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Bollywood bets on Alia Bhatt for its next hit

February 16, 2022

As Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie "Gangubai Kathiawadi" premieres in Berlin, DW met lead actor Alia Bhatt, who portrays a sex worker turned underworld leader.

Film still 'Gangubai Kathiawadi': a woman dressed in white with her feet on the table.
The character of 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' is inspired by an actual historical figure from the 1960sImage: Bhansali Productions (India) LLP & Pen India Ltd.

Born in 1993 into a family of prominent Indian filmmakers, Alia Bhatt started acting as a child and is now a superstar in Hindi-language films.

Her films "Highway" (2014) and "Gully Boy" (2019) both premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. Now Bhatt is back in the German capital to launch her latest work, "Gangubai Kathiawadi," which is directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and based on the book "Mafia Queens of Mumbai" by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges.

In the film, she plays a young woman who is betrayed by her lover and sold off to a brothel. Knowing that she cannot return to her family, Gangubai nevertheless manages to become a political leader in Bombay's infamous red-light district of Kamathipura, fighting for the rights of her fellow sex workers.

DW met the actor in Berlin ahead of the world premiere on February 16.  

In your new movie, "Gangubai Kathiawadi," you play the role of a sex worker who becomes a very important figure of empowerment in Mumbai's red-light district. How do you feel about the evolution from your first roles, where you often played sweet romantic figures, to portraying strong women now?

I feel that doing a part that is very far away from what I've done until now and who I am in general, just gives me that much more of an emotional language to gain from and to play with.

I can say that after doing "Gangubai," I've opened up so many more facets in my brain, as a person, as a personality, about things people can feel or go through than I did before.

There's a feeling when you do romantic films that it's simple — a romantic film should always be simple. It should be emotions that you connect with. It's because you want the audience to feel light and not really have to deal with any of the layers that they're already going through in their lives.

But when you do a film like this, which is dramatic and poignant, and at the same time entertaining, you still have to keep it enjoyable. It's not something that should weigh you down, but at the same time, it should touch upon something which is beyond "just regular," sort of like giving access to another world. So playing a part like this one is always like food for the actor in me. It's extremely nourishing.

Do you have the impression that this type of role reflects a new direction Bollywood is taking, by giving more powerful roles to women, perhaps to inspire other women?

Well, there have been very, very strong films written for women in the past and even now, but there's been a limit to the ability of how commercially successful they could be at the box office.

And now you have a filmmaker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is the biggest filmmaker in India, and he's putting all his money on a lead female actor for a film he's making, and treating her like this larger-than-life character — like they've been doing for years with male actors.

When he's doing that, he's setting an example. And if that does well, then other directors will have the confidence to do it too.

Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Sanjay Leela Bhansali directed some of the highest-grossing Indian films of all time, including "Bajirao Mastani" (2015) and "Padmaavat" (2018)Image: Bhansali Productions (India) LLP

And is this type of very opulent production also a reaction to the competition from streaming platforms such as Netflix?

I don't think so. Opulent productions have always been Sanjay's go-to for his films, that's his ABC. That's just the way he looks at frames, you know, that's the way he looks at cinema. It makes him feel something when he watches visually intoxicating cinema, so he wants to do the same thing when he's making his movies.

That's why there are certain movies that you can't just watch on streaming platforms and I would say that this applies to his movies. But he's already doing a TV show that's going directly to Netflix, so he is exploring that medium as well. But I believe his movies are made for the big screen.

A film still from 'Gangubai Kathiawadi': A woman dressed in white in front a black car.
Alia Bhatt's larger-than-life character in "Gangubai Kathiawadi"Image: Bhansali Productions (India) LLP & Pen India Ltd.

You said in another recent interview that Bollywood is "the most brutal industry." What would you like to see change?

No that's not what I said! I said that being an actor and being part of the film industry is the most brutal industry, and I don't mean in terms of the industry itself — I mean in terms of the audience.

And the reason I said that is because I was talking about hard work. What I meant was if you are not hardworking and if you are not talented, you won't be given opportunities. It's the most brutal industry because your film, something that you may take years making, is either tick-marked or canceled in a day or two. So that's what I mean in terms of brutal industry.

So you have to be extremely hard-working, extremely present and value the opportunities you are given to survive in the industry. You can't be lazy, take things for granted if you want to survive.

So you still enjoy your work...

Yeah, for me, working in Hindi cinema, especially, you know, the movies that I have done and the relationships that I've encountered — it's like home for me. You know, you don't even sign a contract. I first sign a film based on my word and trust, and we deal with the contract much later. That's just the way it goes.

It's an industry that's built on trust and relationships and admiration for one another — strangers just being there for each other because it's all for the magic of the movies.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture