Friday, June 15, 2012

Sanjay Leela Bhansali vs Wes Andersen: Or A Comparative Analysis of Little Consequence.

It was after watching Wes Andersen’s The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou that I first found myself questioning whether I was being too hard on Sanjay Leela Bhansali for his movies set in never-never India. 

After all, both Andersen and Bhansali set their characters in unlikely settings that disoriented our sense of time and place. Both prefer exploring the the lives and times of the priviledged upper classes. Both are acute aesthetes with a particular love for all things vintage. And finally, both litter their creations with myriad references drawn from unlikely sources. 
So why is it that while the sibling protagonists of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited and the father-son explorer duo of the Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou absolutely charmed me, the heros and heroines of Black, Guzaarish and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (particularly the first two) left me a little irritated and confused? 
Was I - horror of horror - one of those people who immediately accepted the pretensions of foreigners but played-down the works of her compatriots? 
It was after attending a talk by Sabyasachi Mukherjee - the costume designer of Black and Guzaarish - about his work in the two films that the deceptively simple answer dawned on me.
Andersen succeeds while Bhansali fails because he makes comedies whereas Bhansali tragedies. 
ANDERSEN'S characters and settings are eccentric, if not outright outlandish. The Tenenbaum family is characterised by its dysfunctionality. Steve Zizou is the last of the seafaring explorers out to discover the mysterious murderous fish that ate-up his friend (I kid you not). And the three foppish American-Jewish brothers of The Darjeeling Limited go on a spiritual journey across India in a Palace-On-Wheels-like train hoping for a life-changing experience. And he gives them all kinds of aesthetic quirks: the clothes, the accesories, the sets, the music hark back to many different eras and cultures at the same time. 
But here’s the thing. Andersen doesn’t ask us to or identify with these weirdos or find them believable. He merely wants us to be amused by them. If there is an emotional quotient to his films, it only ever hovers on the surface ready to recede instantly in favour of the next eccentric twist. The highly stylised sets, clothes and ambience only add to the characters’ alienness. And we, as audience, remain amused observers of these curiously aesthetic, dysfuntional beings throughout the length of the film.  

Andersen doesn't take his characters or his audience too seriously. 
ON THE OTHER HAND, Bhansali demands that we as audience immerse ourselves into the raw emotional experiences of his characters: the deaf, dumb, blind Michelle McNelly’s struggles to express herself, Nandini’s determination to realise a pre-marital love affair, and the quadraplegic Ethan Mascarenhas’ desire for mercy-killing. All this darkness is overarched by a theme of everlasting love. There is nothing remotely amusing about these characters or their situations. 
Yet, Bhansali refuses to give them a recognisable backdrop. All throughout Black, I kept struggling to place McNelly in a specific time period. There was a lovely vintage quality to the clothes, sets and backdrop that pointed towards a rich, Anglo-Indian family living in pre-Indepedence Shimla. Yet, the references limited themselves to cold, inanimate things. There were no British people intermingling with Indians in saris or nehru topis, no references to the political turmoil: anything that clashed with the immaculate European aesthetics of the setting was cleansed-off the frame. The McNellys were basically European, accidentally being played by Indian actors. Ditto, the Rajasthan-Italy combo of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the Goa of Guzaarish (which somehow seemed closer to the crumbling Colombia of One Hundred Years of Solitude to me). 
Unfortunately for us, the audience, we are then asked to become one with these outlandish creatures: to cry in fury, misery or sadness with them and for them. But how? All through Black, I kept getting distracted by the unlikely but overpowering sets. And I kept feeling manipulated. Bhansali wanted me to feel urgently for McNelly, but at the same time maintain an aesthetic distance from her life. One minute I was invited in, the other minute decidedly booted out. At least, McNelly shared her ordinary looks with us. The Sofia of Guzaarish in her garters, gypsy skirts, aprons and faux-European demeanour didn’t even offer us that. In fact, my mind absolutely refused to interact with this alien creature. Let Bhansali and Mukherjee cry for her, it said, since they thinks she is so fantastic.  
If you want to evoke human feelings, you have interact with the ugliness of our human lives, right? In fact, some of the world’s most raw, emotional artworks - think The Scream, Guernica or Francis Bacon’s works - are ugly. It is a precarious aesthetic ugliness however, and for that reason, they are deemed masterpieces. 
So tell you what, Mr Bhansali. You give me a character decidedly rooted in a reality (ugliness and all), and I will give you one whole bucketful of tears in return. 
And let’s leave the bohemian aesthetics to Andersen. 

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