The dazzling charm of the courtesans

Bhansali has the reputation of being a micromanaging perfectionist on set. He once said that he wouldn’t let actors go to their vanity vans until he found “the moment”.
Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar first look
Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar first look

CHENNAI: The casting process for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali ensemble sounds like a recruitment sequence from a heist film. “I was actually gardening back home in Nepal when I got the call,” shares Manisha Koirala, who plays Mallikajaan, the queen-bee courtesan in Bhansali’s recent glitter of a dream Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.

“I quickly washed the mud off my hands and picked up the phone. Me and Sanjay have been in touch over the years but I didn’t expect the call to be about work. I was surprised when he offered me the role,” she says. “I thought I had given whatever I had but then this project brought me back.”

For Aditi Rao Hydari, the series’ songbird-seductress Bibbojaan, it was like a shower of celestial blessings. “I remember that day. One of my films in the South had released to a hundred per cent occupancy. I was in the car, going for promotional interviews and I got a call from Sanjay sir’s office, inviting me for a look test. It was a double bounty,” she says. “Such a special day.”

However, for Sharmin Segal, who plays Mallikajaan’s younger daughter, the poetess Alamzeb, the casting process was more of a training montage. “Everyone knows I am Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s niece. I was under a lot of scrutiny since I am part of ‘the family’,” she says.

“He made me audition 17 times.” It was less cinematic and more casual for Richa Chadha, the alcoholic tawaif Lajjo (“We casually met and discussed cinema”), and Sanjeeda Sheikh, the vindictive Waheedan, (“We had met once for a TV show but it didn’t happen. I thought he had forgotten me. Turned out he didn’t”).

The omission is not something the auteur can be accused of. “I think he has four eyes even in the back of his head,” jokes Manisha. “He has had this uncanny obsession with details since his first film.” The actor worked with Bhansali on his debut directorial Khamoshi: The Musical (1996).

“I was playing the daughter of hearing and speech-impaired parents. He made me go to a special school for months to learn sign language. He even made my sign language teacher his assistant. So, by the time we got down to shoot, I knew my character, my lines and sign language down to the T.”

Bhansali has the reputation of being a micromanaging perfectionist on set. He once said that he wouldn’t let actors go to their vanity vans until he found “the moment”. “His consciousness is telling him to micro-manage but what he is actually seeking is the magic of spontaneity,” says Sharmin.

‘For Sanjay Leela Bhansali, nothing can be mundane’

Richa negates the rumours of him being a hard taskmaster. “The thing is, he will give you agency if he trusts you as an actor. He will ask you what you think your character will do at this moment.

What are they likely to say? How are they likely to feel? He did it with me in Ram-Leela (2013). There was a scene with Supriya Pathak and it wasn’t working. I was fairly new at the time but he still asked me, ‘What do you think will happen?’ I said that if Supriya ma’am’s character says the dialogue with some humanity, it will work.

He is like a musician who keeps experimenting with different instruments to make the scene not just sound better but also interesting.” Aditi also takes up the music metaphor. “Even the silences he has in his films have a certain musicality to them. It seems like he is setting his scene and the performances of his characters to a certain piece of music playing in his head,” she says.

But what is a Bhansali project without its grand, intricate set? Spanning across 3 acres in Mumbai’s film city, the set for Heeramandi has been the director’s largest till now. “When I first worked with him, I knew he had a vision to become bigger and better but to this scale!” says Manisha.

“When I entered the set of Heeramandi for the first time I was flabbergasted by the grandeur. Each corner was just picture-perfect. I was also in my method actor mood. I went to the set as it was Mallikajaan’s place and I had to internalize it.” Manisha added that to play the role, she had to shed the tomboyishness of her personality and don the elegance of Mallikajaan.

“My mother is a trained Kathak dancer and my grandmother was a Bharatanatyam dancer. They even turn their heads as if it is a performance. I took some cues from their mannerisms to get the poise of my character,” she explains.

Richa, on the other hand, used veteran actor Meena Kumari as a template to express the melancholy of the lovelorn Lajjo. “It was not just her performances in films like Pakeezah (1972) but also how she was in real life. I read her poetry. I tried to almost mimic the pain, the incompletion in her voice,” she says.

Bhansali’s imaginations are often criticized for being restricted to the beauty of imagery. “But there is so much more than that,” says Aditi. “I know that there is so much talk about the aesthetic world he builds. But for us actors, that is just the base. He is actually trying to create an authentic, immersive experience for the viewers and also for the actors who are part of it. It is all about the emotional journey he is taking you on.”

“I think what he is constantly trying to do is to lift even an inconsequential scene,” explains Manisha. “There can be nothing mundane.” Sharmin is almost reverential. “I don’t think any of us mortal beings can understand his vision or what goes on in his subconscious.”

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The New Indian Express