Sanjay Leela Bhansali on making historicals in India: ‘You need to get your facts right, have to be a little careful’

Ace filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali who has directed films inspired by historical events like Padmavat and Bajirao Mastani, among others, recently spoke about how he goes about making period dramas and does his research when he is “working on a historical in our country.”

Bhansali was in conversation with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos in Mumbai, on Saturday, where the duo launched the teaser of their upcoming web-series Heeramandi starring Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sharmin Segal and Sanjeeda Shaikh.

Bhansali, in conversation with Mini Mathur, discussed how, while making films inspired by history, one needs to “be a little careful” and “get your facts right.”

When Mini asked him how he goes about researching these wonderful, sometimes unbelievable, worlds that he creates in his movies, the director candidly said that most of it comes out of his imagination and that he finds research “boring”.

When you are working on a historical in our country, you have to be a little careful. So yes you need to get your facts right, and that is where my research ends. Because most of it is imagination, most of it is how I see the period. I do go and see the architecture, and I start dreaming of my own extra pillars, roofs, carpets. So research is done, but not detailed research. I find research very boring. As a filmmaker I am not set out to make a documentary. I want my impressions, child-like impressions, grown-up impressions, heart broken lovers’ impressions… I want all that come to the film rather than documented research,” the filmmaker said.

The filmmaker then elaborated on how he first shoots a music piece and then begins making the film. “I start with making a song. When song falls into place, then I imagine the whole song unfold. Music is a very important part of my films. There are a lot of people who feel every film doesn’t have to have music, which is right. I mean there are very important socially relevant films that are made. You don’t need music, but I need music. I have grown up listening to music and that is it. So music starts… that is my research, imagination of how that music would happen, of how this woman would look, how well does she talk, what is the dialogue, is the dialogue inspiring me, are the dramatic scenes inspiring me, are the dramatic scenes inspiring me. I feel bored about a lot of people who say, I did a lot of research, it is my take on it and they are right in the way they do it and that is how it should be done. But I just think I start taking off and floating.”

Bhansali’s Padmaavat was mired in controversy. While the film was being made and before the film’s theatrical release, protests erupted after multiple Rajput groups claimed that the film was “distorting history”, a charge that Bhansali repeatedly denied. Some even claimed that the film promoted the practice of Sati, which lead to the makers adding a disclaimer.

When the host of the show Mini Mathur further asked him if the nuances and the contextualisation of these nuances is all out of the filmmaker’s imagination, he said, “Ya! Because if it is there in real then people have seen it in a documentary or in a series, but this is what they have not seen. So what is Devdas like? Obviously he is a literature character, but what are Bajirao or Mastani like? People have not seen Bajirao Mastani so I can take the liberty to do what I want. Nobody has seen them because it happened 300 to 400 years ago. So, what do I give them that makes them feel that they are seeing a film they connect to today. Fifty years ago it would have been a different film if we made Bajirao or Gangubai. So there is a certain modern approach to the way you make a film, the audience has to connect to it. They have to relate to this historical or a period piece. Even Gangubai, I think it was a film set in the 40s and the 50s. I have lived next to the brothels for thirty years of my life, one lane away from the brothels. I knew in and out what those lanes looked like, smelt like, what are the faces like. So I had my research and the rest was imagination. You can’t keep going and copying, make notes, making notes bore me completely.”

“People told me not to make Gangubai. It’s a female-centric film, it’s a female protagonist. In India, they do not got a female-led subject. The box office has never worked. She’s playing a sex worker and then there’s no hero. All the tick marks you would put to understand the audience and the scenario, I have ticked all the wrong boxes. But it worked. That’s the belief,” the filmmaker concluded.