The Films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Guzaarish (2010)
Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a new film coming out in December, the period drama Padmavati. Manish takes a look back at Bhansali’s career, spanning two decades and nine films.
After the failure of Saawariya in 2007, Sanjay Leela Bhansali was in a dark place. He told news website Bollywood Hungama that everyone he worked with disappeared and he felt really alone. That’s when he started researching mercy killing (I’m not sure how to interpret why his mind went there). From his research, he developed his next movie, Guzaarish. The title translates to The Request but contextually I think Bhansali means The Petition. The film reunites the director with Aishwarya Rai for their third film together. Not only is Guzaarish much better than Bhansali’s previous film, it’s also a beautiful and mature film.
Ethan Mascarenhas (Hrithik Roshan) is a quadriplegic radio host living in Goa, India. Cared for by his loyal nurse, Sofia D’Souza (Rai), Ethan is a vivacious man who dispels optimistic advice to his callers. A former magician, Ethan had an accident 14 years ago, paralyzing him from the neck down. He asks his attorney, Divya Devyani (Shernaz Patel, whom we saw in Black), to file a petition in court to allow euthanasia (which is still illegal in India) so that he can die with dignity.
Guzaarish has a lot of Bhansali’s trademarks—poetic compositions (from cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee), expressive lighting, and striking architecture on set. The film takes place in Goa, and it is Bhansali’s third film with Christian leads. The film has a muted color scheme, filled with a lot of greens, browns, blacks, and blues. And, when Bhansali uses red, it is really noticeable. While the sets of the film look great, Bhansali gives the film a run-down look, to emphasize Ethan’s grueling life (and Sofia’s as well). The camera often keeps Ethan in close-up, creating a claustrophobic effect. Bhansali then uses long takes to show the reality of his paralysis.
The film features a twelve-minute hearing scene, where Ethan’s loved ones including his mother Isabel (Nafisa Ali), apprentice Omar (Aditya Roy Kapur), and the Dr. Nayak (Suhel Seth), provide testimony to his condition and that euthanasia should be allowed on a case-by-case basis. Each character shows support for his cause, even if it breaks their heart. Ethan is noticeably silent, until the end. Instead of a passionate speech, he performs a magic trick—locking the prosecutor in a trunk for 60 seconds to give him a taste of what it’s like to be quadriplegic.
After the hearing, Ethan is in bed and raindrops start to fall on his forehead from the leaky roof. Hemal Kothari’s editing features sharp cuts between Ethan in profile and the hole in the ceiling. Each raindrop is like a bullet he has to fight off. As the rain increases slowly, he calls out to people who can’t hear him. The title song plays: “Bas itni si tumse guzaarish hai (I just have a small request for you).” The song placed at this moment highlights that being unable to escape from raindrops is the kind of daily indignity that Ethan wants a release from. The next scene is a stunning long-take where Sofia and company rush to help him the next morning. Ethan lies motionless, the camera and the characters darting around him.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali here acts as music composer for the first time. Guzaarish does have musical numbers, but most of them are in flashback during Ethan’s magic shows or in the background. Most of Bhansali’s films can function as proper movie musicals, but Guzaarish isn’t concerned with being a musical. The lone present-day dance number is one where Sofia takes Ethan and Omar to a club, and performs an exceptional Spanish-influenced dance. Sofia is usually a strict, fierce woman, and the song shows her more eccentric side.
Guzaarish is a life-affirming, sensitive film that acts like a breather for Bhansali. The film concludes Bhansali’s foray into muted tones and his next films would have splashy colors. The understated love between Ethan and Sofia that transcends any label is a major highlight, and the chemistry between Roshan and Rai is electric. The film has been rightly criticized for playing into the trope of the quadriplegic person who wants death (The Sea Inside and Me Before You). If you can get past that, Guzaarish is a sweet, lovely film.