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Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, renowned for his epic cinematic vision, now trains his sights on women’s empowerment tale “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” playing as a Berlinale Special Gala on Feb. 16.

Starring Alia Bhatt (2019 Berlinale selection “Gully Boy”) in the titular role, the film is based on the book, “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” written by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges. It follows 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.

Bhansali lived a street away from Kamathipura for 30 years of his life and the area’s residents left a profound impression on him. “These women would always be around and so they were somewhere a part of my growing up years,” Bhansali told Variety. “This will be my most personal work, a personal film that you make once in your life or twice in your life when you feel you’re saying a lot about yourself.”

Bhansali’s oeuvre includes several films featuring strong women characters, including “Devdas” (2002), which premiered at Cannes and earned a BAFTA nomination, “Black” (2005) and “Padmaavat” (2018). “The women who are weak, who are lost in this big bad world — this is a woman who’s fought for them,” said Bhansali about Gangubai. “It’s about empowering all these women and saying whatever you are, accept what you are. And I like that thought a lot where she says: ‘If you’re a teacher or you’re a professor or you’re a doctor or engineer, then I’m a prostitute. And accept me the way I am, accept my profession, because this profession is not going anywhere. We are the fringe of society but we want to be accepted in society, because society will not be able to function without prostitution, it will always be there.'”

“That belief in herself and that fight for dignity is what fascinated me,” added Bhansali.

The filmmaker was working with Bhatt, one of India’s top actors, on a film called “Inshallah,” which eventually didn’t happen. When he offered her the role of Gangubai initially, she went away without uttering a word but returned the next day and said that she would trust him and surrender to his vision. “She comes from a very high society, urban, upper class lifestyle that she lives in — for her to go to this world, to the other side of of it completely, we started working on her voice level to bring the note down, because she speaks slightly on a higher note, and the power in the eyes to find the attitude in speaking and talking,” said Bhansali of Bhatt. “And I realized that she has so much in her that she picked up everything so fast. And very soon she became that woman, she became Gangubai very soon.”

Bhansali said that Bhatt was unfazed by the improvisations he made to the script on set. He was also full of praise for Ajay Devgn (“Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior”), a massive Bollywood star, who has an extended cameo as a mafia don who supports Gangubai, Vijay Raaz (“Monsoon Wedding”), who plays an opponent of Gangubai and Seema Pahwa (“Bala”) cast against type as a brothel madam.

Next up for Bhansali is Netflix series “Heeramandi,” a saga about the courtesans of Lahore, which is in production. But for him it is all about “Gangubai Kathiawadi” until its global theatrical release on Feb. 25.

“I’m still living with Gangubai — even the last little guitar strain or the last little dialogue pause, I’m still obsessed with it. Till the film releases, I will not do anything else, then I feel I’m not faithful to Gangubai,” said Bhansali. “Right now it’s just Gangubai and nobody else and nothing else.”

The film is produced by Dr. Jayantilal Gada for Pen Studios and Bhansali for Bhansali Prods.