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For the latest THR Presents screening, powered by Vision Media, Hilton Dresden has a conversation with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose new film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, tells the epic story of a woman who makes the most of the dire circumstances she’s forced into.
Bhansali adapted his latest endeavor from part of the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, written by S. Hussain Zaidi. Gangubai follows its eponymous character, a young woman from a well-to-do family tricked by her lover and sold into sexual slavery. Rather than let her situation break her spirit, Gangubai reinvents herself and assumes command of the brothel she’s been imprisoned inside, eventually rising to impressive political and socioeconomic power and freeing other young women from forced sex work.
“I didn’t know that she existed,” Bhansali says. “I lived one lane away from the brothels of Mumbai where this film is based, but I had no idea that the woman called Gangubai actually existed. When I read the story, it was quite a revelation to me. I said, ‘Oh my god, this is a fantastic character.’ It’s a very pure character. It’s a character that I enjoyed reading, because she was funny, she was witty, she was a fighter. She knew how to handle the dark moments. She was like sunshine in the brothel. And so I found that it’s a very unusual take on an unusual character. Otherwise, normally, you have the drama and the humiliation and the abuse that is explicitly shown in movies on sex workers. But here I found a character [that] was like sunshine.”
Adapting a nearly three-hour feature film from a single chapter of a book meant being unafraid to create scenes and moments based in imagination rather than strictly adhering to the source text. “For example, the girls [of the brothel] go to a movie, and the joy of dressing up, and then the challenge of the Madame. … All this is not in the book. It’s just added. [Gangubai] says ‘No, I’m going to fight that fate.’ So how do you create a progression in the character? So they go to the movie, but the sad part of [going to] the movies is that she’s going to be made a pass at even in the movie theater, and she has got to struggle.”
Bhansali found little details in the book he could expand into major plot points, and even invented storylines he wanted to see the character go through: “There are so many such moments that we’ve added where there is a sense of poignancy to the character, there’s a sense of joy to it. There’s a sense of now finding the strength to get up and fight. ‘I’ll face it all.’ There are many sad scenes that are horrible. The entire romance with Afsaan is a very [small] detail in the book. So as a creator, I want Gangu to fall in love. As a film director, I wanted to write a love story [for] her destiny. So I made her fall in love.”
Casting the titular role of Gangubai required Bhansali to think outside the box — ultimately, he decided actress Alia Bhatt would be the perfect person for the role. “We had met a few times before coming [together] on this particular film,” Bhansali explains. “She said ‘I would like to work with you and one day I want to be a part of your film.’ She’s a very big star in the country. I called her to read Gangubai and her face fell. She said, ‘I wanted to do a big spectacle song-dance number film with costumes and wars, but this is not your film. This is not what you’re known for.’”
But Bhansali wanted to try something different, more intimate, more character-focused. Bhatt had reservations, as Bhansali describes her saying, “‘This is not me. I’m an urban girl. I’ve lived a high-society life. I do not know this character. I’ve never seen the brothels. I’m not aware of this culture. How do they talk? How do they walk? How do they speak? How do they react?’ I was about to call another actress, and the next day said [to her], ‘If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. If you don’t trust me, then don’t do it…’ I said, ‘Just trust me, you’ve not done a film like this, I have not done a film like this, we should get together and really tap that side that has not yet been tapped. And it will be a great adventure.’ She said, ‘Okay, I surrender, I’ll do what you tell me to.’ She came along with a lot of reservations, with a lot of fear. She was a little worried about working with me, etc., etc. But she had a great [time], [and] I had a great time.”
While Bhatt’s casting may have conjured skepticism in the country at first, after seeing the film, most will agree it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. “[The] casting was very, very unacceptable to the people in my country,” Bhansali continues. “But then when they saw it, they said there could have been no other Gangubai but Alia.”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Bhansali Productions.
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