Open Letter to B’day Boy Sanjay Bhansali: Tough Times Don’t Last

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.

7 min read

After being assaulted and having the set of Padmavati vandalised in Jaipur, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali is so shattered that he has packed up shooting and returned to Mumbai.

Will Bhansali be able to rise above the incident and go about his life like old times? Only time will tell, but so far Bhansali has always fought adversities and proved that tough times don’t last tough people do.

And till that happens, here is an open letter to revive his strength and spirit on his birthday (24 February):


Dear SLB,

You remember when you were a little boy growing up in a chawl and neighbours shouted at each from across windows and on to the streets. You have often said that those were difficult times and survival was a struggle but you were not the kind to be weighed down by deprivations and your expressions were always full-throated because you came from a family that communicated their angst and sorrows. Sometimes the outbursts in your words bordered on melodrama but the process was always cathartic and soothed many wounds.

In your interviews, many a times, you have recounted the struggle of your father as a B-grade film producer, you have recounted the hardships the family went through after every flop and also shared vivid memories of your father taking you to movies in cinema halls. The magnificent movies you watched in the dark auditorium transported you into an imaginary world. Walking from the theatre to home, your father Navinbhai Bhansali would educate you the magic of celluloid, explain how a barren set with artefacts can be transformed into fantasy world.
Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.
Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Cannes, where Devdas was screened out of competition in 2002. (Photo: Reuters)

How you loved these stories and dreamed about them all night, very often after school you accompanied your mother Leelaben to her dance classes. She was an expert choreographer and specialised in folk dance and you looked forward to these evening classes. You loved watching your mother bend and twirl, she was so graceful and so her hands, feet and eyes were always synchronised. Sometimes, when she felt exhausted, she asked you to demonstrate new steps and you always came up with something imaginative. The students looked surprised but not Leelaben. She always knew you were a special child, you always heard different drums in your head...

The first time you crumbled was when you lost your father. It was a poignant phase for the entire family. Your mother who had been brave for too long, felt weighed down and your sister had to grow up overnight. Finance was never in excess but your sister Bela somehow managed to study cinema and when the time came, enrolled you into the Film Institute as well. Watching both of you blossom Leelaben slowly and gradually recovered from her sorrow as well.

You were fortunate to assist Vidhu Vinod Chopra, an alumnus of Film Institute during the making of Parinda. The experience came wrapped in the excuse of opportunities. Chopra was making 1942: A Love Story and wanted his songs set to tune by RD Burman, his music presented in an untraditional way. Vinod gave you an opportunity and you lived up to the promise.

Vinod was impressed and wanted you to make a film for his banner but you wanted to fly and were unafraid of your wings getting clipped.

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.
Manisha Koirala and Salman Khan in Khamoshi. 

You made Khamoshi and wanted Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan to play the deaf and mute parents but were new and therefore unsure of approaching them and signed Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas, but you had Monisha Koirala and Salman Khan and you brought back the dancing queen Helen in a cameo.

Everyone loved the film but it made no impact on the box-office, and this was not because of the content but because you had to still master the art of business and marketing. You were initially disappointed but later determined that your next project would be a blockbuster. It was!

Three years later you were ready with the colourful and exotic Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, loved by both, the critics as well as the box-office. I had visited your set on the last day of the film and you were unusually sad. Sitting on the marble steps you glanced at the set longingly and said, ‘In a few days this set will be dismantled, difficult to accept that so many beautiful moments shared with a team will be erased forever, it is very tough for me to let go of these moments but I will have to,’ you said with soulful eyes.

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.
Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

A year later you had forgotten the pain and you were working on another film, another story. Your next film Devdas was a lavish production and became the Indian entry to Oscars as well. Today, when people watch Devdas, they remember Dola re dola re dola… but only you know the torment you went through behind the scenes.

Your producer Bharat Shah was in the hospital and there came a point when all finance was blocked. Your well wishers advised you to stall shooting for a while but you refused to give up on your dream, refused to compromise on quality and your team indulged your every whim. I remember interviewing you during that phase, I remember what you said, ‘To make a film you don’t need money, you need passion,’ and you proved this.

Post Devdas, you made Black and were delighted to finally work with your matinee idol Amitabh Bachchan. You said that for you the sound of a film comes before the idea and you wove a story to match the music humming in your head. You said the best ideas come to you from the darkness of the mind. Those days you spent all your free time at the blind school and wanted to understand what was going on in their heads.

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.
Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan in Black.

You seemed in a happy phase until one early morning, just as you were preparing to leave for shooting to Film City, you got a phone call that a nasty fire had ravaged your set! You were stunned and became numb for days. You withdrew from everyone and stayed home, thinking, reflecting and then few weeks later you were building the set again, preparing for shooting. You could have so easily broken down and cried ‘Why me’, instead you said ‘I will prove myself again and again’ and you did and won all the awards of the season for the film.

Saawariya was in 2007, launching two star kids, Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor, for some mysterious reason became a threat to Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om and resulted in a bitter battle at the box-office. When the audience rejected Saawariya you were demoralised but not for long. By now you were familiar with the game of show business and determined to walk the desert no matter how dense the fog! You made yet another meaningful film, Guzaarish, with yet another superstar, Hrithik Roshan, starring your all-time favourite heroine, Aishwarya Rai. You shared a special chemistry with Rai and one thought you will make films with her forever and ever but that was not so.

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali will rise and fight back from the latest controversy surrounding his film ‘Padmavati’.
Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone in Ramleela.

You did Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ramleela with Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh in 2013 and when I met you for Ganpati at your home, your friends danced to ‘Mor bani thanghat kare’ . In an emotional moment you said to me that you had been looking to use the word ‘Leela’ in a film title for years and finally you had got an opportunity. You were happy with the reactions to the film and in 2015 you released another super hit Bajirao Mastani with the same pairing of Deepika-Ranveer. The critics described your film as a modern Mughal-E-Azam and the distributors celebrated the collections, you were delighted and so was your team. When I met you at your office, you said, ‘God has given so much, so much that I will never ask him for anything more. I will merely strive and offer him my best.’

You were so calm and content that I was sure that nothing could ever make you restless. You are usually anxious before a new film but I did not sense any anxiety before Padmavati. You were looking forward to shooting in Jaipur and then came the assault and the vandalising. You are currently in a state of shock which is understandable, you are angry and upset, but you will conquer this feeling and get back to work like you always do.

There are two reasons for this: whatever happened is a reflection of the protestors not you and secondly, more important, cinema is more precious than controversies!


Bhawana Somaaya

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 13 books. You can follow her on Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on January 31 2017. It is now being republished to mark Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s birthday.)

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