The actor talks about the challenges of playing a sex worker who went on to become a mafia queen, working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, bonding with Ranbir Kapoor over cinema, and more

The actor talks about the challenges of playing a sex worker who went on to become a mafia queen, working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, bonding with Ranbir Kapoor over cinema, and more

Cinema pundits often say that you have to experience life to depict it. But then we have Alia Bhatt.

The actor grew up in a privileged, protective environment, predictably debuted with a young romance at 17 with Student of the Year, but soon graduated to the top league with a series of roles that belied her age, training, and background. The  Highway she took in 2014 is dotted with milestones like  Udta PunjabRaazi, and  Gully Boy. “All my exposure to life has been through my characters and films,” says Alia Bhatt as we settle for a chat before  Gangubai Kathiawadi, another challenging role of hers which will be put to test this week.

There are many things that you like about Alia, but honesty perhaps tops the list. “Even a sense of struggle and hardships that I have experienced is through my characters. I believe life is essentially a struggle; it is interspersed with some moments of joy, but mainly it is a struggle. In terms of the variety of struggle, I guess I have experienced it all,” says Alia, who grew up under the wings of Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan.

Growing up, she says, the conversations at home were very candid. “We weren’t scared of talking about fears and what the real world is like. My father doesn’t sugarcoat it for anyone. It was not like he sat me down and had a talk, but I could imbibe from the conversations that he had with other people. It was a very honest atmosphere,” she remembers.

But atmosphere needs to be put into practice, isn’t it? Alia says if we get to know how  it happens, there is no fun. “I didn’t care about  duniya main kya cha raha hai (what’s going on) as I was more concerned about my world, but it opened up my window of empathy and understanding. So now when I portray a character, if I empathise with the person, I can imagine the situation.”

Empathy with the character, she insists, is the crux. “It channels into your body and reflects through your eyes,” she explains.

Curiously, she doesn’t need to visit spaces, or meet the people whose stories she portrays. “If I understand the perspective of the person I am playing and where they are coming from, I can picturise the person by simply talking to the director,” says Alia.

Here she talks about the challenges of playing a sex worker who went on to become a mafia queen, and working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Edited excerpts:

Why make a biopic that glorifies a sex worker, who went on to become a mafia queen?

You make biopics on people who questioned the status quo, changed things, and made an impact. Gangubai is one of them. The famous speech that she gave in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan was about the level of discrimination that these women face and brought the hypocrisy of society to the fore. She made waves with her statements without social media. The film clearly states that she was not great, but she wasn’t a devil either. Of course, as a mafia queen, she played the game, but the focus is on the kind of people Gangubai encounters and the person she becomes by the end of it all.

Is it more like  Mandi or  Pakeezah, the two benchmarks on sex workers and courtesans?  

It is neither  Pakeezah nor  Mandi. Kamathipura is the backdrop, but it is essentially the story of a fighter; gender has little to do with it. Gangubai fights for a space she didn’t want to be part of. She didn’t choose the people for whom she fights a pitched battle. She makes providing them respect her purpose and that is why she was loved. The songs and dances are situational, providing a break from dialogues.

Does the film suggest legalisation of the sex work?

The film very pointedly says this as Gangubai wanted sex work to be legalised. Her perspective was simple and extremely clear. If it is the oldest profession and will exist as long as society exists, we might well legalise it.

Do you have an opinion on it?

It doesn’t matter whether I agree with it or not. What matters is the approach with which we generally approach contentious issues. The debate on every situation these days becomes very one-sided. We are so quick to judge and make strong opinions without ever trying to understand the opposite side.

A still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

A still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

In popular cinema, there is always a danger of romanticising sex work…

It is not about romanticising her pain. The pain only lingers through in the background and so do the bitter-sweet experiences. The idea is to underline the acceptance of who she is. Gangubai is not a courtesan. In fact, when a journalist met her after she had risen a bit on the social ladder, she introduced herself as a prostitute. It is very important today to accept who you are. Everybody is trying to become what he or she is not… or we are trying to get acceptance on platforms that are far from reality.

With so many avenues for instant gratification available for the youth, could it might get reduced to just a period film?

I must say it is a cool, badass period film! It has the retro appeal that is so much in demand these days. And in terms of thought, it is very relevant because we are still having the same conversations. For instance, the debate around surnames. Gangubai asks us if the mother’s name not enough.

Creating a canvas around a real person, who lived not too far back, is new for Sanjay Leela Bhansali as well…

It is, but the story comes from a very personal space that Sanjay sir once inhabited. He grew up two lanes away from Kamathipura, watching these women. When he was on the sets, he would get very nostalgic. He has personal memories there and feels strongly for these women and the hardships that they faced.

Still, he went on to design  a larger-than-life space for something so real…

That is his style. As an audience, we should not question it. His films are a visual experience and he has tried to design the world according to the story and emotions.

Alia Bhatt: ‘In terms of thought, the film is very relevant because we are still having the same conversations’

Alia Bhatt: ‘In terms of thought, the film is very relevant because we are still having the same conversations’

How did you create the character?

The research was all in the mind; I relied on what Sanjay sir said. The character emerged through the conversations that we had, from the pages of the script, and his experiences and understanding of the people in the area. As it is a linear story, where Gangubai comes straight from Gujarat to Kamathipura, he felt it would be good if I didn’t have an idea of the space. It worked for me, as like Gangubai, I didn’t know where I have landed.

How is performing a character different in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film?

There is a certain theatrical element to it which is more like playing on the front foot. The character also required a slightly higher pitch. However, at the same time, Sanjay sir demands that nothing is put on; rather, it is felt. He enjoys dynamics a lot. Sometimes even in a single sentence, there are several nuances. He looks for subtle things… like one raised hand, one shake of the head, or the batting of an eyelid. He totally enjoys that.

Having worked with some of the most talented filmmakers of this generation, didn’t you find it old-school?

As I said, it is more theatrical but this  andaaz, as they call it, provides a more collective experience. Sometimes, in trying to make things more current, there is no style left. The mixture of humour and sarcasm is very today, but overall it provides a very  mohalla-kind of experience.

Did you have to learn something for the role?

Because of the background I come from, my body language was a bit restrained. There is not much abandon to it. I had to work on it to bring the freedom that you get when you hit rock bottom, when you have nothing to lose and no perception to deal with.

In female-centric films, actors tend to imbibe traits that they used to find fault with, in the male-dominated space…

I feel gender should not be important while writing a character. It will have a bit of masculinity and a bit of femininity. And, of course, a bit of style. Only when you portray it, that you put gender into it. If this film were to do well at the box-office, it would be an example of how a film was driven by a character rather than a gender.

As for the traits, it depends on the genre. For instance, a larger-than-life entry for the protagonist. To me, they are just fun to watch. I have met people who wish for some background music to play when they enter a room. That is a genre thing, not a trope.

Your growth from teenage romances to mature roles has been swift. Is it by chance or design?

I loved the song and dance as they are comfort watches, but I can’t do them all the time. I like to mix it up. As a person, I get bored easily.

Do Ranbir and you bond over cinema as well?

Our love for cinema is common, but our approach to acting is not necessarily the same. He is many years my senior and has introduced me to a variety of cinema. As a co-actor, he is the least method person I have come across. You can never guess what Ranbir is thinking before he gives a shot. He is so unassuming. I also like to keep it as spontaneous as possible. I don’t like to know where the shot is supposed to go.

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