'The pressure was very high because I am not a Saroj Khan or a Vaibhavi Merchant.'
'I am someone from a reality show.'
'I was a nobody who was given an opportunity to express myself in the best way I could.'
'If there is any shot that can be played when I breathe my last, it would be Alia doing that shot,' Sanjay Leela Bhansali had said at the Berlin International Film Festival, about Alia Bhatt's emotional high point in the Dholida song from Gangubai Kathiawadi.
High praise indeed, and Choreographer Kruti Mahesh revels in it.
The Dance India Dance choreographer, who also designed the choreography for Deepika Padukone's Ghoomer in Padmavaat, and won a National Award for it, tells Rediff.com Contributor Sameena Razzaq, "What happened in that take was absolutely designer. When we finished that shot, everybody on the set was overwhelmed."
Ghoomar is still fresh in people's minds and now you have come up with another masterpiece in Dholida.
It is Sanjay Leela Bhansali's guidance, his vision that I try to execute.
If you have a director like him, I don't think anybody can go wrong.
I try to do justice to the song and to the actor who is going to perform it.
I make sure I don't give a very difficult choreography.
Every time I get a new song, I always think what different can I do with it?
Dholida is different in the sense that Gangubai is the hero on every level so there had to be a manliness to it along with the femininity.
The biggest highlight of Dholida is the trance dance at the end where we see Alia twirling, bringing to fore all her madness. Whose idea was that?
Sanjay sir was like Gangu should not be dancing in a group; it had to be a transcending moment where she can just let go of whatever she has been going through.
It was Sanjay sir's idea of throwing the gulal and making it look like it's not just dance, but something more spiritual.
What you see as the last shot is a lot more than what the idea was.
We had done that shot a few times before, so Alia had gone to a point where her body had given up. She was mentally and physically exhausted.
I remember I went up to her and said, listen, we got what we need, but if you can just push yourself to one last take, it will be great.
I had a back injury then. So even though she was really exhausted, she looked at me and said, okay, I am doing it for your back.
I will never forget that.
Anything could have gone wrong, but nothing did. Everything fell into place.
What happened in that take was absolutely designer.
When we finished that shot, everybody on the set was overwhelmed.
Alia said she did not rehearse for the last part of the song.
She did rehearse, but only on set. It was not like a well rehearsed situation.
Alia doesn't like to rehearse too much because it gets over-rehearsed and doesn't come naturally.
I designed the shot along with Steadicam operator Sandeep Shetty and once we finished, Alia saw it a few times.
However, she did do the steps couple of times and then we went on for the take. So it was not a well rehearsed thing; we wanted her to just let go.
Despite all the praise Alia has received for Dholida, she calls herself a bad dancer. Does she really have two left feet? How would you rate her as a dancer?
She doesn't have two left feet and she is not a bad dancer at all.
In fact, she is a very, very, good dancer.
There are actors who are trained for years and they know the techniques of arched back, hand, shoulder... But in Alia's case, she may not be a trained dancer, but she is a fantastic performer.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali said at the Berlin International Film Festival that if he gets a chance to see a moment from his films when he dies, he would choose to watch the Dholida trance moment where Alia is twirling. This is how special the song is for him. Does this give you goosebumps?
What more do you want when you have a director saying that one of the choreography pieces is his most favourite?
It's his film at the end of the day. We do what he envisions. I am just happy I get to be a part of that.
This is a genius whose films I have grown up watching.
I have danced on Nimbooda, I have danced on Tadap Tadap.
Every film of his has been so memorable.
I have seen Indian cinema very differently because of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, so if he says something like this, it's a big big achievement for me.
What was shooting with Alia like?
We were suppose to shoot Dholida in January 2020, but we ended up shooting it the following January because of the COVID situation.
We rehearsed for three weeks and Alia rehearsed for about 8 to 10 days. Then we shot the song in about six days.
Alia is a very soft person.
At the same time, she is fantastically mature for an actor of our generation.
The moment the camera is on, she knows what she needs to do.
She becomes the character.
She doesn't keep any grudges and doesn't throw tantrums.
She is very easy to work with.
We share a fun relationship.
There are so many things that are happening on the set as opposed to that you see. It's not glamorous at all when you are working on a set, so it does get stressful and exhausting.
But Alia, I have realised, doesn't take load.
Gangubai Khathiawadi has two garba numbers and both have been choreographed by you. Most garbas look the same. How did you ensure one is different from the other?
I was genuinely very apprehensive about this in the beginning.
I was scared also. but you know it was like a 'Darr ke aage jeet hai' kind of situation for me.
Sanjay sir has already done a Dholi Taro and Nagada Sang Dhol, which are very popular garba songs from a Bhansali canvas.
So when there comes a responsibility of having a Gangubai, who comes from Kathiawad, and to have a spiritual kind of garba, it is not easy.
Also, this garba has so many layers to it. It is based in Bombay, so there is a lot of Bombaiya flavour to it.
I had to go through lot of research to form a vocabulary for this song.
The other garba number is very fresh, naive and fun. It is almost like a cardio you would do on a Navratri night.
It's like friends going out and having fun on a garba night. It's beautiful in its own way.
Ghoomer got you a National Award. It doesn't get bigger than this in India. What was the brief given to you for that song?
For Ghoomar, the brief was very simple. I had already worked with Bhansali sir, so I wasn't worried.
When he called me for Padmavaat, he was like, this is a Rajputana Ghoomar, not the folk Ghoomar that you see. So what you will bring to the table?
When he said things like this, it's a natural tendency to go on high alert. Plus, he said that was his favourite song.
Obviously, the pressure was high.
Luckily, we had Jyothi D Tomarji, who was a Ghoomar expert. She had trained with a Rajputana lady Maharanisaa, who understood the nuances of the Rajputana Ghoomar.
It was a very difficult song for me on many levels because it was my first independent song with Sanjay sir.
Right from understanding his vision and how he wanted to execute it and how I needed Deepika and the dancers to look for him, the vocabulary of that entire song, the placement, the visuals... it was an entirely different take on what I had been doing before.
The pressure was very high because I am not a Saroj Khan or a Vaibhavi Merchant. I am someone from a reality show.
I came from a background of a Tamil Brahmin, middle class, family.
I was a nobody who was given an opportunity to express myself in the best way I could.
So what was choreographing Deepika Padukone like?
Deepika is very professional.
When I was working with her on Ghoomar, she was very punctual.
She would rehearse for two hours every day.
She is very focused.
The moment she saw one of the rehearsals of my team and me with Sanjay sir, she fell in love with Ghoomar.
When an actor loves the song, they bring a lot more to the table than just taking instructions.
Deepika wanted to own it, and that itself was a brilliant start for Ghoomar.
Deepika was genuinely the Ranisaa, the only one who could have done Ghoomar.
I am happy that I got to work with her because I started assisting Remo (D'Souza) sir on Balam Pichkari, which had Deepika. So my journey as an assistant choreographer to an independent choreographer had Deepika. She will always be special to me.
What do you think of Deepika as an actress and dancer?
She is fantastic.
I don't think anybody could have done Mastani the way she did.
Sometimes, tall people find it difficult to use their arms and limbs because they are so tall.
She is also very aware of her body and how she will look when she does a certain thing and what her body will look like if she bends a little more.
This comes when you are in tune as a dancer.
Did you face that famous Bhansali temper at any time?
I wouldn't call it temper.
I have had days where scripts were changed.
I think it's completely justifiable to a person who is trying to be true to his film and if I don't get that as a person who is part of his film, if I don't understand the director's psyche on a certain thing, I don't think I deserve to be there.
For me, it's been a learning experience.
Changes are always good. If you don't understand change as Sanjay sir does, then you cannot be on his sets.
There are some things where he is instantly happy. For example, when I showed him the first chunk of choreography for Dholida, he fell in love with the steps immediately.
Similarly in Ghoomar, there was something that didn't happen till the last minute and when it did happen, he was so happy.
Most of your work has been with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. What opened the doors of Bhansali Productions for you?
Sanjay sir himself opened the doors of Bhansali Productions for me.
He called me after seeing me on the reality show.
The crux and motivation for me to be on that show has been my dad. I was there to fulfill his last wish.
I remember I got a call from Bhansali Productions that Sanjay sir would like to meet me.
This was in 2012.
I was a part of Dance India Dance Little Masters, training little kids.
It was hard for me to believe a genius who had created magnum opus films wanted to speak to me.
I walked into his office and couldn't believe I was sitting with Sanjay Leela Bhansali!
I remember him telling me I watched you on the show and I think you are fantastic.
Then he asked, would you choreograph if I gave you a song? Would you be anything like Saroj Khan?
Sarojji is a legend; I don't think I am even close to her. But I said, 'Sir, I will give you my 200 percent.'
That was my first meeting with him.
Every time I work with him, I am actually a blank book. I am there to imbibe every action he makes, every little thought process, every eye movement...
That man works at God's speed.
I have not gone to any film school or a choreography institute.
He himself is such an institute that every time I go to him, I know I am going to learn something new.
At the same time, I am there to push myself to do something I did not do in the previous film, or even the previous day.
He is always encouraging and approachable.
He always says, if you don't think out of the box and let go of your inhibitions, you will never be able to grow.
Tell us about your journey.
I have done my master's in forensic science from the London South Bank University.
Dancing has always been a hobby and a passion.
I have been trained in Bharata Natyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi.
I have done ballet for a few years.
I never thought of choreography as a profession.
My dad always believed that I am supposed to be in the field of art, but I was in denial for a very long time.
It was only after his death that I thought I should give it a go and see what happens.
I never imagined I would be choreographing, let alone a Bhansali film. It's been a 180 degree change for me.