Exclusive: AD visits the world of Heeramandi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s biggest set production


This imagined world of his is drawn from references assimilated over a lifetime. It borrows from the crumbling walls of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area, which Bhansali passed on the way back home from school. It takes from the many antiques he saw being sold at Chor Bazaar or the fading walls of his childhood home. “I grew up in a simple, middle-class family where going to art galleries or museums was not part of the culture,” he says. So, for the longest time, he drew from life, of what he saw around him and stored it carefully in the bounds of his mind. But as time passed, the reference library grew larger, extending to his favourite artists SH Raza’s Bindu, VS Gaitonde’s textures, Raghu Rai’s photographs and Kishori Amonkar’s raag.

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And just like these, the worlds of Bhansali including the set of Heeramandi are far from reality. It’s nothing like what the real Heera Mandi in Pakistan looks like. “It can never be real as art is not real,” he says. “Can you touch a Kishori Amonkar raag? Can you take a Gaitonde painting and say let’s place it in reality? You can’t.” Art, he believes is what evokes something within you. It could be delight or distress or discomfort or something else, and that experience, he asserts, better be left unanalysed.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetIshika Motwani

Though his sets and frames are often analysed deeply for he is the master of creating painting-like frames in which there is so much to see. People often tell him that they lose track of the narrative while seeing his films for the first time and that they are compelled to watch it again, which of course is great news for a filmmaker. But even then, he refuses to be dictating a viewer’s gaze in his frames. “The audience sees what they want to see,” says Bhansali. Yet, he has taken a liking to holding a shot, to making a frame and sitting and watching it and to letting it all assimilate. “I am constantly thinking will that one table matter to the audience; will that one fresco peeping out of the wall behind Mallikajaan mean anything to them?” His pursuit is to make images, and frames that are worthy of being called paintings. “Though, it’s a long way to go,” says Bhansali. He is aware of the work it takes to achieve the feat. It happens when one is freed from the failure and success of the box office. It’s only possible when one’s art is liberated. “Only then can you become fearless like Ray and Akira Kurosawa and I hope one day people will say I did it as well.”


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