Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali has told stories of the underrepresented in several of his works and his latest film, “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” for which Oscar and BAFTA campaigns are running, is an addition to that canon.
Bhansali’s debut “Khamoshi” (1996) delved into the world of deaf-mute people; “Black” (2005), told the tale of a young woman who can’t see, hear, or speak; and “Guzaarish” (2010) followed a magician paralyzed in an accident who makes a court petition to end his own life.
“Gangubai Kathiawadi,” starring top Indian actor Alia Bhatt, debuted at Berlin earlier this year. Based on the book, “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” written by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges, it follows the true story of young Ganga, who runs away from her small town of Kathiawad to pursue her dreams of becoming a movie star, but is betrayed and sold to a brothel in Bombay’s infamous red-light district, Kamathipura. She gradually transforms into Gangubai, the matriarch of the district. She becomes the voice of the suppressed and makes it her mission to try and legitimize a tainted profession that dates back to ancient times.
“Children of lesser gods are my favorite characters. Their perseverance fascinates me and inspires me. The ability to fight against their odds and turn things around in their favour makes me want to tell their story,” Bhansali told Variety. “These stories need to be told to the mainstream audience. It’s exciting for me to tell the stories of these unsung heroes or people whom we don’t know about or people who are suffering or going through very personal challenges like Michelle in ‘Black’ or Ethan in ‘Guzaarish’ or Gangu in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi.’ “
“Audiences are ready hear these stories because they are unusual. In the process to survive, [the characters] continue the search for goodness and their search for god. I understand their suffering, I understand what they go through. When mainstream actors come around and play these characters, it reaches a larger audience and the idea of getting these stories reach to wider audience gets fulfilled,” Bhansali added.
The film did indeed reach a wider audience. In a year when Bollywood has been bruised at the box office, “Gangubai Kathiawadi” has been one of a handful of hits. When it bowed on Netflix, it became the first Indian film to lead the streamer’s Global Top 10 (Non-English) chart in the first week. It also trended in the top 10 in more than 25 countries and was popular in Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand and South Korea.
Making “Gangubai Kathiawadi” was a deeply personal experience for Bhansali as he grew up next to Kamathipura, the Mumbai red light district where the film is set.
“I admired how Gangubai lived her life for other people in a very spirited way. The fact that such a hero existed in Kamathipura who fought for the rights of the sex workers motivated me to want to get this film made,” said Bhansali. “I felt close to Gangubai as she reminded me of all the women I used to pass by everyday while going to school. The vivid memories of these painted faces calling out to customers still lingers in my mind to this date. I knew that I had to play my part and pay homage to Kamathipura’s unsung hero and do it with the same level of respect and dignity Gangu had for the women she fought so hard for.”
The filmmaker also manages the feat of melding his epic vision, fully realized in his hit historical action dramas “Bajirao Mastani” (2015) and “Padmaavat” (2018), with what is an intimate story in “Gangubai Kathiawadi.”
“I just made the film the way I thought it should be made. My treatment of the film is very up close, intimate and almost uncomfortable at times. It was imperative that through my visuals the audience would be able to live the moments with the character and watch her with that kind of adulation as she rose from being an innocent small town girl to the matriarch of Kamathipura,” Bhansali said. “I still kept my style of visual storytelling intact. Kamathipura had no palaces but it had brothels, it had its own aesthetic quality, elements from my childhood, having lived in that area which I got to explore and use my imagination to create on a grand scale.”
“Making such an intimate film did pose its challenges. We had plenty of scenes taking place in small craggy rooms where you don’t have scale to play around with. That is when I relied a lot on performance,” Bhansali added.
A challenge for the filmmaker was to shape Bhatt’s central performance as Gangubai and leave her real-life elite urban persona behind.
“I think the first step was trying to make her forget Alia and all her existing idiosyncrasies – I had to condition her to play a sex worker. We had to work on her diction and dialect. Gangubai had to have a deeper voice than Alia’s. She had to sound different. The voice modulation brought a certain attitude to the character,” said Bhansali. “For me it is all about the eyes. It is the key to understanding the soul of the character. One cannot just rely on dialogues to convey emotions, sometimes words cannot communicate one’s subconscious feelings. Alia was able to understand the sentiment behind every scene and express them beautifully through her eyes. Whether it will be vulnerability or anger.”
A lot of thought also went into the cinematography, dialogues, production design and costumes, with each element deployed with the purpose of conveying the protagonist’s state of mind.
“There was constant reworking of the scenes. The scenes were specially constructed in such a way that allowed her character to emerge,” Bhansali said. “Every department aided her and helped enhance her performance and played an integral part in her transformation.”
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