The Women of Sanjay Leela Bhansali Films and Their Perpetual Search for Agency

I watched Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam a few months after it released in theatres in 1999. The film was premiering on TV and my uncle who was visiting from Calcutta – having seen the film on the first day of its release – insisted that we all watch it together.

My parents, who didn’t allow me to watch even an hour of TV during those days, made an exception and let me squeeze in with the elders. I was excited to finally have the chance to memorise the ‘Nimboda Nimboda’ choreography and show off to my classmates in school. However, it was the opening track ‘Man Mohini’ that introduces the audience to an effervescent Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) running through the desert. My eight-year-old brain was drawn to the spirited portrayal of Nandini, who finds fleeting moments of freedom in the stifling patriarchal world she is written into.

Years later, when I watched the film again, I found Bhansali’s gaze refreshing. He resists the urge to glorify Aishwarya Rai’s beauty but treats her like a fleshed-out human being who has a personality beyond those deep blue eyes. In Nandini, we get a multi-dimensional female character who establishes her relatability even before the male leads are introduced.

However, the rest of the film becomes an exercise in the slow erasure of Nandini’s agency. Her narrative becomes increasingly centred around the two men in her life. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was no doubt a progressive film for its time, but it falls into the trap of writing its central female character with respect to the relationship with the men in her life. And it does so slowly, with its runtime of over three hours, after which you realise that the Nandini you part with at the bridge in Italy is not the one who you were introduced to in the beginning. Yes, she was given the choice to choose between the two men, but it is Sanjay Leela Bhansali who has already decided for her.

This month, Bhansali finished 25 years in the Hindi film industry. He is perhaps one of the very few filmmakers of Hindi cinema to have the most visible and identifiable style of filmmaking. The sheer detailing that Bhansali puts into his meticulously crafted frames has pushed his contemporaries to think twice before pasting a wallpaper of a bookshelf (Anyone remembers the obnoxious house of Hum Saath Saath Hai?) in place of an actual one. I feel that Bhansali would be remembered more for his contribution to production design than his filmmaking and yes, his fans are more than welcome to crucify me for saying that.

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Over the years, Bhansali’s frames have become more and more painstakingly detailed while his women have become more one dimensional – known only for their devotion towards their men. The free-spirited nature he accords Nandini with in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is missing from all his later works except for maybe Black, where he succeeded as presenting Rani Mukherjee as a character rather than a heroine in his film.

It is in the lieu of presenting the viewers with a ‘heroine’ that he ends up writing women like fillers of his grand frames. They have to be beautiful and graceful in the face of every tragedy that is thrown at them to the point they seem to be caged in their beauty. Remember Aishwarya Rai’s Paro running through the corridors of her haveli to catch a last glimpse of her dying Devdas – who looked abjectly sick, but Paro still looked hopelessly gorgeous even in her grief.

On paper, the women of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films are strong, courageous, intelligent, dignified and astute characters but are never remembered as such because of the filmmaker’s obsession with their beauty. In Guzaarish – which I believe to be one of his most underrated films – he sacrifices Aishwarya Rai’s character Sofia, a devoted nurse trapped in a bad marriage, to his very conventional ideas of what constitutes as a beautiful woman. It is almost painful to watch Sofia in long, flowy velvet skirts and gowns designed by Sabyasachi Mukherjee as she bathes a quadriplegic Ethan Mascarenhas (portrayed brilliantly by Hrithik Roshan), almost insinuating that in his world, women owe beauty at all times.

In Bajirao Mastani, he sacrificed the extremely interesting historical figure of Mastani, who was an accomplished warrior along with being a follower of the Bhakti movement, to his materialistic obsessions. Instead of remembering Mastani as a woman ahead of her times, Bhansali gives us the vision of perfectly poised Deepika Padukone dancing in Bajirao’s court. Surprisingly, Priyanka Chopra’s Kashibai shines and benefits from not being the lead heroine because Bhansali looks at her as the first and neglected wife of Bajirao who needs to find her own narrative after Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) falls in love with Mastani.

It would be interesting to see his treatment of Gangubai Kathiawadi in his forthcoming film and how he treats his protagonist without a main man to be devoted to. Perhaps, this will be the film that gives us the woman Bhansali promised us in the first few minutes of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

And if not, I am sure there will be a next time to realise that women are more than the sum of their beautiful parts.

Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India.