From Holi to Eid, festivals are used as a trope to examine people and society in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films – The Hindu

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March 18, 2022 02:57 pm | Updated 02:57 pm IST
In ‘Ram-Leela’ (2013), the female lead Leela (Deepika Padukone) is introduced in a vivacious Holi setting. 
As winter paved way for spring and Holi rushed in, the energetic garba number ‘Dholida’ from the recently released  Gangubai Kathiawadi came to mind, where the trance-ridden eponymous heroine swirls and splashes colour in that famous single-shot scene. 
With that, I also recalled another colour-suffused frame from the film  Ram-Leela (2013), that introduces the female lead Leela by choreographing her in a vivacious Holi setting. The two scenes are not merely festive portrayals but explorations of suppressed and evolving human emotions. While the former allows Gangubai to process her rage and grief of many years as a prostitute, the second presents Padukone’s character Leela as a free-spirited woman, seconds before encountering her lover for the first time.
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema, celebrations of all kinds routinely develop a politics of their own, offering high points of togetherness, intrigue and even resistance. Take for instance ‘Dola Re Dola’ in  Devdas (2002), where Paro and Chandramukhi dance together on Durga Puja. It is an occasion that provides a unique (if momentary) freedom to the latter from her confined life as a courtesan, simultaneously striking a deep friendship with a woman of “respectable” class. 
This motif is replayed in  Bajirao Mastani’s (2015) ‘Pinga’ performance that brings together Kashibai and Mastani during a festival honouring womanhood. In  Padmaavat (2018), Diwali celebrations become an event to illustrate the fortitude of Raja Ratan Singh. As his kingdom prepares for the impending assault of Allaudin Khilji’s army, the Raja orders his men to celebrate the festival with such fervour that would break Khilji’s morale.
The festival of Eid is depicted with intricacy and bonhomie in films such as ‘Saawariya’ (2007), transforming into a meeting ground for separated lovers and fresh alliances.
Contrary to the view that holds Bhansali as Islamophobic (a position that gained much traction in the aftermath of  Padmaavat’s release), the director complexly focuses on Islamicate aesthetics in a number of his films, again through the prism of celebration. The festival of Eid, for instance, is depicted with intricacy and bonhomie in films like  Saawariya (2007) and  Gangubai Kathiawadi, transforming into a meeting ground for separated lovers and fresh alliances. Thus, it is on Eid that the Hindu Gangubai seeks partnership in the Muslim Karim Lala’s business, strengthening their sibling bond even further. And it is also during Eid that Sakina meets her parted lover Imaan in  Saawariya, a film that is entirely structured around events leading to the festival. Such festive organisation of temporality is also visible in  Ram-Leela which begins with Holi and ends with Diwali.
Likewise, an Anglo-Indian sensibility also finds sustained attention in films like  Khamoshi (1996),  Black (2005),  Guzaarish (2010) and  Saawariya. True to his forte, Bhansali doesn’t limit the expression of celebration only to the depiction of festivals, but instead extrapolates it to evoke a special regard for everyday life. The piano foyer of Lillipop in  Saawariya and Ethan’s radio broadcasting room in  Guzaarish thus ripen into wondrous, joyful spaces, celebrating the magic of music. 
Musical enjoyment again comes to the fore in a spectacular atmospheric shot from  Black that marks the passage of the protagonist Michelle McNally into a young woman. Here, the deaf and blind Michelle is seen enjoying the music fully by running her fingers on the shifting vocal chords of a dazzling jazz performer, subverting the very idea of “hearing” music by “touching” it. Yet, the spirit of celebration remains as alive as ever and attests to the success of Michelle’s education by her teacher, a relationship that constitutes the crux of the story.
But even as Bhansali repeatedly finds magnificence, intimacy and renewed meaning in special and sundry festive settings, the idea of celebration simultaneously — and perhaps most crucially — allows him to connect with the great masters of Hindi cinema and carry forward their legacy to the present. Whether they are the films of K. Asif, Kamal Amrohi, Raj Kapoor, V. Shantaram or Guru Dutt, Bhansali compulsively references their universes along with many other filmic and non-filmic works. 
The qawwali sequence in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.
So while on one level,  Saawariya is about Eid, on another, it is also a celebration of Raj Kapoor’s dialogues and Guru Dutt’s characters and cinematography. Similarly, a number of songs and motifs of  Bajirao Mastani and  Gangubai Kathiawadi are heavily reminiscent of  Mughal-E-AzamPakeezah, and cinema of the 50s and 60s. It is impossible not to hear the notes of ‘Teri Mehfil Mein’ and ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhooti Kahaani’ from  Mughal-E-Azam in  Gangubai’s layered qawwali ‘Shikayat’, performed during a heartbreak and marriage. The imprint of V. Shantaram’s experimentation with colour, dance sequences and evocative architecture is likewise visible in the entire corpus of the filmmaker.
Far from being a mere decorative ploy, celebration evolves into a multifaceted trope allowing the auteur director to relate both to the memory of Hindi cinema and the festive roots of Indian culture. Through a ceaseless experimentation with song, dance and everyday materiality in heightened, operatic terms, Bhansali keeps alive the essential spirit of  anand that defines our collective identity.
The photographer-writer belongs to Shimla.
The Hindu Sunday Magazine
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