`Bhansali guilty of exploiting the handicapped?`

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 11, 2005 04:55 hrs

A pained expression clouds Sanjay Laeela Bhansali’s face. He has just read some negative comments about him attributed to a deaf-blind inmate from the Helen Keller institute.

“I can’t understand this outburst!” exclaims Sanjay. “The boy Zamir claims he helped Mr Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee to learn sign language for Black. But what about his friends like Pradeep, Mary, Chandrakant and Sangeeta who were also on sets constantly to brief Mr Bachchan and Rani on the nuances of their characters? Why has Zamir chosen to take credit away from his colleagues? Why this this ‘me, myself’ attitude?

“I’d like to put it on-record that Black has been made because of special people like Zamir whom I don’t call the children of a lesser God. I call them God’s chosen ones. Although they cannot see or hear, they know the truth about life much more than we the so-called normal people.”

Sanjay stops to think, and sighs, “That’s why I can’t understand why Zamir wants to malign a movie that’s my gift to him and his friends. He claims I didn’t give him a salary for Black. I agree. I didn’t. But that’s only because the director of the Helen Keller institute Mrs Beroz Vacha explicitly told us not to let any money exchange hands. Was I supposed to overlook her instructions and do what Zamir pleased? And is that all our special bonding on the sets amounted to? Money on the table?”

Sanjay Bhansali is seriously troubled now. “Years ago when I was a nobody I made my first film about a couple whose hearing and speech are impaired. Everyone told me Khamoshi was like suicide at the start of my career. ‘Who would want to see a film about two people who can’t talk or hear?’ But I didn’t care. My heart reached out to these people and I made Khamoshi. Today after Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas the market demanded that I make another spectacular epic with songs and dances. Instead I chose to make another film about those less privileged than the so-called normal people. No songs, no dances, there are only the signs languages of the heart crisscrossing through Black. I’m sorry to know Zamir thinks I’m not a nice man. I’m not here to prove whether I’m nice or not. I’m here to create the films that are true to my soul. Black has given me the chance to do so.”

The hurt is hidden away from view as the director tries hard to control his emotions. “All of us involved with the project are very proud of what we’ve done in Black. We’ve given vision, voice and attention to people who are never heard by mainstream society. One of the key figures in our crew is a lovely girl called Sangeeta Gala. She has been with me from Khamoshi to Black. She cannot hear or speak. But she gives me so much inspiration. She was the anchor on the sets of Black. Without her we couldn’t have achieved what we have. Each time I look at her I feel I’ve made Black specially for her and for Zamir who thinks I’m not nice because I didn’t give him money for showing us how people like him see and hear the world of the normal.”

He continues after a pause. “I think it’s in extremely bad taste to talk about your own conscience and where it takes you. I’m not one of those who writes cheques for the distressed and then goes on television to talk about it. No! But I feel I’m being deliberately maligned at a time when my film is on release.”

Bhansali plans a series of charity shows of Black for the physically and emotionally challenged.

In the meanwhile the director of the Helen Keller institute Beroz Vacha has denied the statements portraying Bhansali as anything but generous. Bhansali shrugs off all the allegations. “I’m used to being targeted for no fault of mine. During the making of Devdas I was constantly made responsible for every thing that went wrong, including some sari dealer in Kolkata not being paid. It all got so absurd that I shut my mind off. Now it has started with Black again. And I’m bracing myself for the backlash .”

Beroz Vacha, director of the Helen Keller Institute clarifies:

“An article in a daily quoting one of the boys from our institute has caused us a great deal of distress. The whole thing has been projected in a very bitchy manner. When the correspondent asked me about the monetary aspect of Sanjay Bhansali’s interaction with members of our institute I clearly told her there was no talk of any money exchanging hands. Sanjay has had the courage to make a film about the physically impaired, without songs and dances. Black is a big gamble for a big filmmaker like him. Thanks to him people will be more aware of deafness and blindness. His film can reach far more people than our institute. I feel it’s our privilege to be associated with Sanjay Bhansali. Let me reiterate, Sanjay Bhansali has promised us nothing except to promote an awareness about the world of the blind and the deaf. That he had amply done and courageously in Black. Personally that’s what I had hoped Sanjay would do. His film will go a long way in furthering the cause of the handicapped.”

Adds Bhansali’s physically challenged crew member Sangeeta Gala, “I always wanted to be a part of films. But I was repeatedly told it was impossible. One man opened the door to my dreams. Sanjay Leela Bhansali invited me into his magical world of filmmaking and changed my life. After he made Khamoshi he expressed his desire to make another film about the deaf and blind. We undertook extensive research, visited the Helen Keller Institute For The Deaf & Blind headed by Beroz Bacha who’s my guru. During the pre-production of Black I did a lot of homework with Rani and Mr Bachchan. We rehearsed to get the sign language right. At first Rani wasn’t sure whether she could carry it off. I must say she has performed beautifully. She was a very good student, sometimes naughty always endearing".

"I wondered whether I’d be able teach Mr Bachchan sign language! He’s such a huge star…I was excited and nervous. He was a very fast learner. It didn’t take him long to get a grip over the body language and other nuances of the character of a teacher to the deaf and blind. When Sanjay told me I had put magic into Black I felt my life was made. Never-ever did he try to suppress my creativity. I know he truly respects the deaf and blind. I can’t understand why Zamir who came from the Helen Keller institute on the sets to provide suggestions along with us, has spoken so badly about Sanjay. I’ve known Zamir for fifteen years. He seemed so happy that Sanjay had made a film about the deaf and blind! I feel Zamir has been misrepresented in the press. But if he has spoken any of the terrible things against Sanjay then Zamir has done great wrong. Zamir has also forgotten to mention his colleagues, Pardeep, Chandrakant, Mary and others who were on the sets of Black. Sanjay has always been very kind and supportive of all the students from the Institute. In fact Zamir is his favourite! We had a lot of fun during Black. I feel Black is a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of the deaf-blind and it would touch peoples’ hearts.”