Alia Bhatt on 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' and why she isn't bothered by criticism

Actress speaks ahead of the release of the Bollywood magnum opus


Ambica Sachin

Published: Tue 22 Feb 2022, 6:37 PM

Last updated: Tue 22 Feb 2022, 9:07 PM

She’s a vision in white when we catch up with her over Zoom in Berlin where she premiered her latest film, the spectacularly mounted Sanjay Leela Bhansali production, Gangubai Kathiawadi at the international film festival.

There is a certain insouciance in her manner that is reminiscent of her on screen persona Gangu, the matriarch of Bombay’s infamous red light district from the 1960s.


But then Alia Bhatt has never toed the line when it comes to her movie choices either. She may have made a stereotypical Bollywood debut in 2012’s teen drama Student of the Year. But she changed tracks soon after with heavy-duty roles in movies like Dear Zindagi and Highway.

She followed it up with a powerful role as a Bihari migrant in Udta Punjab, an undercover spy in Raazi and a possessive girlfriend in Gully Boy. Yet the predominant image we have of her is that of a dainty, bubbly person as gleaned from her public appearances. “But I’ve never taken the dainty, bubbly parts anyway,” she clarifies when we ask if she’s had to constantly battle her physicality. “From the beginning of my career I have done films like Highway, Udta Punjab, Raazi. Physicality wise I have always believed that your body structure has nothing to do with your inner strength and core. I have done enough action to prove that.

“Maybe because I just always try to be happy and positive, most of the time, or I would say some of the time… most of the time we are trying to deal with something or the other… they think I’m a bubbly person. But let me tell you I’m not, everybody has their good days and bad days.”

Gangubai Kathiawadi is based on one of the chapters in the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges. Alia plays Gangu, a small town girl who transforms into Gangubai, the much feared and revered matriarch of Bombay’s infamous red light area Kamathipura.

Like her on screen persona, the actress has taken to promoting her latest crime drama in designer white ensembles. Gangubai is said to have had a soft spot for the colour and the film also follows the same palette. The actress says we will understand the significance of the shades of white in Gangu’s life only when we see the film.

From a teen drama queen to the madam of a brothel is a long journey but one that Alia believes is not so much by design, as a random happen-by-chance. But she also admits, “there’s a certain amount of expectation you have from yourself to keep your mind active and challenged,” by way of explaining her speckled career choices.

As for walking the Berlin Film Festival red carpet and presenting the movie alongside Bhansali at the Berlinale Special, she sees the whole experience as a validation of teamwork. “Of course the red carpet, the glamour, all of that is there. But at the end of the day we all put in work and effort hoping it reaches somewhere, so this is that kind of moment when that hope is materialising.” It is her third appearance at the international film festival where she has earlier presented Highway and Gully Boy.

Excerpts from our interview with the actress who has an exciting lineup of movies including the magnum opus RRR, her production debut Darlings and Jee le Zaraa that stars her alongside Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif.

How do you see the evolution of your movie selection process from your debut in SOTY to Gangubai now?

I’m not an actor because I have to be, but because I wanted to be. So when I play a character it has to change something within me or take me into a new space. That’s possibly the reason why I choose different paths and different characters. Sometimes you just do things for fun, or you do things for relationships. Tomorrow I may be offered this film in New York and I may do it because I want to go to NY. It’s (the reasons for choosing a movie) random; it’s never the same. But mainly it is to challenge yourself.

You have boldly faced all the criticism that came your way when the trailer for Gangubai Kathiawadi was first launched. How do you handle the constant battering of your ego and self-confidence?

I’m very comfortable with who I am, so I am not trying to impress anyone. I’m just trying to satisfy that actor and that person in me. So the love just comes along with it and it’s great. And, of course, I believe the audience is king and is the reason we do movies. I feel the minute you have love for something and that’s genuinely in your eyes and there is honesty, the audience will catch it and they will love it back — they will feel good about it. The minute the decisions become calculative or manipulative, they will start seeing it.

So even if there was a certain section that did have reservations or still do have reservations, I expect that to change when they see the film. And even if they don’t, I’m ok with that because they have a right to their opinion.

Is Gangubai a product of destiny or choice, according to you?

A combination of both. Everybody has regrets, I’m sure. When you watch the film you will feel that Gangubai to a certain extent had a certain regret of something. But sometimes you can still make the right choices and destiny will take you somewhere (else).

Sometimes you need to go somewhere to get somewhere else. If what happened to Gangu wouldn’t have happened to Gangu, would she have been able to be that voice for the women of Kamathipura for all those years?

Also is it more of a pressure to play a character based on a real person?

I don’t look at it as a pressure or burden. In fact I feel the less you know about a person and more about the plot points in their life, there is more of a mystery and you can then create something lovely.

Working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali sounds strenuous and exhausting from all your interviews! How do you look upon the process?

I don’t believe a challenge like this is complete without the exhaustion and the hard work. Let me tell you while I did go through that experience, I don’t expect anything less out of it. Because if I don’t go through that process then I’m not sure if the churning and the changing will actually take place for it to show on screen.

I don’t think anybody has bothered so much about the best of my abilities than Sanjay sir has. In that sense he is very intuitive and instinctive and it’s like he can see there is something hidden underneath. Sometimes it takes 2 takes for it to come out, sometimes it takes 7, or 1 or 11 but it will come and that relentlessness and that awareness that this is the take and this is the moment, only sir has.

I know for a fact that there hasn’t been a dishonest moment between the take that he thinks is the one and the one I think is right. There has always been synergy and I have felt it in my body and he feels it in his body as well.

All actors speak of imbibing something of the characters they play on screen. What’s the one thing you have taken away from playing Gangubai?

The fact that she is so comfortable with herself; she doesn’t consider her profession any different from anybody else’s. Somebody introduces themselves as XYA and she introduces herself as who she is and her profession and she says it with clarity because in her opinion it is who she is. That’s what I have taken (from playing her). I’m very comfortable with who I am. I’m not trying to make too many hard points and have too much of acceptance or appreciation constantly coming my way.

It takes a lot of energy to try and impress and be likeable to everyone. I’m not being a rebel but I’m also extremely comfortable with who I am and accepting that as opposed to pretending otherwise.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is out in UAE cinemas on February 24

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