Whenever I heard of art being all consuming and touching the viewer’s soul, I would scoff a little internally. Sure, paintings can be beautiful but how can a non-living inanimate piece generate any emotion within a viewer other than an appreciation of aesthetics? The notion itself felt ironic, didn’t I spend hours every day painting? But painting and art always for me always felt like more of a fun activity rather than an emotional experience.
But all that changed, when I came across the work of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s an Indian director, producer, screenwriter, and music director who is known for his work in Bollywood. He’s most notably known for his visually brilliant productions.
What attracts to me his work the most is his perspective. Indian cinema is a beautiful creation, but is often unnecessarily influenced by Hollywood. Call it the colonial hangover or whatever, but almost all of ideals of beauty, art, and culture in cinema are those left by the British or affected by Americas’ ever pervading influence in the social media world. But Bhansali’s work is different. It uses Indian music, coupled with Indian aesthetics to showcase Indian culture to an Indian audience. Voila! The shift in perspective is a fresh change. The ‘indian-ness’ of the piece is portrayed as the default, while the European or foreign elements are portrayed as the ‘exotic’, other than the other way around.
One example of his artistic genius is the song ‘ Mohe Rang do Lal’. Set in the backdrop of the gorgeous Amer fort and under the wide sky, every moment is an artistic composition. There is symmetry in each scene. High arches curve gracefully as they frame the scene, skirts swirl behind the main dancer and a delicate water fountain balances the shot. The entire set is in soft pastel colours, predominantly golden and white hues. The only burst of colours is of course the main dancer’s hands, painted a vivid red reminiscent of the traditional ‘alta’ put on by classical dancers. But the hands are no coincidence, they match exactly with the lyrics of the song, figuratively painting the viewer red, like the story of Krishna and Radha. You can see a fleeting glimpse of a Veena as well. The music is soft and melodious, a wonderful combination of classical Indian music and ragas.
Most of his work reads a lot like a Raja Ravi Verma painting, full of vibrant colours, idealistic beauty and a touch of mythology. It is a beautiful, exuberant and luxurious experience.
What Bhansali does best is choreograph movement. The movement of each character is dynamic. They move with such fluidity that is evocative of brush strokes on canvas. Some are heavy, some are delicate yet each one is unique and flows like water. There is a curious mixture of restraint and freedom.
There is symmetry in each scene and every object caters to his artistic vision. Nothing in his frame is accidental.
To me, he’s a true artist. Every scene, every costume, each movement is art. While he’s praised for his glamorous cinematography, critics have often complained about his stuffy, overzealous plots. Due to his overbearing, perfectionist nature, he’s sometimes also referred to as a mad genius. I think it’s primarily because his talent lies in visual storytelling, and sometimes when imagination, creativity, history, glitz and glam collide they leave little room for a plot. He would be a perfect artist or even music video director.
He is incredibly talented and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Images: Taken from youtube clips of his films.