Actor Alia Bhatt says she watched a lot of classic Hindi films, particularly those featuring Meena Kumari, to prepare for her role in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ as director Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted her to channel the old world charm and grace that the heroines of that era had.
Bhatt also saw Shabana Azmi-starrer ‘Mandi’, a Shyam Benegal film that featured her mother Soni Razdan, American period drama ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and other old Indian films as part of her preparation.
The upcoming period drama features Bhatt in the title role of Gangubai, one of the most powerful, loved and respected madams from Mumbai’s red-light area Kamathipura during the 1960s.
“He (Bhansali) wanted me to watch Meena Kumari’s work a lot, her expressions… the way she would sing a song, although I am not going all out singing songs in the movie. There is a certain sadness inher eyes, but there is a power to her face. He would say, ‘See her face, which is so full’… I also watched ‘Mandi’,” Bhatt told PTI in an interview.
Another instruction from the director for the actor was to “eat” and “be happy on the sets”.
“I had the most amount of food on the sets. During the shoot of ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, I was eating all my favourite ‘ghar ka’ (homemade) food. I had a great time.”
Bhatt said as a ’90s kid, she grew up as a big Govinda fan, watching films purely for entertainment but when she stepped into the acting profession, there were certain films that were recommended to her. That’s when she discovered some of the great performances of Hindi cinema.
She admits she was initially “nervous” about playing the titular character.
“It was a different genre from what I was supposed to do with him earlier. This is an emotional, hard-hitting film. For a second, I was a little doubtful of myself. I suddenly had (these thoughts)… which has never happened to me. (But) sir was very clear and asked me to think about it.”
But she was so keen to be a part of Bhansali’s vision that she did not hesitate long to say yes to the film, which is based on a chapter from S Hussain Zaidi’s book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai”.
The most exciting aspect of working on the film for Bhatt was creating Gangubai for the screen.
“She came to be an actress, so what would be her personality? Her rise, fight for sex workers rights, fight for children’s education rights. What got her to all of that point, her speech at Azad Maidan, etc? Then comes those imaginative scenes but filling in those gaps was actually what I enjoyed the most.”
Bhatt said initially there were plans for her to visit Kamathipura incognito but they were scrapped at the last moment.
“I was all-ready one evening at 7 pm, that there will be a car in which I will go there incognito. Suddenly sir called and said we are one day away from the shoot so don’t go,” she recalled.
The actor said she may not have interacted with sex workers but watching the films by great actors helped her understand the psyche.
Bhatt said ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ makes important social points without being preachy.
“Every film should make you feel or question one thing by the end of it. ‘Gangubai’ has a lot to offer. I have had so much learning as a human being playing this character.”
After facing many hurdles including two cyclones – Nisarga 2020 and Tauktae May 2021, and the COVID-19 lockdown, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ is set to be released theatrically on February 25.
“A lot of hard work, sleepless nights, blood, sweat, backache, stomach ache, COVID-19, everything (happened) but we soldiered on,” Bhatt recalled.
Backed by Bhansali Productions, co-produced by Jayantilal Gada’s Pen India Limited, the film also stars Ajay Devgn in an interesting role, besides Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz, and Jim Sarbh.
‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ will have its world premiere at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival this month.