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Top Indian actor Alia Bhatt is having one of the best years of her life, starring in three of the biggest hits of the year, “RRR,” “Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva” and “Gangubai Kathiawadi.” Her first production, Netflix’s “Darlings,” was a smash hit for the service. And the star also became a mother recently. “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” directed by Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is now amidst campaigns for both the Oscars and the BAFTAs. In her first major interview since she became a mother, Bhatt breaks down her “Gangubai Kathiawadi” journey. Based on the book, “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” written by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges, the female empowerment tale tells the true story of young Ganga, who runs away from her small town of Kathiawad to pursue her dreams of becoming a movie star, but is betrayed and sold to a brothel in Bombay’s infamous red-light district, Kamathipura. She gradually transforms into Gangubai, the matriarch of the district. She becomes the voice of the suppressed and makes it her mission to try and legitimize a tainted profession that dates back to ancient times.

Variety: Sanjay Leela Bhansali said you heard him out quietly when he discussed the role of Gangubai with you, went away without saying a word and came back the next day ready to surrender to his vision. What transpired during that time that you were away and what made you agree to the role, apart from the obvious pleasure of working with him?

Alia Bhatt: It was my dream since I was a little girl. I met SLB first when I was 9 years old, when I auditioned for a film of his called “Black.” Out of that audition came the prospect of doing another film with him as a really young girl, for which we did music sittings, etc. But eventually, he never made that film. So that thirst, and that desire to work with him as a filmmaker, as a mentor started at that age. And I always waited for that moment, for him to come to me with the film that he felt that I would be able to portray, and do justice to his vision.

For “Gangubai,” the story really scared me at first — the magnitude of the character and what she did and what I would then be required to do, I was very scared, I almost did not believe I’d be able to really pull it off. I thought I was too young. But he believed it and then I had no business not believing it.

It was just the doubt that I had with myself because of how different this part was from me. I always knew I was going to work with Sir [Bhansali] — there was no way in hell that I would land up saying “No, I can’t do this.” It was just a matter of convincing myself that I can do it. And then it just was all taken away by the sheer desire of like, “Listen, this is the biggest opportunity that you’ve waited for for such a long time.” So even if you’re doubting ourselves, it’s a good thing. Doubt is the key to knowledge, as they say. Doubt makes you push, doubt makes you work hard, doubt makes you not take the opportunity for granted. And that’s exactly what happened. I just rushed back saying that, “Sir whatever you want me to do, and whatever you expect out of me, I will try and give you 1000 more percent of that and I just surrendered completely to that journey.” And honestly, the biggest takeaway from the experience with all the love that we got for the firm and all the appreciation, was the journey Sir and I worked on for those two years and that relationship and that equation that we shared.

Bhansali also said about you that you come from a high society upper-class background but you became Gangubai very soon. Could you please describe the process of how you transformed into Gangubai?

The Kamathipura set was the first time I’d walked the streets of that area. There was little to my imagination, to be very honest, because I had, like Sir said, come from a very protected background. I’d not even gone and done that kind of research that you physically can go and do of these areas because that opportunity also never came about, it just never happened. So my knowledge was all Sir’s knowledge, my understanding was all Sir’s understanding. So the process of discovering Gangubai all happened through conversation through Sir’s lens, and a lot of conversation. It was not just talking about the scene — it was just talking about his experiences.

I saw a couple of documentaries that he asked me to see — he said, “watch this film for this moment, watch this film for that section.” He just kept feeding me with inspiration and information. And I’m very much like a sponge — if I hang out with a person for a full day by the end of the day I land up speaking like that person. So I would just soak everything in. And that became our process just very naturally.

I don’t like to sort of break down process or talk about process because I feel like art it’s not like science. It doesn’t have a method to it, you can have a method to your discipline and to the way you approach your work, but at the end of the day imbibing a personality or behaving or talking or feeling doesn’t have a process. My conversations with Sir, experiencing the world through his eyes, became my process.

What background prep/research on the period and character did you do before embarking on the role?With some actors, positive aspects of a character stay with them long after the role is done. Did you retain any of Gangubai’s positive characteristics?

The prep and research that we did was again, all through conversation, I read the book, we met the author spoke to him about certain certain characteristics that were unique to Gangubai, the way she would speak to people, the mind games she would play, how theatrical she was — she wanted to become an actress, she exuded that aura. The positive things that I learned from her, which is actually very, very similar to my personality is that she never let that childlike innocence go, even though she was fighting this big bad world, and being a part of this big bad world, so to speak. Her innocence and her vulnerability was intact, despite having to play this very strong role for these women. It’s something that I feel sometimes also gave me a lot of guts, to speak in a big room. I’m constantly told how young I am and it’s always been that way since since I started working. So very often, I would just feel a little nervous to speak my mind or say anything, because I was so young, you just feel like you don’t really have a place in the room. That’s something that it gave me — a lot of confidence to speak and to go with my gut and to say what I need to say. That’s one thing that I felt very strongly from this character.

In your career so far, you have played an immense range of characters. Going beyond a great script/director/banner/co-stars, what is it that you seek when saying yes to a role?

Honestly, when I say yes to a role, I’m just seeking an experience that I can totally lose myself in. And I’ll be very honest, it’s doesn’t happen all the time. Gangubai, is that one special really, once in a blue moon kind of experience. And I keep saying this to Sir that I feel like he’s totally spoiled me, it’s gonna be very difficult for me to up this experience. But I don’t think of it too seriously. I just want to lose myself to a certain world, not just a character I like, I like going for worlds, every character, every aspect of that film. And that experience should be just a little sweet bubble-ish world, which I just get lost in.

Has motherhood changed your outlook on the world in general and acting roles in particular?

Motherhood has changed me so much in the span of — I mean, it’s, as I give this interview, it’s barely been a month, just over three weeks, but I don’t know about how it’s going to change the way I pick my roles yet because I haven’t gotten to thinking about that. But it’s changed the way I look at everything. I just think my heart is a little bit more open than it was before, I don’t know what change that is going to bring about. But we’ll see. I’m excited to see how that journey pans out.