As Alia Bhatt starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi continues to grow from strength to strength at the box office, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is soaking in the moment of triumph. At a time when many questioned his decision of casting Bhatt for the role after the initial teaser and trailer released, the acclaim the actor is now receiving for her spirited performance is invariably making him have the last laugh. The filmmaker talks about the time he started seeing Gangubai in the actor, how a 9-year-old Bhatt who had once come to audition for a smaller part in one of his early films left him impressed, and the role he played in her performance.
Anupama Chopra (AC): Alia told me that she met you when she was 9 years old and she did an audition for Black. Then you cast her in Inshallah, which got shelved. At what point did you start to see her as Gangubai and what did you do to extract this performance?
Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB): I saw a very powerful person walking into my house when she was 9 years old. I was sitting by the dining table and my main door was right in front when this kid walked in with her mother. Her eyes reached me. She had come to audition for Black for the small girl’s role. I told Amita Sehgal, the casting director, ‘Not her. I want to save her for a film. I think this was a big heroine and a big star who’s walked in. She had a tiny build and curly hair, and there was something very special about her. She kept looking at me and I kept looking at her, and I felt there was some karmic connection I had with this girl. Then, we went inside the [audition] room, I asked Soni [Razdan] to sit, and told Alia to dance to “Dola Re Dola.” I wanted to see how much of a heroine she had in her, how much was she comfortable with the mainstream. At that age you don’t, but today’s kids are very well-versed. She came out with flying colors. Then I made her dress up and asked Ranbir [Kapoor], who was assisting me in Black at that time, to sit with her and take some pictures. I asked her to put her head on his shoulder and she said no, because she was feeling shy. Then I was talking to Soni when I suddenly saw her head go on to his shoulder. I have that picture of the two of them, which I sent her during her last birthday. It was a little black and white copy.
Coming down to Inshallah, it didn’t happen and I realized that I had blocked her dates and a lot of her time. She was very excited about working with me. So, I thought of doing Gangubai. I had written the script seven years ago. I wanted to make it before Ram Leela. So, I took that out and we started writing. A few people around the table looked at me and said, “But Alia?” And I said yes. They thought she wouldn’t accept the role, but I wanted to narrate it to her first. When she came and heard the script, she was flabbergasted. She said, “What is this? I want to be your heroine where it’s glamour, gloss and big dance routines. Do you think I’ll be able to do it?” I said, “Of course you will be. Trust me on this.” She told me she’ll get back to me on it the next day and literally ran out with her bag. So, I told the people in my office that this was not going to happen.
The next morning, she came and we were looking out for options when she said, “I’ll do exactly what you tell me to do. Do you believe in it? Then I’ll believe in it.”
I kept seeing Gangubai [in her] and the whole world, everyone, including the people in the office, felt that she was not Gangubai. But I said that she was, because here was a face that exudes so much power in the eyes. During the workshops, I asked her to go to Kamathipura, think of the attitude of people, the way they speak, the way they look, the way they stand and walk. There were lots of references given to her to bring the note down.
AC: She said you wanted her to watch Pakeezah (1972) but also Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005).
SLB: There was a very nice documentary called Born Into Brothels (2004). There was a French director who had shot Kamathipura. I didn’t want to take her there because somewhere, for her, as a character, when she goes there and sees the world for the first time, it should reflect on her face. I wanted her to explore.
She even started following the way I spoke to people. She understood that I lived one lane away from Kamathipura, so for me, that world was something that I have absorbed for 30 years.
I think we had a great chemistry. She understood exactly what I wanted. There was a little bit of discomfort that she faced on the first day, the first time she did a dialogue scene. She wasn’t understanding what I was trying to get in terms of the attitude because it was a very hard world. It was [about] a very hard, solid woman who speaks with an attitude. That’s how she controls the area. But after that first day, we never looked back. Then she was just flowing and feeling every bit of it.
Initially, when we would discuss the scenes, she would observe my tonality, attitude, what happens to my eyes. Besides that, I would make her participate, asking her about her take on a situation. Suddenly, she started contributing to how she wanted to do a scene, where she would want to do it. I cannot tell you how to do it; I’ll give you some text, I’ll give you the ideas, I’ll talk about stories from the past which has some relevance. Those are the things you give to an intelligent actor – a great actor – like her. When she started becoming Gangu completely, there was very little exchange. When you give an actor the freedom to think, to contribute, to become that person, because finally in front of the camera, it is her who was standing and saying the lines. It’s important that she contributes. That contribution is very valuable too. I improvise a lot, so after a point, she stopped memorizing the lines and play it my way. She never questioned it. If I said, ‘Alia, jump from here to there,’ she would jump with that conviction with which I would want her as an actor to. No questions asked. It was just her belief in the director and my belief in the actor because I know when she’ll jump, there’ll be something special that she will do to it. Every time I throw an ace at her, I’d get two aces thrown back at me. It was a great experience of working for 150 days with an actor who is just there, without the excess baggage of being a star.
AC: Sanjay, the truth is that you saw that she could be Gangu but even when that first teaser came out a year ago, a lot of us were like, “But she looks like a child.” So you say it was just pure guts? You just knew she could be there?
SLB: The whole idea was that a 16-year-old girl gets trapped into this business, discovers this sordid world and gets up and says, ‘No, I have a voice, I have my rights.’ I wanted that passion in the eyes. This girl [Bhatt] has very powerful eyes, there’s a certain amount of vocal power that she has when she explodes. There’s a scene in the film where she talks to her mother and explodes on the operator. Look at that.
When she was preparing for that scene, she was sitting on a chair and I wanted a certain atmosphere. Suddenly, I saw some of my staff were laughing or giggling. I presume that they were laughing at me and I exploded. The whole atmosphere on the set became quiet. It was my way of making those vibes reach to her, of feeling the nerves, of calling the mother, of getting that anger filled and at what note it should explode. I have never told her [about this], even to date.
As a director, I don’t like to give direct instructions to people because it limits the actor’s imagination. An actor like her should be given briefs of a certain way where you create what the audience has to feel, but how do you do it has to come from you. I feel that’s the kind of belief that I had in her. When she exploded on the phone and emoted, I said, “My choice was right.”
It took a lot of time for the people to [realize this]. When they saw her on the screen for the first time, that’s when they realized. I was having the last laugh. I believe that you have to look at an actor and say, “I can make you do this.” It is the job of the director to make you realize that, ‘Alia, you have so much potential. You can go global. You have that potential to make India proud. Leave those things that you’ve done, you have done very good films, but this is hardcore. This is a piece of my heart, of all the grime, grunge, humiliation and everything that I have witnessed in my life. I’m now going to let those demons flow out. Be a part of it’ – without having to say these words. She just went along with me and started discovering something about her. I saw this actor blossom. She found the full potential of what Alia Bhatt is all about.