Alia Bhatt Talks “Powerful” Drama ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ – Deadline


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Despite her young age, Indian-born British actress Alia Bhatt has sustained herself as a leading lady in Hindi cinema for the past decade, racking up credits including Gully Boy, Raazi and Highway.

Among the awards and box office successes have also been a selection of high-profile premieres at international festivals, which is not routinely a route trodden by Indian cinema.

Her 2014 crime pic Highway debuted at the Berlin International Film festival, as did the 2019 musical drama Gully Boy. This year, she is back with Gangubai Kathiawadi, the feminist tale of a sex worker who rises to become a powerful underworld figure.

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who Bhatt tells us below in an interview she has always wanted to work with, the film also features an extended cameo from Ajay Devgn, and a turn from Vijay Raaz as a transsexual character (the latter has drawn some criticism for not casting a trans actor, which Bhatt also discusses).

The actress talks us through the film’s lengthy process to screen, which included a Covid-related production delay and pandemic-enforced release delays, as well as her hopes for breaking into western cinema after signing with WME last year.

Gangubai Kathiawadi premieres on February 16 in Berlin’s Special Gala program.

DEADLINE: How much are you looking forward to this film screening in Berlin?

ALIA BHATT: I have been to Berlin twice before so I hope third time’s a charm, even though the first two were pretty charming. This is one of the most challenging, emotional parts, one which I’ve connected with the most. I lived with it for two years while we shot the film, it’s super close to my heart.

DEADLINE: Make sure to dress up warm for the premiere…

BHATT: I’ll be wearing a sari, so I will freeze, but then I’ll make sure I put a nice shawl around myself.

DEADLINE: What was your initial reaction to reading this part?

BHATT: It’s funny, the story that I was meant to do with Sanjay Leela Bhansali was originally a love story. We were ready to shoot but the film was shelved for a number of reasons. It was a big dream of mine to be directed by Sanjay. He was quite calm and relaxed because he also had this script Gangubai Kathiawadi, and he said he wanted to make it with me. My first reaction was shock, it was a complete genre shift – this was a hard-hitting, almost gangster-like character that I had to play. My second reaction was acceptance that he wanted me to play the part. In that particular moment I was doubtful I would be able to pull it off, it’s extremely intense and away from the person I am and the life I’ve seen, from anything I’ve experienced. But he had that vision so clearly, I had to go with that experience, who was I to question it?

DEADLINE: She seems like a bit of a badass. Did you have any nerves around playing a sex worker? India can be quite a conservative country.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Bhansali Productions

BHATT: Yes, but it’s not that sex workers haven’t been in our cinema in the past. It’s not the most commercial subject, but there have been films made on this subject. I think if you give the audience a really good character, where they come from or who they are becomes secondary. I wasn’t reluctant at all, at the heart of this film are a lot of powerful social points. It’s an underdog story, a story of struggle. Wherever you come from, I think everyone can connect to a story of rising from struggle.

DEADLINE: It looks like quite an empowering, feminist story, was that aspect appealing to you?

BHATT: Absolutely. The feminist in me was even more activated after this part. I became more sensitive to the conversation of equality, which has been ongoing for a while, and will continue until there’s no need for it.

DEADLINE: Talking about representation and roles for women, do you feel like Bollywood, and the wider Indian film industry, has improved in terms of its handling of female characters?

BHATT: Most definitely, although there have been strong characters written for women for many years now. Even so, we still have the conversation of female-led films, female directors being a new thing, it’s looked upon as unique which I don’t understand.

DEADLINE: There has been some debate about the fact Vijay Raaz plays a trans character in the film (the actor is not trans), do you have an opinion on that?

BHATT: I have heard this conversation various times for different films. While I do understand where they’re coming from, I feel like it’s up to the director and their vision. It’s not there to offend anyone, maybe the director found it interesting to have an actor like Vijay Raaz, who identifies as male, play a trans character. The audience has never seen him that way, you see the actor and the ability to transform within that person. I think that’s a better perspective, but I do understand where people are coming from.

DEADLINE: This film marks Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 25th year in the Hindi film industry, tell me about the experience of collaborating with him.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Bhansali Productions

BHATT: It was everything that I expected and more. I knew it would be a magical experience, I’ve been a fan of his work over the years, and I really got to the heart of where that comes from. I feel like there is so much more to discover. He doesn’t make films because he needs to get them done in X-number of days – that’s why he’s known for making films for a long time – he wants to flesh out every moment in every scene. He gives the actor so much room to create, to discover. If I’m not getting a scene, he’ll give me an hour to get it right. For the two years that we shot the film, it was like I was in a world of my own. I don’t think there’s any director I’ve worked with who cares so much about me doing my best.

DEADLINE: You had a production delay because of the lockdown back in spring 2020 – what was that experience like?

BHATT: It was very challenging, but as a world at that point we didn’t know what had hit us. I don’t think anyone expected it to go online as long as it did. The world was in distress, that enveloped the feeling of ‘what’s going to happen to my film?’ I chose to not be selfish and think about myself, and wait for things to settle, taking each day as it came. Going back on set after six months, there was a new invigorating energy that came into the whole crew. There was now a deeper purpose to complete the film.

DEADLINE: The release was also delayed, it’s finally happening now on February 25, how is cinema faring in India at the moment?

BHATT: I think it’s just about taking off again. We’re still running at lesser capacity in two major sectors. There have been a couple of films released that have fared well at the box office. Spider-Man did really well over here. In India film viewing is very close to the audience, it’s like spirituality for them, they need to go to the theaters. People want to get out of their homes. I believe people will go to the theaters if we give them the movies. Slowly the confidence will come back to those who are scared [of Covid]. The theater experience is irreplaceable.

DEADLINE: During the pandemic we’ve seen the streaming services rise in influence around the world, including in India, one of your recent films, Darlings, will now premiere on Netflix. How does that compare to the experience of releasing a film theatrically like Gangubai Kathiawadi?

BHATT: Honestly, I think OTT has been great. There are a lot of films that don’t have a widespread audience, that people may not want to go to the theater to see, but they will watch it at home, and it can travel across the world that way. Today I am sitting in India and I’m watching Korean content, Spanish content. It has made the world a much smaller place. Good content will always travel. I’m excited about Darlings going on OTT, I think it’s an Indian story that people can enjoy globally.

DEADLINE: You signed with WME last year, when can we expect your Hollywood debut?

BHATT: [Laughs] Hopefully soon! Through the pandemic things have slowed down a bit, but we’re going to make this happen. When there’s a will, there’s a way.


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