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Indian nostalgia master brings his vision to Netflix

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His father took him to see the biggest movies over and over again in the small theaters of Bombay that played blockbuster movies.

He fell more in love with Mughal-e-Azam, the hit 1960 musical about a forbidden love story between a prince and a prostitute, every 18 times he watched it. The black and white light opened up to him a world that was both majestic and lost. The dialogue was crisp and poetic and lingered in his mind. Music took him to places that he would only fully understand later in life.

Bombay will eventually become Bombay. India, film and music – they will change too. But more than half a century later, Sanjay Leela Bhansali – now 61, a rare master of the age-old style of Indian filmmaking – has not given up on his role in the city’s red fringe The seats of Alankar Talkies in the small cinema. – Light zone.

Even if his work transcends the walls of the theater, his ideas remain rooted there. His latest project, released on Wednesday, is an eight-episode musical on Netflix about the venerable milieu of prostitution in pre-independence India in the vein of “Game of Thrones.”

“Heeramandi” is a show that gives more space to Mr. Bhansali’s broad and rigorous approach than any two-hour film. But it also presents a thorny challenge. How to bring the splendor and grandeur of royalty – in his imagination, courtesans lived like queens – to audiences, at least in his native India, who mostly watched on small televisions through big-budget texture and color Watch. mobile phone screen?

One answer is technical: more close-ups. The other was personal: his own vision. With decades of commercial success under his belt, he’s well positioned to cling to the kind of cinema—song-laden nostalgia paired with obsessive attention to light and detail—that he fell in love with early on and will always love. Got it.

“I’m still on ‘Alankar Talkies,'” he said in an interview between takes last summer. “I saw it on the big screen over there.”

Outside, Mumbai is being drenched by monsoon rains.

Inside the three-acre hangar, Mr. Bhansali gets lost in a city of imagination and research.

Hundreds of workers worked hard for nearly 10 months to create the Lahore of the early 1900s. The furniture is very retro. The curtains and the miniature patterns on the hallway walls are hand-painted. The slogans on the city walls, the shop signs—all calligraphy, have aged and faded.

When his friend Moin Beg brought him a 14-page project concept about 20 years ago, Mr. Bhansali sat on it. There are too many characters and too much going on for a feature film.

Over the next few years, Bhansali felt as if he was training himself to “handle large scale.”His success in making films in an environment of shrinking artistic expression has made him a The subject of a violent attack —involving dancing girls and the court. A consistent theme is complex, powerful, beautiful women.

Another big step forward: He started composing music for his own films.

Some of his most profound artistic questions since childhood were prompted by music. Through music, people believe that any artist has a 200-year-old or 300-year-old soul. The process of art is the slow discovery of what the soul already knows.

In Alankar Talkies, a boy forgets the actors on the screen and is transported to sound Indian singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

“Somewhere along the line, the soul starts to react to that,” he said. “I kind of understand that, I know where my father is trying to take me because I’ve been somewhere in the past..'”

He was all about Heeramandi because so many things converged in the same world: good taste, classical music and dance, power politics and powerful women.

Before independence in 1947, India was a collection of princely states under British rule. Elite patronage spawned legions of prostitutes, around whom an ecosystem of music, dance and fashion grew.

Heeramandi is one such place in the city of Lahore, which became part of Pakistan after the partition of India. Urdu writer Shorish Kashmiri described Heramandi as “an art gallery where nights sleep and days slumber”, even in its decline.

The Netflix series tells the story of Heeramandi, a prostitute who knows she is the last of her kind.

But this is not a slow march toward nothingness. Mr. Bhansali integrated women into the whirlwind of India’s freedom movement.

“I always give my characters more than they actually deserve in life,” he said. “I wanted them to be bathed in fountains – big hallways and big mirrors so the reflections looked larger than life.”

In his sets, there is complete surrender to the ever-changing vision in Mr. Bhansali’s mind. Some actors described his process as grueling and bad-tempered. Others likened it to film school.

“What my character is initially and what she becomes — a lot of it happens on paper and a lot of it happens on set,” Sonakshi Sinha, the show’s lead actress said.

Ms. Sinha shot two short segments that day.

The first is the last verse of the song. In the climax of the story, Sinha’s character staggers through a crowd of partygoers in her living room to her balcony, drink in hand. Staring at a rival woman across the street, she raised her glass and threw it down.

In shot after shot, Mr. Bhansali emphasized this point: every movement, every gesture must keep the eye, the glare, in focus.

“It’s no fun if you arrive and just pour the wine,” he told Ms Sinha. “Take a short break.”

The footage they film next shows the way Mr Bhansali thinks and the extent of his obsession.

It was supposed to be simple: Ms. Sinha’s character would extinguish some candles to symbolize the closure of Hira Mandi so that the prostitutes could join the fight for freedom.

While going to the toilet, Bhansali walked past a chandelier. As he stood in front of the urinal, he had a new vision: Ms. Sinha’s character would pull up a curtain-wrapped chandelier on a pulley and then walk away when the light went out.

A five-second scene took five hours to light and shoot.

Frustrated that this wasn’t quite right, Mr. Bhansali turned to something that helped connect him to the abstract concept: music. He asked his assistant to play an old song called “Ghazal” on his iPad. The air filled with soft sounds—and then again.

His father, a producer who never made it, made a special request on his deathbed: He sent his son to fetch a tape of a tribal singer who ended up in Pakistan after the partition of India One side, where their own families have roots.

He wants to hear this song “Hajoraba” Created by Reshma – The sound is raw and untrained.

When young Sanjay returned with the tape, his father was unconscious. The scenes just now are still flashing in his mind.

“He had fallen into coma,” Mr Bhansali said. “I had no place to play ‘Hayo Rabba,’ and my mom kept saying, ‘Play ‘Hayo Rabba’!'”

Why that song? The closest answer he came to was that during his father’s hallucinatory state, he was connecting with his ancestors.

“Life is so fascinating,” he said. “Can movies capture that?”

He spent his whole life trying to see if he could.

When he was about six years old, his father took him to a movie set. He asked him to wait in the corner while he talked to his friends.

A cabaret was shot at.

“A scantily clad woman was eating an apple and throwing it at a half-naked man,” he recalled.

He was in awe as he looked up at the ropes, lights and screens hanging from the catwalk.

“I realized I didn’t want to be on the cricket field, I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to be here. This is my place,” he said.

“The woman bit the apple and threw it at the man – I think the child was seduced.”

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