To prepare for her role in Gangubai Kathiawadi, Alia Bhatt says she watched a lot of classic Hindi films, particularly those starring Meena Kumari because director Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted her to channel the old world charm and grace that the heroines of that era possessed.
As part of her preparation, Bhatt watched Shabana Azmi’s Mandi, a Shyam Benegal film starring her mother Soni Razdan, the American period drama Memoirs of a Geisha, and other old Indian films.
In the upcoming period drama, Bhatt plays Gangubai, one of Mumbai’s red-light district Kamathipura’s most powerful, loved, and respected madams during the 1960s.
“He (Bhansali) wanted me to pay close attention to Meena Kumari’s work, her expressions… the way she would sing a song, even though I am not going all out singing songs in the movie.” Her eyes are sad, but she has a powerful expression on her face. ‘See her face, which is so full,’ he would say… “I also watched ‘Mandi,'” Bhatt said in an interview with PTI.
Another directive from the director was for the actor to “eat” and “be happy on set.”
“On the sets, I had the most food.” During the filming of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I ate all of my favourite ‘Ghar ka’ (homemade) foods. “I had a fantastic time.”
Bhatt stated that as a ’90s kid, she grew up as a big Govinda fan, watching films purely for entertainment, but when she entered the acting industry, certain films were recommended to her. That’s when she discovered some of Hindi cinema’s best performances.
“It’s one thing to be an actor, and it’s quite another to be a heroine.” I’ve been told to watch these films, and every time I do, I’m filled with admiration for Waheeda Rehman ji, Shabana Azmi ji, Madhubala ji… It gives you goosebumps the way they do these long shots. Somehow, we’ve lost the old-world charm of presenting a heroine like that.”
After two previous collaborations with Bhansali fell through, the actor was given Gangubai Kathiawadi, which she describes as her “most creatively satisfying experience.”
Bhansali reportedly wanted Bhatt, known for Highway, Udta Punjab, Raazi, and Gully Boy, when she was 11 years old for a film called Balika Vadhu. Then there was Inshallah, which didn’t work out with Salman Khan.
When Inshallah was cancelled, the actress admitted she was “heartbroken.”
“But, true to his word, Sanjay sir said I should take a break and that he has something for me.” I went on vacation, and when I returned, he handed me this script that he had had for a couple of years.”
According to Bhatt, sometimes the stars just align.
“It is one of the most creative challenges you will face as an actor.” Making an SLB film is a watershed moment in your career. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a couple more. His vision is unique, and it is truly magical. “I’ve always admired his work, starting with ‘Khamoshi,'” the 28-year-old actor said.
While filming Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhatt said she rewatched all of Bhansali’s films, to the point where her boyfriend, actor Ranbir Kapoor, who made his debut with the director’s Saawariya in 2007, joked that she was “obsessed.”
She admits she was “nervous” about playing the titular character at first.
“It was a different genre than what I had planned to do with him earlier.” This is an emotionally charged and hard-hitting film. For a brief moment, I was doubtful of myself. “I suddenly had (these thoughts) that had never occurred to me before, but sir was very clear and asked me to think about it.”
But she was so eager to be a part of Bhansali’s vision that she said yes to the film, which is based on a chapter from S Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.
For Bhatt, the most exciting aspect of working on the film was creating Gangubai for the screen.
“She became an actress, so what would her personality be like?” Her ascension, the fight for sex workers’ rights, and the fight for children’s education rights What brought her to that point, her speech at Azad Maidan, and so on? Then there are the imaginative scenes, but it was filling in the gaps that I found most enjoyable.”
Bhatt stated that there were initial plans for her to visit Kamathipura incognito, but they were cancelled at the last minute.
“I was all set for one evening at 7 p.m. when there would be a car waiting for me to drive there incognito.” “All of a sudden, sir called and said, ‘We’re one day away from the shoot, don’t go,'” she recalled.
The actor stated that while she had not interacted with sex workers, watching films starring great actors helped her understand the psyche.
Gangubai Kathiawadi, according to Bhatt, makes important social points without being preachy.
“By the end of every film, you should feel or question one thing.” The film ‘Gangubai’ has a lot to offer. Playing this character has taught me so much about myself as a person.”
Gangubai Kathiawadi is set to be released theatrically on February 25 after overcoming numerous challenges, including two cyclones–Nisarga 2020 and Tauktae May 2021–and the COVID-19 lockdown.
“A lot of hard work, sleepless nights, blood, sweat, backache, stomach ache, COVID-19, everything happened,” Bhatt recalled.
The film, which is supported by Bhansali Productions and co-produced by Jayantilal Gada’s Pen India Limited, also stars Ajay Devgn in an interesting role, as well as Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz, and Jim Sarbh.
This month, Gangubai Kathiawadi will have its world premiere at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival.