Gangubai Kathiawadi keeps Netflix afloat in India, all eyes on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi

Gangubai Kathiawadi keeps Netflix afloat in India, all eyes on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi

By now it is a commonly known fact that Netflix India is not performing well at all. Their recent attempts to pump up non-deserving films as their USP has fallen flat on its face. The fact is, Netflix India is currently floating on the success of one film alone, and that’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Since its premiere on Netflix on April 26, 2022, Gangubai Kathiawadi has become the number one non-English film on Netflix globally. The film has been watched for more than fourteen million hours and has featured in the Top 10 in Films in 25 countries across the world, including Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and UAE.

Pakistan has embraced Gangubai Kathiawadi like no other Indian film in recent memory. Gangubai Kathiawadi is now Netflix’s No.1 non-English film across the world.

“In many countries across the world, and that includes Pakistan and the Gulf countries, Gangubai Kathiawadi has made a deep impact. I receive messages from parts of the world that I didn’t know existed on the map,” divulges Bhansali.

Talking about how the film has been appreciated on Netflix, Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, “Gangubai Kathiawadi is a special film that I hold very close to my heart. The audience loved it when it was released in theaters and now, with Netflix, we are delighted to see how wide the film has been able to reach, finding new audiences. Its success on Netflix reinforces that Gangubai’s story of fight for justice for women is truly universal.” There are efforts to carry Gangubai’s story forward, especially for Netflix. Not only a sequel. There is also talk of a series based on Gangubai’s character and her exploits as a champion of sex workers.

The idea works well within the web series format, though at the moment Bhansali is way too preoccupied with his next project Heeramandi to give the Gangubai series a serious thought. Bhansali remembers how opposed his team was to the idea of a film on a female gangster. “At the brainstorming sessions, they all said, ‘No no, do this later. Do something else now.’ They wanted to keep me off Gangubai somehow by distracting me. But I was adamant. I wanted this to be my next film after Padmaavat. This is how it always is for me: I go through a churning when I finish a project. But somehow I always know what I want to do next. I was fixated on Gangubai for years now. I wanted to tell her story after Padmaavat, not before not after.”

Zeroing in on Alia Bhatt for the title role was not easy. Sanjay Bhansali was under pressure to sign Deepika Padukone for the role. But after three films with Deepika in a row, it was time for a break. Visionary that he is, how could Bhansali think of the petite elite, Alia Bhatt as a gangster? “I owed her a film. After Insha Allah (the proposed love story with Salman Khan) was shut down, I had decided to cast her in another film. At that time I didn’t know I’d be doing Gangubai next.I knew she had in her. It’s the eyes. And the power to scream through her silences. I have to admit Alia surrendered completely to my direction. Throughout the film, she remained thoroughly committed to her character and did not bring her moods, personal life or any tantrums to the sets. I’d say she is the most professional actress I’ve worked with.” So is Alia going to be in Bhansali’s next?

“I am not saying anything right now. For now, it’s Heeramandi for Netflix all the way. We’ve just completed the casting and pre-production is almost complete. We start shooting from the end of the month,” says Bhansali.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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