I turned into Gangubai at home: Alia Bhatt
Alia Bhatt discusses the physical-mental transformation she endured to portray Gangubai, the eponymous madam of a brothel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, in her upcoming Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt is in the news again. The vivacious actor’s upcoming biopic, Gangubai Kathiawadi, celebrates the journey of a woman who rose to power and reigned supreme. The actor terms it as a story of strength, inspiration, and resilience. “It’s the story of a fighter. Gangubai was a good person, who, maybe, needed to be bad in a cruel world. We all have to fight to achieve something. The struggle, pain, and the ordeal she went through to become a Madam will connect with people from all walks of life,” she says. In this candid conversation, a modest Alia opens up about the film, working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and the challenges she faced while portraying this complex character.
A major release for you after the pandemic. What’s your mindset now?
I am nervous. It’s been an overwhelming time for cinemas. There were many questions running through my mind. Has the audience forgotten the theatrical experience? Will people come to the theatres? The scene has changed after the release of several big films, including Pushpa: The Rise, which has brought back the audience to theatres. I now believe that if you give a good film to the audience, they will come to the theatres, smiling. I believe we have put up a good film and I am hoping for a positive response.
How did this Sanjay Leela Bhansali collaboration come about?
I have wanted to be Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) sir’s heroine ever since I was 9. I remember giving an audition for Black (2005). It didn’t work out, but he looked into my eyes and said, “This girl is a heroine...ye heroine hai.” When I first went through the script of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to pull off the central character. I asked Sanjay sir whether he was confident I could do it. The audience has seen me largely as a bubbly, innocent, young girl. I was rather nervous if I’d be able to bring the intensity, aura, and power of this character. But he instilled confidence in me and asked me not to worry.
Tell us about the preparation you went through to portray Gangubai.
I am an imaginative person. I am always dreaming and there’s always something running through my mind. If you give me just a few words, I can imagine a scene and begin acting. My conversations with Sanjay sir helped me portray this role better. My preparation was mainly to follow Sanjay sir’s instructions. He wanted my voice to communicate more bass as I had to portray both the younger and older versions of Gangubai. I took some training and changed my voice. I also put on weight for the part. Sanjay sir would often ask me to just eat, be happy and come to the sets. He didn’t want me to follow a diet chart. And so, I ate everything and anything that was available on the sets (laughs). His thought process was aimed at keeping actors happy. I sought that too as I was playing a challenging character. Also, as Gangubai was from Kathiawad, it was important to bring out the Gujarati dialect. I needed to show that mother-tongue influence in her dialogues. Above all, this is a true story that happened in the 1950s, and just imagining those situations got really overwhelming.
‘I turned into Gangubai ...’
What is your first step of preparation when approaching a role?
I strongly believe there isn’t one way of doing anything. I prefer to go by my director’s vision. Whatever my director asks me to do, I do—even if it means not preparing for a part and turning up at the sets without any idea. Gangubai Kathiawadi broke all my methods. The experience was, in a sense, beyond my understanding. For example, if we are doing scene A, suddenly Sanjay sir would say let’s do scene B or he would mix A and B together. I had to be prepared for surprises. I believe that it’s such experiences that help you stand on your feet.
I understood that there’s no one way of doing a scene. Initially, I would read a scene and come to the sets. After a point, I stopped reading, and simply tried to say or do as Gangubai would. There are so many ways to approach a scene. What’s there on the paper is just the starting point. If you want to fly, you have to take the leap. I did that!
Was it mentally exhausting to portray Gangubai?
It was. And I still haven’t detached myself from the character. I shot the film for two years amid two waves of the pandemic. Till a film comes out, the character stays within me. Even if it’s been three years, I am sometimes unable to let a character go. I relax when the film comes out.
Any particularly challenging scenes you remember?
Portraying Gangubai, in all her strength and complexity, was the toughest task. She was an emotional character, a rebel, but still shows a lot of angst for situations she finds herself in.
It’s a film about this woman and you have to fall in love with her. This is not me and this is definitely not a world I know. The story is set in Kamathipura, a place I have never set foot in. I experienced it through the set in Film City, Mumbai. This was all completely alien to me; I think I have almost become a different person. Even at home, I would sit like Gangubai, and talk like her. My family wondered who I was; they saw they were not looking at the Alia they knew. The toughest part was being so far away from who I am.
How much of the story has been fictionalised?
The film is based on the chapter of Gangubai Kothewali from Hussain Zaidi’s book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai. It’s a short chapter, so, yes, we had to imagine scenes and dialogues and create the world.
You also got the opportunity to work with Ajay Devgn in this film.
It was a fabulous experience! He is playing one of the most important characters in Gangubai’s life. It’s his character that turns Gangubai’s life around. They meet at a crucial point in the film. He is an amazing co-star to work with, someone who always arrived on the sets before he had to. I even got stressed out because he was arriving before me (smiles). He was accommodating and gave me a lot of suggestions.
You have another ambitious film (RRR) lined up for release in a month’s time.
Sometimes, stars align, and things work out (smiles). I have always wanted to be a pan-India actor. Sridevi is a big icon of mine. She was the numero uno star in Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi. Although the number games don’t bother me much, I want to be able to reach out to people’s homes and hearts. I don’t believe language is a barrier as it’s the story and characterisation that take you forward as an actor. I am really grateful to be a part of RRR. I think it’s the beginning of a new journey; hopefully, there’s more in store for me.