Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the Female Gaze

Written by Garima Singh

Edited by Katie Constantine and Kathryn Cooperman


I, Garima Singh, am working as Assistant Professor with the School of Media, Journalism and Communication at Himgiri Zee University in India. I was awarded a PhD in Media and Communication Studies in 2018. At present, I am teaching cultural and film studies courses along with research to Bachelors and Masters students. I take interest in interdisciplinary research that covers areas such as film appreciation, diasporic studies, psychoanalysis, semiotics, discourse, cultural studies, and literary theories. In general, ideas that relate to varied aspects of human existence interest me. As a woman, I do pay additional attention to how research takes into account gender perspective. 

“Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the Female Gaze”

Being human, it is obvious for us to feel agitated whenever we encounter discrimination. It comes naturally to us to speak against it. However, many of us women learn to silence this inner voice of ours while growing up. Those who do express themselves too often step away from the questions they intended to address. From social, cultural, and economic perspectives, our oppressors seek to silence us. We have been forced to be inattentive to the underlying questions. We ask questions about the boundaries created to cage us, limitations presented by our opportunities, the molestation we face and also the fear of molestation in which we live each moment. These queries of ours directly relate to the struggle of power. But the way we treat power has a lot to do with the fact that society at large precludes a woman from exercising power. We have been made to keep our expression of sexuality constrained. 

Thus, men have been led to believe that they are in a better position to make our decisions. Abusers feel that they have the strength to commodify us without realizing that physical and mental urges are innate to all genders and are not exclusively possessed by cis-men. Their ignorance in this regard has never allowed us to practice control. Women have been forbidden to take control of their sexuality. Society has since long tyrannized the conduct of women in general.  

It is here where a notable difference is found in the films made by Bollywood Director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In his films, you see conventionally attractive female characters. He directs the gaze in an aesthetically pleasing way that isn’t vulgar; instead, it enhances the personality of the story, characters, and the emotions they portray. He sows in this gaze the roots of determination, respect, and self-love, giving these women space to express their true nature. Bhansali is known to set his films against historical backdrops, specifically during periods in which imperialism was rampant in India. Bhansali’s contemporaries have portrayed women of the past as commodities to be treasured, but he depicts his female characters as courageous.

Indian women have long fought the battle to come out of the “purdah system,” and that fight continues to this day. Against this backdrop, it is refreshing to see Bhansali’s female characters imbued with dignity, strength, and courage. There is active decision-making on the part of the women characters in his films. They decide for themselves when they wish to express their desire for a partner and how they will stand up for themselves if their morals are questioned.

Bajirao Mastani is a 2015 film about the romantic relationship between Bajirao, a Maratha general (Peshwa) and his second wife, Mastani, a Muslim warrior princess. The plot of the film revolves around Bajirao, Mastani, and Kashibai, the first wife of Bajirao. Their complex relationship struggles are set against the historical background of the rise of the Maratha Kingdom in the early eighteenth century. After arriving from Bundelkhand, Bajirao is welcomed by Kashibai in Shaniwar Wada. Soon after comes a private moment between the two of them. Bajirao is bathing, sitting on a traditional bench with his back towards Kashibai, who walks in with her eyes fixed on him. In this fleeting moment, Kashibai displays freedom, she claims her right to express her love and desire for her husband, and she becomes the focal point for the audience.

An establishing shot frames Kashibai walking in with a swayed, slow walk. Her gaze, fixated on Bajirao, is accompanied by the background score that creates a romantic moment. Light illuminates her face, highlighting her facial expressions. The feeling of desire is evident in her bodily gestures as well as in the cinematic elements used. For instance, Sohini, a romantic type of Raag, or Indian classical music, is used in this scene. This sensuous music, complemented by the sound of dripping water, adds onto the emotion of the scene. The conversation between the two characters also helps to build the chemistry between them. Bajirao is instantly aware of Kashibai’s stare, and the sexual tension is felt in his words. The entire sequence is aesthetically pleasing to view on the screen. Instead of an over the shoulder shot, the director has utilized a long shot that captures the back of both the characters in the frame. This intensifies the desire between the two characters. 

Kashibai walks in to the room where Bajirao is taking a bath

Kashibai looks at Bajirao while he takes a bath

It is important to juxtapose this moment with the scene where Kashibai confronts Bajirao. She firmly states that Bajirao’s relationship with Mastani is a breach of her pride. In this scene, Bhansali expresses the strength of his female character. Kashibai stands her ground; her facial expressions, body language, and control over her tone and words is enthralling for the audience to behold. Her assertive remarks to Bajirao make it obvious that she is not going to silently accept what happened. She states, “Aapne Toh Hamse Hamara Guroor Cheen Liya” (You have snatched away my pride). She doesn’t demand anything; rather, she openly states what she wants. Her actions unquestionably dominate Bajirao: she asks him to never enter her room again. Bajirao is metaphorically pushed down, his confidence and personality shake in front of Kashibai. This is how Bhansali portrays his female characters; in the expression of both their desires and opinions, they own their own space.

Kashibai’s gaze dominates Bajirao, whereas he avoids eye contact

In another scene that comes later in the movie, Kashibai visits Mastani to invite her to a festival. Here, from the start of the scene, both female characters are positioned at the center of the frame, reflecting equal visual importance. Mastani and Kashibai argue about the the relationship between Mastani and Bajirao, yet the respect for self and the other is evident. The small gesture of applying haldi kumkum symbolizes their equal stature, irrespective of any societal issues or personal conflict.

Kashibai visits Mastani; both characters are positioned centrally
Kashibai visits Mastani; both characters are positioned centrally
Both characters apply haldi kumkum

Later in the movie, Bajirao sets out for another battle, which he wins, but soon after the victory he is struck by a high fever. Simultaneously, Mastani is attacked and held captive by Nana Saheb Bajirao’s elder son. Bajirao hallucinates being attacked and repeatedly calls out Mastani’s name. When Bajirao’s condition starts degrading, Kashibai writes a letter requesting Mastani’s release. The letter is burned by Nana Saheb followed by Mastani’s death in captivity. The film ends on a tragic note with both Bajirao and Mastani dying at the same time yet in a different place.

Bajirao Mastani speaks to the audience through its characters. It offers a stage where a female owns her space: she registers her opinion, faces the consequences, and yet is adamant in her beliefs. The movie leaves a strong image of a female’s true character in peoples’ minds. In Bhansali’s films in general, it is empowering to see female protagonists asserting their power, especially in a society that expects its women to be silent.

We, the women, need to exercise the freedom and responsibility of carrying and nurturing our individual opinions, our unique GAZE.

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