'I've spoken to Gangubai's soul.'
'I've had long conversations with her in my mind.'
'I understood her suffering, anger, joys and sorrow.'
'I had to connect to the soul of this amazing woman.'
'I think I did.'
Sanjay Leela Bhansali feels his new film Gangubai Kathiawadi is his best till date.
"It comes straight from my heart," he tells Subhash K Jha.
"I am so much more in control of my craft now than when I was started off. I've improved as a human being and as a film-maker. I've become more compassionate."
Gangubai is also Bhansali's most personal film.
"It's a tribute to my growing years. I spent the first 30 years of my life just one lane away from Kamathipura (Mumbai's red light area, where Gangubai Kathiawadi lived). I gave my all to this film. Every flavour, colour and texture that I remembered from my childhood has gone into this film," he says.
"I remember the walls of my chawl were colourless. Yet, that colourless palate is embedded in my mind. Every utensil in our kitchen, every visual from my childhood -- like the clothes hanging after washing from the second floor which would flap on the first floor, the stench of the gutters -- are all alive in my imagination."
Gangubai Kathiawadi is a dream that Bhansali nurtured for eight years.
"I wanted to make this film before Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram Leela. I've spoken to Gangubai's soul. I've had long conversations with her in my mind. I understood her suffering, anger, joys and sorrow. I knew why she needed to get up and dance. I had to connect to the soul of this amazing woman. I think I did."
Now that the release is approaching, Bhansali is nervous and anxious.
"It is so important for the Indian audience to watch films in cinemas. Movie theatres have opened up fully after two years. It is such a joyous moment not only for me but for the Hindi film industry to be able to return to movie theatres. It's a blessing, and not even in disguise," he says.
"Now we are hoping that the world will celebrate the life of this wonderful woman, who reluctantly became the voice of the women in Kamathipura. Gangubai was a messiah to the women of Kamathipura. She was ravaged by life, but she never stopped fighting and caring for the girls in Kamathipura brothels. This is a woman who is an unsung hero. I want her name to be mentioned in the history of Indian cinema."
The Berlin International Film Festival, where the film was premiered, has become memorable for the director.
"I cannot thank the festival organisers enough for the honour they gave my film. The premiere was on February 16. It was a full moon night. It was also a rain-washed, frosty night. The combination of the full moon and the rains was godsent. It was His blessing. The Devdas premiere had happened on a no-moon night: it was a lunar eclipse," Bhansali recalls.
"I always feel the hand of God in my films. At the most expected of times, when life looks unsure, God has brought down the rains. I feel they are a sign for me."
Bhansali and his team had to follow strict COVID guidelines during the trip to Berlin.
"It is difficult to travel with all the COVID guidelines, but it was all worth it. Gangubai Kathiawadi was the last film to be shown in the Gala section, so the red carpet event was quite something."
"The theatre where our premiere was held was the most spectacular theatre I had ever seen. There were 8,000 seat,s but we were allowed only 800 seats due to COVID restrictions. It was the most spectacular theatre I've ever seen. The screen was bigger than any I've seen in my life."
He says he couldn't resist watching Gangubai Kathiawadi with the Berlin audience.
"When the film started, I thought I'd stay for a while and then sneak away, since I had already seen it 300 times. But I just couldn't take my eyes off. I was in awe of my own film! The most wonderful thing was that just one hour after they opened the box office, all 800 tickets were sold out."
The Berlin experience has given Bhansali confidence for its Indian release.
"Birju Maharaj's, Lataji's and my mother's blessings are with me and my hard work. The audience at Berlin clapped at my song Dholida. They enjoyed the music, humour and anger of my film. They clapped for eight minutes after the film was over."
"When I heard that standing ovation, I got my answer. It made all the pain and effort worth the while."