Colour and Settings in Sanjay Leela Bhansali Films

Aim of the Paper:

The aim of the paper is to study colour and settings in Sanjay Leela Bhansali films. It studies how both these aspects further the storylines and have symbolic value in the film. It thus studies the psychological impact of these films.

Colour and Settings in Sanjay Leela Bhansali Films

Cinema unlike other western inventions entered India around the same time that it appeared in the West. Cinema was born 1895 with the screening of Lumière films. Interestingly, as Mihir Bose points out in his book – Bollywood: A History; India was associated with the birth of cinema because the venue chosen by the Lumière brothers was called Salon Indien. By July 1896, the Lumière brothers’ film reached Mumbai and thus cinema entered India.

Indians took to cinema very quickly and soon films were directed by many pioneering Indians. Prominent among these were Hiralal Sen who directed one of the first short films in India. Dadasaheb Phalke, who directed the first full length feature film, is widely known as the father of Indian cinema. The government of India instituted the Dadasaheb Phalke award for lifetime achievement in cinema which stands as the country’s most prestigious and coveted award.

Phalke’s contribution was in the age of silent films where much like the globe theatre of Shakespeare’s time, the female roles were done by male actors.

Sound made its entry with Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara on 14th March 1931. As sound progressed, music began to find a stronghold in Indian cinema establishing the now famous trend of song and dance. Popularity of colour grew in the 1950s making it a permanent fixture in Indian cinema.

We now step into the main segment of the paper. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an acclaimed filmmaker working within the Hindi Film Industry. He began his career as an assistant to another important filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra but after a fall out, he decided to direct his first film Khamoshi: The Musical outside the Chopra camp. The movie was commercially unsuccessful but received critical acclaim, ensuring that he did not disappear from public memory.

His next two films Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas, both great cinematic successes unlike his first film, established his individualistic style of visual grandeur and of creating an atmosphere of celebration.

His next three films, take on a darker appeal by way of cinematography. While the film Black went on to garner immense success with the lead actor receiving a national award and the film itself winning the national award for best feature film in Hindi. Its commercial success was second to Devdas, which was India’s official entry to the Oscars, received a BAFTA nomination and later won five national awards and ten Filmfare awards. Bhansali’s next film Saawariya did not do well and received mixed reviews on a global forum. Guzaarish, Bhansali’s recent release had an average status at the box office, nevertheless it won critical acclaim and was nominated for the Filmfare Awards.

Colours in films hold a very important place. Colour can “draw attention to itself and, indeed, have symbolic value”, it also said to “reproduce reality more naturally that black and white film” (Cinema Studies: Key Concepts, 70). In a Bhansali film, it takes on a life of its own.

In Khamoshi: The Musical, Bhansali made use of simple and basic colours within the narrative. Since the story is set in Goa within the Christian community and the protagonist’s family is not well to do, the colours are not bright. But after she falls in love, she is dressed in lighter shades, hinting at the effervescence centring her life. Yet darker colours are used to emphasise the fact that while she finds happiness with her lover, sadness awaits her when she returns home. Even the movie posters show the lead actors in white with a red rose against her dress, held upside down. It could stand for how personal choice with reference to love might have to be subdued in the face of duty.

Since this was his first movie, he has not made too much use of the colour theories but we can see the foundation of it being placed in his narrative style.

His next film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, based on Maitreyi Devi’s novel Na Hanyate is a love triangle. The protagonist, Nandini, is a carefree and independent girl who falls in love with her father’s student Sameer, a boy of Indo-Italian parentage. The colours used in the first half of the film while she is in love with Sameer and their romance is proceeding without any hindrance, is bright. She is dressed mainly in ghagras[1] with hues of blue, yellow or pink with tasteful jewellery. Her hair is plaited adding to the nonchalance of the character.

But in the second half, after she is forced into an arranged marriage, her attire changes to monochromatic shades of whites, blacks and reds. The screen quality which was previously bright becomes duller. And her usually plaited hair is tied up in a plain bun. Her only piece of jewellery becomes her mangalsutra, representing in the film not a symbol of marriage but a form of bondage. At the end of the film, when she decides to renounce her lover and return to her husband, the sky is lit up with firecrackers symbolising new colour in their married life.

Interestingly, Devdas, Bhansali’s third film was the third Hindi film version and the first colour film version of the 1917 novella by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. The story revolves around the idea of marriage. Devdas and Paro are in love and want to be married but his aristocratic family opposes it. Devdas himself fails to make a stand and unwittingly allows Paro to be married off to somebody else. He then drowns his sorrows in alcohol, spending his waking days in a courtesan’s house. The courtesan, Chandramukhi falls in love with him but he does not reciprocate and goes in search of Paro whom he abandoned. The story ends tragically with his death.

Bhansali uses bridal colours of red, green and gold throughout the movie, ironically in the attire of the Chandramukhi who is eternally married to her profession and to Devdas. Paro, who was previously dressed in girlish clothes, moves to wearing saris which are staidly designed yet incorporate grand monochromatic colours. Devdas in the beginning of the film is dressed in western clothes in colours popularised in the west. But after Paro is lost to him, he is shown only in traditional white clothes, symbolising a widower’s status.

In the iconic song ‘Dola Re’, both Paro and Chandramukhi are dressed in bridal attire and it symbolises their love for Devdas and it is the only time after her marriage that Paro is shown to be both colourfully dressed and happy.

The posters of both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas have a golden hue to it, with the former film placing Nandini and Sameer in the upper half of the poster but covered with the golden hue more strongly to emphasise the past. Nandini and her husband’s clothes are more clearly defined to reveal the present. In Devdas, the colours and attire of the characters are clearly defined to show their life situations.

Black is a creative adaptation of the English movie The Miracle Worker. The title of the movie itself is a colour and the film much like its title is shot, while in colour, using only blacks, whites and blues. The film in keeping with the theme of light and dark even has a line by Debraj “Come…into…the light!” and there are references to the colour black through the film when Debraj says “Your world is not black!” or that while the alphabets start with A B C D, “yours start with B, L, A, C, K…Black.”

Saawariya, in keeping with his darker cinematography is shot entirely in blue. The male protagonist Raj, in keeping with his character, is dressed flamboyantly in red. He is usually shown with a football or a guitar and unlike the other cast members, he does not melt into the background to play on the fact that he is an outsider. His appearance is marked with light whereas the female protagonist Sakina is shown as retiring into the background or enshrouded within her dark cloak. The character of Imaan who is cast in opposition to the male lead is always dressed in black, but his face is always shown.

Gulabji, who is a prostitute in the movie, is the only other character who is dressed in opposition to the background to emphasise on her role as the narrator and her profession in the film. The posters of the film which display both characters – Raj and Sakina, to symbolise them being together, has the blue fuse with green, which indicates vibrancy.

In his last production, Guzaarish, Bhansali tells the story of a quadriplegic who wants to die. He is a magician who can no longer use his body and is taken care of by his nurse, who does not want him to die because she is attached to him.

In keeping with the themes of magic and wish for death, the colours used are gold, blues, greens, reds, blacks but even the so-called bright colours have deathly shades. The car ride that Ethan (the magician) and Sofia (his nurse) embark on is one of the few sojourns that Ethan takes and it is the one scene wherein the colours are truly vibrant, to show life in opposition to the confinement of his usual routine.

“The setting is literally the location where the action takes place, and it can be artificially constructed (as in studio sets) or natural (what is also termed location shooting)” (Cinema Studies: Key Concepts, 325).

With this we enter into the settings in Sanjay Leela Bhansali films.

Khamoshi: The Musical is shot in Goa. The theme of the film is music breaking the barriers of silence. The protagonist Annie’s parents are a deaf and mute couple and the story revolves around this silence. The movie was thus shot on location near beaches, churches, studios to emphasise silence in life. Open, echoing spaces have been used throughout the movie to reiterate on the theme. Even the poignant love making scene is enacted in silence with music playing in the background.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is a grand love affair that spans from Rajasthan to Italy. With this in mind, it was shot predominantly in a haveli (mansion) set in Rajasthan. The desert stands as a symbol of desolation. The first time it is shown, Sameer is lost and is shown having a conversation with his father’s soul whom he believes is near him. He is said to have gotten lost because Nandini wished it and she is shown playing a game with her friends while he wanders. The next time the desert is shown, Sameer has been thrown out and they have been separated.

The scenes in the foreign locations do not concentrate on their tourist appeal rather with a sense of longing because she is looking for her lover, thus they concentrate on imagery of bridges and rivers – symbols of connection.

Devdas is shot in havelis but here the contrast emerges in the architecture of the havelis. Devdas’s haveli is an old fashioned mansion standing for century long wealth whereas Paro’s haveli has stained glass pieces that look extremely beautiful and colourful but it is a new age style and thus stands for new wealth. Chandramukhi’s Kotha is designed with an artificial lake to represent the Benares courtesans. The gates in the final scene are made imposing to symbolise wealth and barrier.

Black, is shot mainly in darkness till Debraj makes his appearance. The settings change from within the house to the exteriors. Rain symbolises desolation but snow is shown to come as a blessing. The final scene in the hospital is shown brighter and in contrast to the rest of the film.

Saawariya is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights. Russian novels are always depicted as gloomy and dark; thus the blue of the settings reiterates on the theme. Sakina who is always shown as enshrouded, when the moon comes out symbolising Id, is shown dancing and the settings are brighter. The local bar – RK bar is the setting for Raj to display his flamboyance. It is also Bhansali’s tribute to theatre and Raj Kapoor, a famous Indian director who hails from a family of thespians. Hence the film has the feel of a stage.

In Guzaarish, the fabrics used are wispy and with gold shades, which emphasise magic. Ethan, being quadriplegic, is mainly confined to his bed which is a four-post bed with dark hangings. He is propped on a bed with straps to hold himself up, while at one level it is confinement, it is also the only time he is standing.

The dance sequence with Sofia is set in a bar and while the lighting is low, the dance itself is earthy and raw – emphasising on life and sensuality.

Thus, we can see how Sanjay Leela Bhansali uses colour and settings to further the plot. He does not place it in words but in symbols and actions. The locations that the film is set in also reiterate on the protagonist’s feelings. It makes a psychological impact on the audiences who realise the deeper intent in the filmmaker’s work when he speaks through the colour and settings of the film.


  1. Black. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perf. Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan. SLB Films, 2005. TV.
  2. “Black (2005 Film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  3. Bose, Mihir. Bollywood: A History. N.p.: Roli, 2007. Print.
  4. Devdas. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit. SLB Films, 2002. Film.
  5. “Devdas (2002 Hindi Film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  6. Guzaarish. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perf. Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. SLB Films, 2010. Film.
  7. “Guzaarish.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  8. Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: Key Concepts. N.p.: Routledge, 08/2000. Web.
  9. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perf. Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai. SLB Films, 1999. TV.
  10. “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  11. Khamoshi: The Musical. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perf. Nana Patekar, Manisha Koirala, Seema Biswas and Salman Khan. SLB Films, 1996. TV.
  12. “Khamoshi: The Musical.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  13. Saawariya. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perf. Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor. SLB Films, 2007. DVD.
  14. “Saawariya.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.


[1] Ghagra:  (in South Asia) a long full skirt, often decorated with embroidery, mirrors or bells

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