State of the Art

Sanjay Leela Bhansali: The greatest movie director you’ve never heard of

Deepika Padukone plays a Muslim warrior princess in love with a Hindu leader in the extraordinary “Bajirao Mastani.”
Deepika Padukone plays a Muslim warrior princess in love with a Hindu leader in the extraordinary “Bajirao Mastani.” Eros International

Bollywood movies never get nominated for Oscars. Voters can’t get their minds around an art form where stories must be told on an operatic scale, with impossible effects and actors (dubbed, of course) frequently breaking into songs and elaborate dances.

They’d rather reward a black-and-white drama about Eastern Europeans who have lost their religious faith (last year’s “Ida”) or a piece about concentration camp inmates who lead fellow Jews to the gas chambers (“Son of Saul,” this year’s front-runner). Both of those made my top-10 lists. But they fit into a weightily “serious” category that Bollywood, by definition, cannot: It’s too grand and full of excitement, though it may also deal with themes of betrayal and death.

So Sanjay Leela Bhansali, my favorite living Indian director after an admittedly small sampling from that country, will probably never find himself at the Academy Awards. But he should.

His latest film, “Bajirao Mastani,” can still be seen in Charlotte at Regal Stonecrest. Like his “Black” and “Devdas,” it ended up in my top five films of the year. Bhansali can handle sweeping battles, swirling and stomping dance numbers or massive scenes on huge sets. (Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography equals anything I saw last year in its use of a vast color palette.)

At the same time, he also gets intimate moments right. When the Muslim warrior Mastani (Deepika Padukone) and the Hindu wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) struggle to establish relationships with the Hindu warrior Bajirao (Ranveer Singh), their performances have a human scale: Emotions run deep and are intensely expressed, but they’re never ridiculous or exaggerated.

Some critics have complained about the stunts, including one where Bajirao sweeps away a storm of arrows with his sword. That comes with the territory: This kind of film is hyper-real, not realistic, and bound by its own logic. (Of course, “District 9” – a movie about extraterrestrials living in slums in South Africa – got four Oscar nominations, and nobody minded its unreality.) Good Indian movies are, like good Indian food, highly spiced but addictive when you adjust your palate.

Bhansali’s not perfect: “Saawariya,” the fourth film I’ve seen that he’s directed, has a clumsily slender story about a carpet weaver and a homeless musician who fall in love in a small town. Yet even that failure has elements to recommend it – the sumptuous design and cinematography almost hold it together – and it’s seldom boring.

Although I can now enjoy Bollywood films at home on video, they need a first viewing on the big screen. Do your cinematic soul a favor and try “Bajirao Mastani” before it disappears.

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