Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted to keep it both entertaining and intense

‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali and I have great synergy. Nobody has wanted me to do so well before. I was being pushed to do my best,” says Alia Bhatt about her Gangubai Kathiawadi director.

Alia Bhatt, in her decade-old career, has established herself as one of the most versatile and prolific actors of this generation. With a good box office run with most of her films, Bhatt has also mixed her critically acclaimed turns in Highway, Udta Punjab, Raazi, and Gully Boy with mainstream films like 2 States and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania.

But like many others, Bhatt, too, had to face several roadblocks in the completion and release of her films due to the coronavirus pandemic so much so that she will be having her next release after a gap of two years. Her last outing Sadak 2 had taken the OTT route in August 2020. Bhatt is obviously excited as she is gearing up for her upcoming release, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-anticipated biographical crime drama Gangubai Kathiawadi.

On the long road to Gangubai Kathiawadi release

Bhatt will be seen playing the character of legendary brothel owner, ‘mafia queen’ Gangubai Kathiawadi. “It has been a very long time; it has been two years since my film is going to be released. There was a time when we were confused whether theatres would ever open. We have always believed that there are certain films that you cannot watch anywhere but only in theatres, the experience of theatre viewing is irreplaceable. I have always felt that Gangubai should be experienced on the big screen,” says Bhatt.

On being a Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine

Bhatt is teaming up with Bhansali for the first time but she nursed the dream of being his heroine ever since she was around 10. Back then, Bhatt had walked into his office to give an audition for Black [2005]. However, it did not work out but the director knew that her future was bright. He looked into her eyes, and said, “This girl is a heroine… ye heroine hai.”

On apprehensions about Gangubai Kathiawadi

“As for Gangubai Kathiawadi, when I first went through the script and the narration, I wasn’t confident that I would be able to pull off this character. I asked Sanjay sir, ‘Are you sure I will be able to do this?’ Because, till now, the audience saw me as a bubbly, innocent, and young girl. I was kind of nervous if I would be able to bring that intensity, aura, and power to this character. But Sanjay sir instilled confidence in me, he asked me not to worry, saying everything will work fine,” she says.

On how she prepped for Gangubai Kathiawadi

The real-life story of Gangubai, set in Mumbai’s red light district Kamathipura, revolved around love, betrayal, succession, and politics in brothels. She was sold into prostitution at an early age by her suitor. Further, she became an influential pimp in the city with underworld connections, peddling drugs, ordering murders, etc. As far as the research goes, Bhatt says she watched a couple of documentaries made on Gangubai, and visited films like Mandi [1983] and Pakeezah [1972] among others, “to get a sense of the kotha [brothel].” “I didn’t know anything about Gangubai’s life. After reading the script, I did a little bit of more digging. I read Hussain Zaidi’s book, met the author… that was the kind of research that went into it,” says Bhatt, who, however, feels there was no need to visit Mumbai’s red light district for the prep.

“I don’t think I needed to visit Kamathipura or meet the sex workers. What would I have taken from them? What would I ask them? Aap kya feel karte ho?’ I can’t do that. And it is not that we were making a documentary. The film is about this one person and her life story. I observed her facial expressions in the documentaries… there is that deadness on their faces as they know that their lives have hit rock-bottom. But this woman was a fighter. She turns all her unhappy and stressful situations into her source of power, and uses that power to help others. It is about the strength of a character. Kamathipura is the backdrop of struggle. The film is not about the workings of Kamathipura. It is more about how this character fights for people, their rights, children’s rights. So the first time I went to Kamathipura was on the set. It’s a very difficult film to do. This is not the world I know. It was completely alien to me. I had almost become a different person. It’s an emotional character… she was a rebel, she has got a lot of angst for the situation she was in. The beauty is how she transforms all that into power,” says Bhatt.

While there was a lot of basic preparation like voice modulation, working on the dialect and accent, Bhatt says the true prep happened only when she started playing scenes. “Understanding the character, and absorbing its nature and body language happens when you start playing scenes, and that happens with trial and error. It was possible because of Sanjay sir’s vision. He likes his actors to get involved in every scene. He plants a thought, and gives several suggestions, several alternatives in doing a scene.

Initially, I used to read the scene and come to the set. After a point, I stopped reading, went to the sets, and was prepared like this is how Gangubai would say or do. What’s there on the paper was just the starting point. If you want to fly, you have to jump, and take the leap. I did the same. Over a period of time, I became in sync with the director’s thoughts. But he would still ask, ‘Tumko kya lagta hai’ [What do you think]? One of the things I discovered is that we have great synergy. He is a fabulous experience for actors. Nobody has wanted me to do so well before. I was being pushed to do my best,” says Bhatt.

She furthers, “Highway and Udta Punjab were mentally taxing. Those were also very difficult characters but that was a different genre where you speak more about the performance. But Gangubai also has to be entertaining. After all, it is a commercial film. Here, you will enjoy it as well besides talk about the performance. After a really long time, you have a film that is modelling on a character. Bhansali wanted that portrayal where you have to keep it entertaining and keep it intense as well, and that was hard. It was the toughest role because of that reason. On one hand, it has to be authentic, and on the other, entertaining. But it was an enjoyable experience. The film is entertaining and emotional. There is drama, music, great visuals. I love the dialogue baazi which I haven’t done in my films so far. I hope there is that little celebration back in the theatres.”

On keeping the character alive through the pandemic

What was also challenging for Bhatt was to keep the character alive for a real long time, considering the film was shot in a period of two years in the midst of pandemic. “I don’t think I ever disconnected from the character. I had to shoot this film for two years amid two pandemics so I had to hold the character quite close to me for that much time, and even while sitting at home for six months during COVID, I had to go back to shoot so I had to keep the character alive within me. I don’t think the character ever left me. Then after the shoot, I had to dub for a few months. Now, once the film releases, that is when you let the character go. It was exhausting,” says Bhatt.

On returning to Berlinale

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhatt has made it to the Berlin Film Festival for the third time. She previously represented her films Highway and Gully Boy at the festival. “There is a certain excitement when your film is premiering at such a prestigious festival. There is also this excitement of going there, dressing up, and walking the red carpet. You show your film with your whole team. One of the things I really enjoy in Berlin the most is watching the film with the audience. Here, even if you do that, you only see a couple of reactions in the theatre. But sitting and watching the entire film with the audience is special. You see where they are responding, laughing, clapping, the things that they are listening to, and that’s a separate energy altogether,” she says.

On upcoming releases

Bhatt is thrilled about her other major releases of the year — RRR and Brahmastra Part One: Shiva. “These three films are my biggest ever. I have always wanted to be a pan-India actor. Although number games don’t bother me much, I want to reach out to people’s homes and hearts. I don’t believe language will be a barrier because it’s the story and your characterisation that take you forward as an actor. I was really grateful to be directed by [SS] Rajamouli sir,” says Bhatt, who is also turning producer with Darlings, a comedy drama.

“There were no plans of turning producer. It just happened organically. A day might come when I will even turn director, who knows?” she says. There are talks that Bhansali is reviving Inshallah, and has also signed Bhatt for Baiju Bawra. “I have as much information as you do,” she signs off.

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