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Alia Bhatt poses for portrait photographs for the film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi' during the International Film Festival Berlin 'Berlinale', in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt claims she doesn’t need to defend the casting decisions of her directors nor does she have to second-guess their choices.

Bhatt, 28, plays the titular role in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest biopic ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, a tale chronicling a real-life sex worker who turned into a women’s rights advocate in Mumbai’s red light district Kamathipura in the 1980s. This film marks director Bhansali’s 25th year in Indian cinema and the 10th film in his career.

As soon as the trailer of ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ released, social media went into a frenzy blasting the makers for casting a cherubic actress in such a role, with many convinced that she looked like a schoolgirl playing dress up in a sari.

Alia Bhatt in 'Gangubai Kathiawadi'
Alia Bhatt in 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' Image Credit: IMDB

But Bhatt isn’t worried about the negativity that has surrounded her since she was roped into the project.

In an interview with Gulf News on Zoom ahead of her film’s release in the UAE on February 24, Bhatt pointed out that the social media terrain is a breeding ground for baseless opinions and mindless chatter. According to Bhatt, many just blurt out things for the sake of it, without much logical reasoning or understanding.

“Remember you are talking about a director who has been working for 25 years in films. He doesn’t want to mess up his own film and I am sure he has his own vision. He is on the ball when it comes to his main lead … So, my only response to that is: ‘Calm down and have faith in the director’,” said Bhatt.

She did the same.

Bhansali, whose credits include sweeping spectacles such as ‘Padmaavat’, ‘Ram-Leela Goliyon Ki Rasleela’, ‘Devdas’ and ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, is notorious for being a taskmaster who seems to believe in the ‘no pain, no gain’ type of filmmaking. But his latest protege believes that this reputation isn’t wholly fair to the maverick filmmaker.

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Bollywood film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali attends the press conference for the film "Gangubai Kathiawadi" presented in the "Berlinale Special Gala" section during the 72nd Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin on February 16, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

“I think this ‘taskmaster’ word has just been used and abused for Sir [Bhansali]. I don’t think he’s a taskmaster at all. He just expects 100 per cent of your time, energy, affection for the film, your part, and your character. And that’s what it comes down to because that’s his life. He doesn’t know it any other way and I don’t think that’s too much to ask for,” said Bhatt.

Bollywood folklore is heaving with tales of Bhansali’s attention to detail, his love for visually stunning cinematography, and big set pieces. He’s big on atmospherics and mounting stories on a large canvas. And they are best enjoyed in a darkened movie hall and big screens. And this point has not escaped Bhatt.

“There are certain kinds of films that you cannot watch anywhere, but on the big screen. It’s meant for a community experience because it’s a big, larger-than-life screen experience. It’s not the same as watching it on our phone or watching it on your laptop. I genuinely believe that this is one film which people should go to the theatre for!” she said.

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, which began filming in 2019, has battled two lockdowns, two cyclones and COVID-19 contractions. Its birthing has been far from easy, but Bhatt believes it has been worth jumping through all those hurdles. Bollywood wasn’t immune to the effects of the global pandemic as cinema halls in Maharashtra shut for a long time and filmmakers had to hold onto their films wondering whether to release directly on web streaming platforms or wait for that elusive theatrical release. ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ stood the test of time and lived to tell the tale in the theatres.

“The pandemic had an effect on all of us … But in the end, it worked out well because this was the only character that I was playing. It gave me an opportunity to get very close to my character because I didn’t have to snap out of it really. Even when we were sitting at home during the pandemic, I still had to stay within the character and give it that importance in my mind because I couldn’t let it go because we still had work to complete,” said Bhatt.

The daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actress Soni Razdan claims that the movie altered her as a person and taught her to be ‘more relaxed’.

This film is based on S Hussain Zaid’s book ‘Mafia Queens Of Mumbai’.

“First I heard the narration and to get some more perspective I read the book and I also met with the author because we don’t so much information about Gangubai and we have taken creative liberties. But I knew that she [Gangubai Kathiawadi] has to be inspiring … She had to be inspiring and real and so we had a lot of fun just creating the character,” said Bhatt. The movie was shot mostly at night and helped the actress remain distant from her regular life and be in character.

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Alia Bhatt. Image Credit: Supplied

“When I was playing the part, I was very cut away from my real life in general and that helped us build a certain mystery around her.”

In the trailer set in the ‘80s Mumbai, Gangubai Kathiawadi is all sass and fire as she tumbles out of a taxi slightly inebriated and into a political rally. She tears up the sanitised speech and launches into an impromptu plea about how sex workers have a right to live with dignity. In an instant, she came across as a woke boss lady in a sari.

“It was a very unusual way of introducing any actor or character in a film, but that’s something we felt we had to show. Our cinematographer and our entire team wanted to shoot a unique scene. Especially for a woman, it’s a very unique way,” said Bhatt. In Bollywood, such dramatics are usually reserved for its male superstars. But Bhatt is becoming a force to reckon with in Bollywood. In the compelling spy thriller ‘Raazi’ directed by Meghna Gulzar, this actress did all the heavy lifting.

“I am very grateful for every opportunity that I have gotten and I am hoping that this film fares well at the box office. It’s a good example of a female-driven film,” she added.

The movie, which premiered at the recent Berlin Film Festival, saw a warm reception. It was Bhatt’s third appearance at the prestigious film festival.

“Change is the only constant,” Bhatt said. “I knew that our film which we have been waiting and waiting to release will finally release one day and so here I am!”

Don’t miss it!

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ is out in UAE cinemas on February 24.