Alia Bhatt is currently looking at an enviable slate of films in 2022. It begins with the highly-anticipated Sanjay Leela Bhansali epic, Gangubai Kathiawadi, set to release theatrically on February 25th, followed by massive projects like RRR and Bramhastra. Ahead of her film's premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, the actor talks about working with Bhansali, completing 10 years in the film industry and her roadmap going forward.
Anupama Chopra (AC): I want to start with a conversation I had with Sanjay Leela Bhansali about five years ago. I was interviewing him and said, "We think about the Yash Chopra heroine, but there's also a Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine." And he immediately said, "Yes, there is." He said, if Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari had a daughter, that would be the Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine: this idea of intensity, lyricism, poetry, self-destruction, and the strength to endure real pain. Does Gangubai fit into this mold?
Alia Bhatt (AB): Absolutely. In fact, I can't tell you the number of times he's spoken about Meena Kumari while we were prepping. I remember all those adjectives that he would use when he was describing [my character], they would never be without the opposites: 'strong but vulnerable, humorous but has anger and tension in her eyes: this but that.' There was always a 'but' to everything. And that's how life is; it's not a straight line. Even in the performance, he wanted two layers to come out. She's saying something, her eyes are saying something else. She's feeling something, but her eyes are feeling something else. Her body language is this, but she's actually feeling that. It was was extremely challenging but also what I enjoyed the most.
AC: This woman's circumstances are so extreme, and it is about a real person. How did you actually get into her head?
AB: Not everybody knows about Gangubai's story. Even I didn't know of it; I only learnt of it when I started working on the film. I read the one chapter of S. Hussain Zaidi's book (Mafia Queens of Mumbai) and then the script. But what I enjoyed about it was that there was a point A, B and C. You know how she came to Bombay and what happened thereafter. You know she gave a speech, you know she met Jawaharlal Nehru. But what's interesting is the way she reached those places and what made her get to those points. Why did she come to Bombay? She wanted to become a heroine. That helps you to carve the personality: was there a filminess in her? Was she a little dramatic or dreamy? She was very well connected politically. She became the mafia queen, she became Karim Lala's sister. But how did those things happen? She had the strength to hold a conversation.
These things are very enjoyable because you are creating. It's factual in terms of its plot points, but the in-betweens are the imaginations that you have fun with. Getting into the skin of the character of course involved an understanding of the basics of the world, the dialect, of her circumstances and the way she is responding to them. But I don't think anything would have prepared me before-hand to be the character that actually became on set. I was shooting this film for 2 years. That was my only world. It was just about Gangubai, I don't think I ever left that character.
AC: A couple of years ago, Ranbir Kapoor gave an interview at No-Filter Neha where he spoke about Bhansali's "dark madness." He said that he couldn't cope with it, but that there was no better acting coach than Bhansali. Would you agree with that?
AB: Firstly, I don't think he's a coach. He draws out of you. He doesn't tell you what to do. He pushes you to find it. It's very easy for someone to say, "touch this," "look up" or "say this thing with this or that intensity." He doesn't do that. He gives you adjectives and wants you to think about it and your body to start feeling it. It's not like moving from point A to B to C. It's like, find the A, then go to the D, explore the X, and then arrive at number 3. It's a completely different language and that's what I enjoy the most. He likes the unpredictability of performing and creating as well.
There are no rules, there is no one way of doing anything. And you'll never know what you'll find because he is all about the magic. He is looking for magic at every point. He wants it to hit it in the heart. I don't think there's anybody who is more interested in your ability and potential of really pushing. He is not satisfied, because if he knows that you have it, it will be push until you have really given it all.
AC: Alia, this year is your 10th year in the movies. And what an amazing year it is going to be. After this, you've got RRR and Brahmastra. It doesn't get bigger than that, right? As an actor, what are you really hungry for?
AB: I don't know. The thing is that we've all been in a pause for 2 years. I am waiting for the unpause to actually happen with Gangubai, then RRR and then Brahmastra. I also have my first production, Darlings, which I am producing for the first time. So, it's a great way to unpause and see what happens. I am not sure what I am hungry to do at the moment, I'm just sussing and seeing what keeps me happy. I am feeling a little less aggressive about acting and choosing films. It's somehow now become about doing whatever keeps you happy; whatever is exciting and fun.
In terms of acting, I'll find the joy in any genre. I do want to do an out and out comedy someday. I feel like I am a very funny person. And I would love to do a F.R.I.E.N.D.S. sitcom-like comedy, where I can just be funny. That's something that I want to do in terms of a genre. Otherwise, I don't feel like there's some bone in me as an actor who is not satisfied. I think I am past that.
AC: Tell me about your production house. You are in a place where you can get any film you want made. So why take on the burden of production?
AB: It's not only about fueling my engine. I can now use my fuel and fuel other engines as well. And at the end of the day, we are all contributing to cinema, we are all contributing to the magic of movies. So I realized why can't I be one of those people who's part of the creative production process? It's not about line-producing it, or putting the finance. Putting the project together, creatively holding the director's/writer's hand, and maybe not always starring in the film – that's something I want to do. If you ask me my next 10-year plan, it's about building my production house.
AC: What's the larger ambition for it? Is it about finding and funding new voices?
AB: I want to fund new voices and tell beautiful, heart-touching, emotional stories. Sometimes, even a strange psychological thriller. I want to tell stories that are unpredictable. I don't think I can do the big tentpole films. I think that requires a different mind and ability altogether. I'd like produce the kind of films that we now watch on OTT – the fuzzy, warm films that start a conversation. That's something I feel like mind is gravitating towards. I want to move to the position of a 'first-spotter'.