Friday, December 17, 2010

2 Degrees of Separation: Walt Disney and Sanjay Leela Bhansali

I'm sure I'm not the first one to have thought of the similarities, because most of them can't possibly be missed, what with Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB)'s flair for fairy tales, but I realized I had to write this post when I saw Aishwarya's entrance in Guzaarish. I wish I could have found a still from the film showing that exact moment, but this will have to do for now.

She reminded me so much of Snow White that I immediately knew I had to write this post.

For some reason a lot of scenes and frames in Guzaarish sent me back to Snow White, even if the story itself resembles Beauty and the Beast much more: a lonely rugged-looking prince trapped in his rundown castle on the hill, with only a few servants, waiting for his death...

Sigh... I could do a whole post just on Guzaarish and Beauty and the Beast.

But this post will be more generic than that. Surprisingly I seem to have seen all but 2 of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films, but certainly these are his most representative ones: Saawariya, Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Guzaarish.

As far as Disney is concerned, I doubt I missed watching any of the classics less than 20 times since I grew up on them, so I'll be referencing quite a few, though the main focus are his classic love stories, to make sure that I'm comparing apples to apples here.

*** And since we already mentioned apples and Snow White, might as well start with a word on THE HEROINES in general... ***

From a modern perspective, Disney's heroines in his classics were the ideal housewives: beautiful, obedient, attentive and gentle. With very few exceptions, SLB's heroines fulfil these requirements as well.

The one thing that always drives me nuts about Paro (Devdas) and Nandini (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) is why on earth can they not stand up for themselves, in front of their man and in front of their parents. Rhetorical question, of course, because it's more cinematic to cry and deliver some inane dialogue about life not being worth living without the loved one than to actually speak up.

Just like a lost Snow White, Belle and Duchess manage to do nothing with themselves but hide and cry until they find someone to look after them.

Oh, such lady-like wimps... But you know, I love watching all these heroines for their grace: there has not been a single SLB heroine who did not walk, talk, dance and look like a queen (albeit sometimes in exile). Even Chandramukhi, a prostitute, could teach any girl a thing or two about refinement.

A very similar type of elegance can be found in all of Disney's heroines, from Snow White to Rapunzel. They'd probably be able to dance gracefully on their tiny little slippers while cooking excellent biryani and home made sweets. Oh wait, Snow White actually does!

Of course, any feminist will also hurry to point out that these graceful, perfect figures invariably depend on their men to rescue them: Snow White, Cinderella, Lady (Lady and the Tramp), Duchess (The Aristocats). No idea what would happen to these poor souls if their princes and tramps were not around to rescue them every time.

Similarly, Paro and Chandra (in Devdas) are both shattered without Dev (as opposed to the Kashyap version where they both live happily, even if initially heartbroken, without him), and Nandini has to rely on her husband to find her man for her. Saawariya as well plays into the same stereotype: Sakina is almost ready to accept Raj without having substantial feelings for him because the idea of not having any of the two men doesn't even cross her mind: what would she be without a man?

Won't really get into the Guzaarish issue of Sofia being abused by her husband and the way Ethan eventually "saves" her because that one just blows the mind. Interestingly Sofia is meant to be a strong woman (maybe intentionally different from other SLB heroines?), and one could say she saves herself, but where is her strength coming from and what is it directed at? Ethan.

Sure most Disney women end up in a happily ever after snapshot while SLB's tend to end up in misery, but their trajectory is the same: ending up with the hero = happily ever after. The opposite being also true: not ending up with the hero = miserable ever after.

*** Which brings us to... THE HERO ***

With Disney there are two types of heroes: on one side we have the Princes, who don't have much to do other than show up, so we won't really talk about them. The other far more interesting type of Disney hero is the "tramp", the adventurer, the utterly imperfect man: Tramp (Lady and the Tramp), O'Malley (The Aristocats), Aladdin (Aladdin), Beast (Beauty and the Beast). These boys don't have much to do with their time but wander the world, be brats and sing. Yes, Beast too, isn't that how he ended up where he is? However, their heart of gold shines through eventually and the heroine, as any ideal woman, knows to get past their bratty/abrasive appearance.

SLB's hero is equally carefree and lovably flawed: Raj (Saawariya), Dev (Devdas), Sameer (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam).  Hat in hand, heart on sleeve, they wander the world in search of happiness.

Ethan in Guzaarish, much like the Beast, is a bit of an exception, but only on the surface. At heart, Ethan is, or was, just as sparkling and bright as Raj and Sameer. Or so the movie expects us to believe based on much too few flashbacks into Ethan's old life.

We are supposed to love the hero (and sure enough that's why the heroine falls for him) for his radiant, debonair personality, and then feel for him when that chirpiness gets killed in the wake of some tragic love-related event. Because much like the heroine he never has the strength to endure heartbreak. And, as an aside, I do believe SLB genuinely thinks that a man giving up on life because of a love story gone wrong is sexy!?!... That boggles the mind, it really does.

Ugh... no. Not my idea of sexy for sure.

Moreover, the one decent man, you know, the one that would actually make a reliable friend and/or husband, the one who is strong enough to deal with heartbreak... ends up getting the dirty end of the stick: Vanraj in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Of course, there are different opinions on the ending of HDDCS, and I do believe some would call it happy, but I can't help but feel for poor Vanraj...

Raj in Saawariya I would place halfway through, because Raj completely lacks that streak of depression, that tragedy characteristic of most SLB men, which is why he's the only one I can foresee ending up in a happy place. That could also be why I love him the most out of SLB's characters (and of course no one will believe me when I claim it has nothing to do with the fact that I adore Ranbir Kapoor in general, but I swear there is no connection! I swear!).

Of course, while on the topic of heartache both filmmakers have to inevitably believe that true love is only one. And that there is no life without it. But of course!...


Lush and opulent, SLB's sets and cinematography are part of the reason why I will always make an effort to see his films on the big screen.

Saawariya is my favourite by far, but that could be because I also love the film overall. However Devdas and Guzaarish, despite being bad stories, are such stunners that I still can't regret watching them to the end. If there's one thing that SLB gets right every time, it's the fairytale settings and the painfully beautiful images. Seriously, is there anything that is not bejewelled in his films?? As much as I dislike them, I have to admit I would love nothing better than to work as a set designer for SLB's films!

Disney's classics always captivated me for the same reason: why, they're so pretty! You can't take your eyes off them: they sparkle, they glimmer, they're colourful and soft. In short: they're gorgeous.

And as a tangent while on the topic of visuals, fun fact: according to imdb, Belle and Beast were the only people wearing blue in the Disney story, as a way to single them out visually. Need I mention SLB's fascination with blue? Or is it evident in Saawariya and Guzaarish?


Walt Disney is quoted to have once said: "I'd rather entertain and hope that people learn, than teach and hope that people are entertained." Well, at least he was one honest man.

I doubt SLB would ever say something as truthful as the above quote, but deep down inside he seems to be a student of the same school of thought. Nothing else can explain the lack of substance in his films. But to a certain degree that is ok with me. There is a part of me that is happy just watching Madhuri dancing or Aish running in the fields. And listening to the beautiful songs of Saawariya. And not over analysing the meaning of Paro and Dev's night by the river or the inappropriateness of the song Pari in Saawariya. I just don't want to know. Let me look at how pretty it all is and let's leave it at that.

Sadly, a byproduct of the film's visual magic is that the soundtracks inevitably lose their charm when they play on my iPod.

Disney does a lot better in that respect, and I am probably one of the few adults in the world who owns a CD set with the most popular Disney songs. That I actually listen to. And know all the lyrics to. Granted I didn't buy it for myself, but I can assure you it was a gift received with hops and shouts.

*** Last but not least...THE SURPRISING CONCLUSION ***

Funnily enough, I love Disney's classics down to the last cheesy "happily ever after" frame, but have very little love for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's melodrama. I suspect that's because it's always the child in me that rewatches Disney's movies, with big wide eyes and no desire to deconstruct them. Unfortunately for him, SLB came into my life too late: I was already a cynic and perfectly capable of analysis by then. Sad for him...

That's why this image will always make me go awwww...

... while this one will make me roll my eyes and reach for the lemon juice to cut the nausea.

Such is life...

PS: A big Thank You to the guys and girls at Magical Screencaps for generously making their Disney stills available. It saved me a lot of renting and downloading!


Nicki said...

Wow, this is very interesting! I like how you compared everything with great reasoning and photos (always a treat with more visuals, you know me, hehe)

Another thought about Disney that may attract more people is that it's animation. People seem to be more forgiving with such storylines if it's a "fantasy" world and seen through cartoons.

Temple said...

I don't love SLB films as they really are style in preference to substance for the most, although I do kind of enjoy some aspects of them (the visuals and song picturisations). But after sitting through the brain sucking misery that was Saawariya I have pretty much given up. Your comment "Unfortunately for him, SLB came into my life too late: I was already a cynic and perfectly capable of analysis by then. Sad for him... " is perfect. And I'm a big fan of the Aristocats :D Excellent work!

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Nicki, glad you liked the pic-spam, the caps are the ones responsible for this post taking me weeks to finish! :D
Oh and I could not agree more about people's level of expectations from Disney vs SLB. Not only is Disney animated, but it's for children (at least it was in the olden days), so it's expected to be more simplistic and lacking realism. Not so much with the other filmmaker who wants to speak to adults, but always gets lost in teenage-land instead. Oh, I'm so mean :P

@ Temple: Awwww!!! I laughed out loud at the "brain sucking misery" metaphor, even if Saawariya is the only one I do truly like! :) But I know it has flaws (one of them named Sonam Kapoor :P). You know how for certain comedies they tell you to leave your brain at home? I do that with SLB and thus manage to enjoy all the other elements in his filmmaking. Otherwise I would kill myself in anger and frustration :D
PS: The Aristocats ROCK! "Everybody's pickin' up on that feline beat, 'cause everything else is obsolete..." :D

Anonymous said...

The one SLB film you have not seen is his first -- "Khamoshi - The Musical" -- and ironically, it doesn't fit into this Disney interpretation of his work (which I think is brilliant on your part, btw, even though I think the Disney films are more honest in their approach). Equally ironically, it is the film that gained him great reputation (if not box office collections) for his artistic vision. You should really see it, and then deconstruct what went wrong with him afterwards. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hehe, I know. I actually just bought Khamoshi, but knew it wouldn't fit in, which is why I figured I didn't need to watch it to write this post. I am actually looking forward to seeing it, from what people tell me, it might be the one I really like from SLB :D I think it will be interesting to look for the similarities with his other films.

I do agree about the honesty in Disney films, at least for the classics. There's an innocence in them that sadly didn't last past the 90s. With most of them being based on clasic fairytales, it's easy to give in to the charm even when as an adult you know some of the stereotypes are not exactly politically correct anymore :P
The more recent ones on the other hand... I find them trying too hard, which takes away part of their charm. SLB I think also tries too hard, which leads to the exact same result. :(

june said...

Really nice how you've managed to compare the two. Hmmm, I was thinking of skipping Guzaarish after watching the song of Aishwarya dancing at the restaurant, but if it's in anyway similar to Snow White, maybe I should give it a shot.

Love the other articles too. Been reading them one after the other. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey June, welcome! And so happy you're having a good time here! :D

I don't know if I recommend Guzaarish in general (and if we are talking fragile, procelain doll-like woman looking after a man/ a bunch of men who can't do anything for himself
/themselves, then definitely there are plenty of similarities between Guzaarish and Snow White :D), but I will say that Aish's dance is not really representative for the film. In fact it's so random even in the film that I still don't know if it was a dream sequence or if it was for real. So don't go by that. The film has faults galore, definitely won't become a favourite of mine any time soon, but the visuals are as always impressive and it manages to pack less melodrama than your average SLB production which is certainly a plus in my book. That said, I personally would not pay money for it again. But some people have loved it to pieces, so it's always best to judge by yourself...

Bollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dolce and Namak said...

You know you might be totally right about the sounds too, Bollyfan! It wasn't anything tangible really, but it just dawned on me when I was watching it, so it could have been a mix of Aishwarya's costumes, the sets, the lighting, the music, the sound effects, I'm sure it wasn't one thing alone. Ha! As for Hrithik's magic, that scene where he is teaching his apprentice how to make snow flakes out of wet paper was lifted straight out of Peter Pan and no one will convince me otherwise :D

Re: SLB's visuals, they're the main reason why I simply can't write him off as a director, despite not caring much for his stories. I am convinced that whoever invented the blu-ray technology was a fan! It's like they're made for each other! :)

Ah... Khamoshi! It's chilling on my shelf still, there are a few ahead of it, but I am very excited to watch it. After all the reccos, I am certain I will like it!

As always: a pleasure having you here!

Siham said...

Oh you don't seem to have any love for SLB. :( He is my favourite director, and I think that in his case, visuals and substance go hand in hand, really. I loved all his movies (save Khamoshi that I have not watched yet) even though Guzaarish "disappointed" me a little. Something was missing... I'm among the few who LOVED Saawariya too. Also, Devdas was my first Bollywood movie, and this is is my fav. film ever. I really really love it.

Anyway - I have to say the idea you had for this post is GREAT! Seriously, it was really interesting to read...

Dolce and Namak said...

Why thank you, Siham, glad you enjoyed reading this! :)

Yeah, sorry ma chere, no love for SLB from me... I don't connect to his characters or his stories at all. But he does have a great talent for making everyone and everything look out of this world beautiful, so I do respect him for that.

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