Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a new film coming out in December, the period drama Padmavati. Manish takes a look at Bhansali’s career, spanning two decades and nine films.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of my favorite filmmakers. His aesthetic is lavish and elegant, with attention to detail, unique cinematography, and beautiful performances. Over the last two decades, Bhansali has crafted emotionally charged films that have left an indelible mark on the industry. Starting out as an assistant director, Bhansali made his feature debut with Khamoshi: The Musical (Silence: The Musical in English) in 1996. I saw this movie as a child, but didn’t really remember much before this viewing. The soundtrack has become a classic but the film has since become eclipsed by Bhansali’s later, more grand films.
Set in a beachside town in Goa, India, Khamoshi tells the story of Annie (Manisha Koirala) who dreams of being a singer. Her parents Joseph (Nana Patekar) and Flavy (Seema Biswas) are both deaf and mute, so Annie dutifully makes them her first priority. Annie meets Raj (Salman Khan), a Hindu, and together they collaborate on music and fall in love. This causes a rift between Annie and her parents, who object to their Christian daughter marrying a Hindu.
Let’s start with the title: Khamoshi: The Musical—Silence: The Musical. This film is about the clash of Annie’s two worlds: her passion for music and her parents’ lives as deaf-mute individuals. Annie’s home life is loving, sure, but distanced from the outside world. Her parents don’t socialize beyond their comfort zone for fear of public ridicule. That contrasts with the big beautiful community outside where people sing and dance. Annie’s home is beachside—an isolated island that can be penetrable. Raj lives in a tall converted lighthouse, taking Annie to the sky (in fact, touching the sky is a recurring motif).
The idea of a community brought together through song recurs throughout the film, especially through many of the songs: “Mausam ke/sargam ko sun/gaata raha hai samaa/tu bhi gaa tere sang/gaaye saara jahaan” (Listen to the music of the weather/our surroundings are singing/you sing too and the world will sing with you). Joseph and Flavy feel alienated by Annie’s love for music, to the point that they begin to hate music. Even they, however, feel the connection to music through their love for their daughter in one of the film’s best sequences, the musical number “Yeh Dil Sun Raha Hai” (This Heart is Listening), which takes place at Annie’s recording session. Here, Bhansali directs with a strong emotional charge—Annie’s graceful singing and signing, Joseph and Flavy tearing up, and Raj witnessing their relationship. It’s delicately crafted, narratively and thematically relevant, and very effective. Bhansali doesn’t dispense his songs arbitrarily, each song has a place and a purpose within the narrative.
There is another stunning scene where Joseph throws Annie out of the house about two hours into the film. Annie angrily lets out decades of resentment against the life she led as her parents’ aide both in Hindi and in sign language, even though her parents can’t see or hear her. Bhansali films the scene in a two-minute long-take, with Annie moving across the frame towards the door and away from it. Back and forth—she can’t get away even if she wants to. I especially love that Annie signs the monologue too; it’s just ingrained into her. She can’t stop it. It’s a bold piece of direction (and performance from Koirala), and its execution is breathtaking. For me, this was the moment that Bhansali had arrived as a visually exciting filmmaker. This two-minute scene foreshadows Bhansali’s inventive direction throughout his career.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali would go on to abandon realism and make lavish epics. I really underestimated Khamoshi: The Musical, thinking of it as Bhansali’s “normal” movie before he honed his skills in elegant melodramas. However, the film really surprised me. The performances are tender, the story is compelling, and the music is spellbinding. The director would go on to one other film with the plot revolving around music, but music would play an important part in his work. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has created a career telling emotional stories with style and panache. Khamoshi might be his most grounded effort but his flair for ambitious storytelling is peeking through.
Khamoshi: The Musical is a little hard to find, but it is streaming on YouTube with English subtitles.
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