Acclaimed Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali conjured up a fake that failed on set, toned down his signature lavish filmmaking style and revisited a childhood memory in the service of salting Gangubai Kathiawadi to the screen.
Known for historical epics such as Padmaavat (2018), Bajirao Mastani (2015), supported by Sony Sahara Desert (2007) and Devdas (2002), which screened in Cannes, this time Bhansali has used a crime drama to tell the true story of how a young girl, forced into prostitution, struggles against personal and public pressure to marry the madame of a notorious brothel in to become India.
Gangubai Kathiawadi shows her campaigning for prostitute rights and helping the legions of impoverished women in her community.
The Hindi film is loosely based on the life of Ganga Jagjivandas Kathiawadi, commonly known as Gangubai as documented in S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.
“I started this film in my mind in 2012. I read the book and bought the rights,” says Bhansali. “But then I thought, ‘My mind isn’t ready to make this film yet.'”
After three more films were made – RamLeela, Bajirao Mastani and laal ishq – he realized he wanted to completely change the style and scale of his previous approach to filmmaking to do justice to the story of Gangubai Kathiawadi.
“I’ve always wanted embellishments and curtains and cushions and architecture and rich costumes, but with strong dialogue,” explains Bhansali. “To the Gangubai Kathiawadi, Everything was taken away from me. It was new territory, adventure territory for me and I was alert from start to finish.”
The filmmaker had long been drawn to Gungubai’s story; he had also grown up in Mumbai, near Gungubai and their brothel. “For 30 years of my life I lived in an alleyway next to Gungubai,” explains Bhansali. “I knew the ambiance, the vibe, the people, the kind of faces and the different stories they had. I want people to experience this perspective of a schoolboy walking down this alley, my memories of the watercolor impressionism of this alley.”
With Indian-British Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt on board to star in key roles along with Ajay Devgn, Shantanu Maheshwari, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari, Seema Pahwa and Varun Kapoor, Bhansali began filming in 2019 before staying for longer Time closed due to Covid-19 pandemic and restarting at the end of 2020.
Casting Indo-British actor Bhatt as Gungubai was an easy decision: Bhansali had met her when she was just nine for another project that didn’t work out and kept in touch. His memory of the actor’s piercing eyes who “spoke without words” stuck with him and she was at the top of his wish list.
Working with Bhatt was fun. “She is very good at her craft, but doesn’t show her craft to the audience. It’s all heart,” says Bhansali. “Performers like her cut right through to reach people.”
The film contains countless set pieces, including dances and songs from Indian films.
Production took place in a large studio in Mumbai’s Film City, where Bhansali and his team built Kamathipura, Mumbai’s downtown red-light district. “We recreated the alleys and houses because it was impossible to shoot with a star like Alia [Bhatt] in a real place,” explains Bhansali. “We were on a 125 day schedule, so a large set was more convenient and practical.
“We didn’t do too many readings or rehearsals because I don’t like rehearsals,” reveals the director. “I feel like if I relive that moment too many times in the office, with too much precision in reading, you lose spontaneity on set.”
One of the most challenging scenes was when Bhatt’s character, Gungubai, calls her mother after many years. The operator keeps interrupting the tense and emotional exchange. Bhansali realized he had to take the scene – and the people around it – back immediately and evoke a specific reaction from his star.
“[Bhatt] didn’t get into the zone,” recalls Bhansali. “I suddenly looked at her staff, her makeup artist, her hairdresser and yelled at her. I pretended they were laughing at me while I tutored Alia. I wanted a reason to just scream and make her (Batt) angry.”
It worked. Bhatt delivered the emotionally charged and pivotal scene in Gungubai’s story perfectly. With the scene in the can, Bhansali explained to his relieved star that he actually dreamed up the spit to rouse the anger-driven energy at the moment that was demanded.
Gangubai Kathiawadi debuted at the Berlinale 2022 and, after a successful theatrical release, has become the world’s most watched Indian title on Netflix. Gangubai Kathiawadi is supported by the director’s Bhansali Productions along with Mumbai’s Pen India.
Bhansali describes the film as “my most intimate, personal work. There’s an inherent violence, emotional violence in the scenes, a constant sense of insecurity,” he says. “I had to constantly pay attention to those little elements and change my style of filmmaking. It’s different from the other films I’ve done.”
“There are so many unsung heroes in life. Gangubai’s story needs to be told.”