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Interview | Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Heeramandi writer grew tired of delay, said he’d give script to David Dhawan instead | Web Series

Inshallah. Chenab Gandhi. The Sahir Ludhianvi biopic. These are just some of the unrealised stories Sanjay Leela Bhansali has incubated over the years. He believes there’ll be a right time to tell these stories, just like the time was ripe for his debut streaming show, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, which was first planted in his restless mind over 20 years ago. In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, Bhansali recalls how it was falling in love at the first narration.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali interview: The filmmaker opens up on making Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

(Also Read: Will Heeramandi be the next RRR? Global success makes Bhansali’s series cut across languages, cultures, criticisms)

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“Aditya Pancholi brought Moin Beg to my house and said he’s written something special and only you can make it. I said there’s nothing like that,” recalls Bhansali. It was the time when his third directorial venture, Devdas (2002), had just released. Bhansali finally got around to the initial concept (24-page synopsis) of Heeramandi in 2003. Given the themes, opulence, and intricacy of Devdas, Heeramandi made for quite an organic follow-up. But Bhansali soon pivoted and made Black (2005), a film polar opposite to that, yet equally compelling.

“Whenever I announced a new film, Moin would call me. ‘You are not making Heeramandi? Now, you’ve started another film. Now, you’ve started Ram-Leela (2013)! Now you’ve started Bajirao Mastani (2015)! And now, you’ve started Padmaavat (2018)!’ Then he just threatened me that he’d take the script away and give it to David Dhawan,” says Bhansali, who almost gave up on the prospect, before meeting Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos in Los Angeles prior to the release of Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). A five-minute meeting greenlit a project that he’d been sitting on for almost two decades.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali directing Sonakshi Sinha and Manisha Koirala on the sets of Heeramandi
Sanjay Leela Bhansali directing Sonakshi Sinha and Manisha Koirala on the sets of Heeramandi

The advent of streaming in India was probably the occasion Bhansali was subconsciously waiting for all those years. While he did venture into television with the Star Plus musical romantic drama Saraswatichandra in 2013-14, he wanted a healthy mix of long-form storytelling and cinematic scale for a story as grand as Heeramandi. “The script would come out every 2-3 years. But I always said to myself that this is very big. It needs a lot of time – 3,4 or 5 hours. Luckily, when this format started opening up and becoming popular, my mind kept thinking maybe this is the right place to make Heeramandi,” Bhansali adds.

Heeramandi may have had a longer journey from pen to screen, but Bhansali claims he hasn’t made a film that hasn’t marinated in his mind for 8-10 years. “They stay with me. They keep nurturing me. Like plants. They keep adding water, they keep adding layers. So they get ready automatically. When it has to be made, the mind is ready,” says Bhansali. His subconscious mind has a symbiotic relationship with untold stories – they shape him as much as he shapes them. Time isn’t an obstruction to his creative process, but an integral part of it.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali marks his streaming debut with Heeramandi
Sanjay Leela Bhansali marks his streaming debut with Heeramandi

A Netflix India original allowed him the expanse, both horizontal and vertical, to tell the timeless story. But it also begged the question: Does the shrinking of screen size also make an auteur like him a lesser filmmaker? “I remember an incident of Birju Maharaj. He came to Mumbai to record two songs of Devdas – Kahe Chhed Mohe and Maar Daala. He was sitting in the hotel one day and called me in the evening and asked if there’s no work that day. I said no, it’s a Sunday. He said, we are artists. Till we don’t perform for anyone, we don’t eat. We don’t like food till then. I asked him what I should do. He said, take me anywhere. I took him to Madhuri Dixit’s home, where he performed,” recalls Bhansali.

Since then, Bhansali has believed that he’s just an artist who must sing his song. Whether people listen to him on speakers, headphones or earplugs, all that matters is that they listen to his voice. “I’m glad that there’s a lot of discussion among people, irrespective of where they’re watching Heeramandi. They’re asking each other if there’s a big screen at their home. Those watching it on their phone are wondering whether they should go for a bigger screen,” says Bhansali. Instead of taking his shift to streaming as a demotion, he believes stories like these can help push the boundaries of how content is viewed back home. “Normally, people don’t watch a series twice. But I want them to watch all the episodes again. If there’s a repeat binge watch, it’ll be a big thing for me,” says Bhansali, with another half-cooked story marinating somewhere within his lifeforce.

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