How the Indian Film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ Told the True Story of a Brothel Madam Who Became a Political Leader (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: “I wanted this story from Mumbai. I lived one lane away from where she lived for 30 years of my life,” writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali says

Already a massive hit in India, where it is the fifth-highest grossing film of 2022, “Gangubai Kathiawadi” is director-cowriter Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s rendering of a real-life tale of an Indian activist sold into brothel culture who went on to become a notable social crusader known as Gangubai Kothewali (among other names). The film, cowritten with Utkarshini Vashishtha, is a panoramic look at a most unusual life, told in long takes and epic form.

Bhansali revealed some of his process in conversation with Awards Reporter Joe McGovern during a virtual screening of the film as part of TheWrap’s 2022-2023 Awards Season Screening Series.

“When I called [Hussain Zaidi, author of “Mafia Queens of Mumbai” on which this film is partly based] and said I want to buy the rights, he was shocked,” Bhansali said. “He said, ‘This is the darkest story of them all.’ But I said I wanted this story from Mumbai. I lived one lane away from where she lived for 30 years of my life, and I’d pass by these brothels every day.”

One vital aspect of the film is that it tells this dark story with buoyancy, even in the form of musical sequences. “I genuinely connected to the character so much…all the songs and dances were not just entertainment. I think there were a lot of layers to it.”

And his lead actress, Alia Bhatt, was instrumental in navigating these tricky transitions, especially for a figure whose work lasted decades. Bhansali has known Bhatt since she was quite young, well before she became a Hindi-film megastar. “She said, ‘I’ve never been to a brothel.’ But I said, “Just trust in me. You have a certain emotional violence in you, a certain strength, a certain look…I’m seeing you in this role and nobody else. I said, ‘I’ve never made a film like this before, so we’ll both be in uncharted territory.’”

Watch the full interview here.