Sanjay Leela Bhansali: ‘Filmmakers enjoy tremendous creative freedom in India, we’re never restricted’

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Starring Alia Bhatt in the titular part, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is a biographical crime-drama, adapted from one of the chapters of noted author Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.

Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Wednesday said directors enjoy “tremendous” creative freedom in India and he never faced any “restrictions” during the making of his latest movie Gangubai Kathiawadi. Bhansali, who faced many hurdles before the release of his last film Padmaavat, said freedom of expression is “given and its full power is there” in India.

“I think we’re in a country where freedom of expression is given and its full power is there. We were never restricted. We were never stopped from saying anything we wanted to. We were never told what to say and what not to say. It’s completely up to us.

“So the kind of creative freedom that a filmmaker or an actor or a producer enjoys in our country is tremendous. And I think it’s very commendable that till now we’ve not been restricted or put into a corner and say, ‘You can’t do this.’ But no, we didn’t have to take any permissions or anything,” the 58-year-old filmmaker told reporters.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Berlin International Film Festival where Gangubai Kathiawadi is set to have its world premiere in the Berlinale Special Gala segment.

Starring Alia Bhatt in the titular part, the magnum opus is a biographical crime-drama, adapted from one of the chapters of noted author Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.

The period film presents the story of Gangubai, one of the most powerful, loved and respected madams from Mumbai’s red-light area Kamathipura during the 1960s.

Addressing a press conference ahead of the film’s screening, Bhansali said the movie presents a story about a “ferocious warrior” who was way ahead of her time and fought her the rights of sex workers.

“It is a story of a woman who was trapped into being a sex worker and how she fought. How she fought for dignity for women, how she fought for the girls in the brothels to be accepted in mainstream society.

“She asked for legalisation of the profession and all this happened at a time when words like feminism and women empowerment were not yet coined. But I think she was way ahead of her time,” Bhansali said.

The filmmaker, who previously directed critically-acclaimed movies like Khamoshi (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Black (2005), Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018), said Gangubai was a scarred woman but yet she decided to fight for others.

“What I liked about the character was that she was a very bruised, scarred woman, wronged by society and by the people she trusted but she was a warrior. So she got up and fought for everything that she believed that they rightly deserved, in spite of being in the profession. She said, ‘I’m a sex worker, and you need to respect me for it. You cannot take me for granted for what I’m doing.

“That courage with which she fought… a ferocious warrior that she was, that’s what inspired me to make the film,” Bhansali said.

The filmmaker also addressed a question about the prevalence of music in his movies, saying that he “cannot think of making a film without music”.

“I cannot think of my day passing without listening to music… So when I read a script, the first sound that comes to me is about what is the song? What is it doing that is coming to my mind and then I would jot it down or copy it or use a dictaphone to record it,” Bhansali said.

The filmmaker believes the music often helps in explaining moments that can’t be expressed through dialogues. “It just expresses some emotions which otherwise in dialogue would have gotten a little contrived, would have gone a little mushy,” he added.

Bhansali also praised Bhatt for her performance in the movie, especially the song “Dholida”.

He said the actor handled the song sequence quite beautifully and gave everything to it.

“I didn’t know if Alia was such a good dancer, but when she danced in ‘Dholida’… I thought here was an actor who finally transcended… It’s a very gooseflesh moment for me to even talk about it, that you transcend and forget who’s in front of you, what you look like and what you feel.

“She just became one with that character and expressed all our angst, all the anguish and all that she’d gone through in that one song. It’s a shot that I will take to my grave. I think if there’s any shot that I want to be played when I breathe my last, it will be Alia doing that shot because it is completely the best thing that I’ve seen an actor do in a very, very long time,” Bhansali added.

About her maiden collaboration with Bhansali, Bhatt said she had wanted to work with the director since childhood. “I have wanted to be directed by him ever since I was nine years old. That’s when I first walked into his house to audition for Black that he was making at that time. I did a terrible audition and did not get the part.

“But he looked at me and he narrates that story even now that he looked in my eyes and he said to himself, that she’s going to be a heroine. That means she’s going to be a big actor someday. So he saw that fire in my eyes when I was nine years old. And I think I remember very clearly, from that time onwards, my one point of focus became that one day I have to be directed by him,” Bhatt said.

Gangubai Kathiawadi will be released in theatres in India on February 25.

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