity. A lot was left for the viewer to gauge.