5 Bhansali Women: Ranked

Each of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film is a world in itself. From the grand sets of Bajirao Mastani to the silent house in Khamoshi: The Musical, each of his films have had beautiful stories to tell, of course, except Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor’s (now Ahuja) Saawariya. But what I find much more interesting than his intricate plots and brilliant sets are the women he creates, or rather carefully carves. In his Black, Rani Mukerji’s Michelle says that she was created from leftover clay (earth) and hence is deaf. Unlike Michelle’s natural flaw, Bhansali’s women are written to perfection. Of course, each of them have their flaws, but as human beings, not as characters.

I spent the last week watching and/or rewatching all of Bhansali’s films and fell in love with his women all over again. Before this, I had never watched Devdas in one go. But now that I finally have, it’s difficult to see both, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit in a different light. Both of them not only light up the screen with their presence but are also informed actors, who know their craft. Looking back on Bhansali’s women, here are my favourite five…

#5 Sophia – Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Guzaarish

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Guzaarish
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan in a still from Guzaarish

What Deepika Padukone is to Sanjay Leela Bhansali now, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was to him earlier, and who knows, maybe he will write a character for her again (we’re waiting). In one of Bhansali’s most under appreciated film (which I loved), Guzaarish, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays a nurse, Sophia. It’s an understatement to not add an adjective like ‘beautiful’ when talking about any of Rai Bachchan’s character, but I do not want to do that and take away anything from both – her performance and Bhansali’s writing. That she is beautiful is another thing altogether.

If you haven’t watched Guzaarish, because most people told you not to, you’re making a mistake. You need to watch this film, for Bhansali’s writing, Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The fact that they make a stunning duo onscreen just adds to the brilliance of this film. Anyway, not deviating too much from talking about Sophia – she’s a nurse who will be by Ethan Mascarenhas’ (Roshan) side till his death. Moving around his house and looking after him in stunning Sabyasachi outfits, Sophia is one of Rai Bachchan’s best performances. No writer-director brings an actor out of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as does Bhansali.

At no point does Sophia pity Ethan. She is devoted to him, and knows that there is no room for pity, or even remorse in their relationship. While she’s devoted, she’s also disgusted by his wish, which somehow, must be her command. It’s this beauty, in her, and in their relationship that makes Sophia the kind of person she is. I really wish we saw more into her, but perhaps Bhansali is sitting somewhere with a half-written film on the life of Sophia…

#4 Nandini – Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
Aishwarya Rai in a still from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the film we’re celebrating today, was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first magnum opus. Bhansali had already established himself as a brilliant story teller with his debut film, but with HDDCS, he told everyone that he was not just a good storyteller but a larger-than-life storyteller. Today, we associate Bhansali with love triangles, all of them written with a certain sophistication. But it all began with HDDCS. At the centre of his drama was Aishwarya Rai’s (now Bachchan) Nandini, who stands between a love she can’t forget and one that she can’t accept. Nandini is naive, innocent, and Rai plays the part to perfection.

To add to her grace, the costumes by Neeta Lulla and Shabina Khan are picture perfect too, much like Rai’s performance in the film. As I said earlier, no director brings it out of Aishwarya Rai as does Bhansali.

#3 Annie – Manisha Koirala in Khamoshi: The Musical

Manisha Koirala in Khamoshi- The Musical
Nana Patekar and Manisha Koirala in a still from Khamoshi: The Musical

I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched many films of Manisha Koirala. In fact, I can count the number of films I’ve watched on one hand – it’s that small a number. But when I watched her perform in Khamoshi: The Musical, it was like seeing magic on screen. It’s a very rare abandonment that Koirala adopts to become Annie. Born to dumb and deaf parents, Annie spends most of her life taking care of them. She is the mother in this house, but how does she deal with the fact that she too has dreams?

Annie is constantly struggling between the willingness to see the world and the love that she has for her parents, which makes her stay home. Even when she has found love, and wants to explore that relationship, she can’t do much. Annie is not Bhansali’s best written character. She has her shortcomings, but Koirala’s performance makes her one of  Bhansali’s best.

#2 Kashi Bai – Priyanka Chopra in Bajirao Mastani

Priyanka Chopra in Bajirao Mastani
Priyanka Chopra in a still from Bajirao Mastani

There is a moment in Bajirao Mastani when Priyanka Chopra’s (now Jonas) Kashi Bai tells Bajirao (Ranveer Singh), “aap humse humaari zindagi maang lete, hum aapko khushi khushi de dete. Par aapne toh humse humara guroor hi cheen lia.” That particular moment defined Priyanka Chopra as one of the finest Bhansali heroines, even in a supporting role. I’m not here to compare, but in the film, Deepika Padukone couldn’t do half as good as did Chopra. She provided Kashi Bai with a certain grace, that no one else could’ve. That’s perhaps what experience does to you!

#1 Michelle – Rani Mukerji in Black

Rani Mukerji in Black
Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Black

No one but Rani Mukerji’s Michelle had to be number one on this list. There’s no other Bhansali film I love as much. After HDDCS and Devdas, Black was Bhansali’s getaway from magnum opus’, but writing and performance wise, this film was his biggest success. When Rani Mukerji gave all those acceptance speeches while receiving the best actress award for her performance, you saw in her eyes the gratitude she had for people who recognised the hard work that went into creating Michelle – on paper and on screen. She is undoubtedly, Bhansali’s finest brainchild.

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