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Alia Bhatt On Gangubai: “I Didn’t Sign Up For Anything Easy Anyway”

Alia Bhatt. A name that has always been the talk of the Hindi film fraternity. Despite hailing from an established film family, she has always endeavoured to dive straight into the craft. Since her debut as the fashionabley frivolous Shanaya in Student Of The Year, we’ve seen Bhatt explore emotionally and mentally challenging roles in titles like Highway, Udta Punjab and Dear Zindagi. All of which have struck a chord with Indian and international audiences. 

But all said and done, the ice-breaker for any actor comes after working with Bollywood’s visionary filmmaker, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He is a man of precision, perfection and grandiose. Upcoming film Gangubai Kathiawadi, however, is unlike any of his previous ‘magnum opuses’. Arguably, Bhansali’s rawest film and yet offers his trademark of visual opulence and adding to the tenderness is Bhatt. She is set to play an innocent village belle from Gujarat who gets viciously plunged into a world of gangs, prostitution and societal dejection. A formidable woman, whose story is so shocking but true.

It is no surprise that expectations are high with this one. Furthermore, a rather notable time for Alia as she celebrates a decade in Bollywood. So what has been on her mind while shooting for the movie? Let’s find out. 

Alia, how do you feel Gangubai’s story will address patriarchy within Indian society? And do you think it provides an important voice for sex workers in India?

I definitely feel it provides perspective but I don’t think we’re trying to be too preachy with the film. It’s just a human story that fights for women’s rights and for her people’s rights. She doesn’t find happiness in this world, maybe, but finds a purpose. That purpose is within Kamathipura and within the hearts of these women. This is something very inspiring and she fought very hard to bring equality. She fought hard to legalise prostitution. [Gangubai] believed that as long as society existed, prostitution will exist as well. It was high time that it was a legalised profession. Of course, she didn’t get what she wanted but it was very inspiring. She displayed all these traits. It’s not about where she comes from or what she does, everybody can take away something from her. The profession is just the backdrop. What she’s fighting for is a purpose and we all can relate to that.

To experience what she did must’ve been incredibly difficult. Be it physical violation from a goon or deception by her husband. Did her story ever impact you emotionally or mentally? 

Whatever emotional or mental impact I had because of the character, I sort of put back into the character. The recovery is something I don’t pay attention to where I need to sit down and recover from the mental or emotional trauma. It’s something that happens when your film goes to the audience. I still am very connected with the character. I still feel very strongly about the ups and downs she goes through in the film. But sometimes it’s difficult to disconnect yourself from the process of the movie. When you see the film, it becomes more of a product. I am more connected with the process. The product is now for the audience to see and hopefully love.

From experiences shared by previous actresses, is said that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is quite the taskmaster. What was the most difficult part for you when shooting for the film?

I think the songs were very hard. ‘Dholida’ was one of the toughest sequences I’ve shot in my career. Not only was it physically exhausting but I also had to live up to his [Bhansali’s] expectations of song and yet stay within the character. He wanted to unlock an emotional trance with this song and the moment within it. Which we mentioned at the press conference [at Berlinale]. That was really hard but I didn’t sign up for anything easy anyway [smiles].

You celebrate 10 years within the industry. What would you say have been the biggest change within you since Student Of The Year? Do you feel that emotional maturity is what helps you to explore the characters you do now?

My transition from my first character Shanaya to now has been a very seamless journey. I don’t think I ever sat with a pen and paper and calculated how I’m supposed to evolve as an actor. Acting is a very big part of my life and who I am. So how you gradually evolve as a person, I’ve gradually evolved as an actor. I don’t look at it as work. I look at it as a part of growing up or moving forward. So that’s the way I even pick my parts and played my parts. With time I became more focused and diligent. If it’s possible [laughs]. I will continue to do so. I don’t think I can tell you what the next ten years are going to be like.

Do you feel the qualities you’ve mentioned have helped you to choose future projects like Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, Darlings and Brahmastra

Yes. I think you just do things for fun also, sometimes. Rocky Aur Rani is a fun, family film and I want to be a part of such cinema. While I want to do the challenging parts, I also want to do light-hearted films, because I enjoy watching those types of films as well. I also want to do movies about friendship, life and love [Jee Le Zaraa]. I like to mix it up as per genre and what satisfies the actor soul within me.

Watch Filme Shilmy’s interview with Alia Bhatt here: 

Gangubai Kathiawadi is backed by Bhansali Productions and Pen Movies. Viacom18 Studios & Paramount Pictures International are distributing in all International markets outside of India. The picture releases on 25th February. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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