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Utkarshini Vashishtha’s Long Road to Vindication

May/11/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
Utkarshnini Vaishishtha attending the
Berlinale in Germany
Utkarshnini Vaishishtha attending the Berlinale in Germany

Utkarshini Vaishishtha is one of a few female screenwriters in India whose film has grossed over Rs 100 crores (over $13 million), the gold standard of Bollywood. Her work on “Gangubai Khathiawadi” has helped see it become one of the most successful Bollywood film after the pandemic. The film is also receiving rave reviews for the performance of Alia Bhatt as the titular character.

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ is another of the long list of women-centric films made by filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has a legacy of making films based on strong female characters. His latest offering was in the works for 10 years, but kept taking a back seat to other projects, such as “Ramleela,” “Bajirao Mastani” and “Padmaavat.”

Vashishtha, a veteran of the television world in India and the Middle East, was working on a television reality show in India after finishing film school in New York when she was introduced to Bhansali, a judge on the show. Though she was part of the production team, she dreamed of getting into scriptwriting. Bhansali got wind of her plans and gave her “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” a book by Hussain Zaidi, and asked her to read the story of Gangubai in it.

“I read the whole book in a couple of hours and went back to him,” she recalls. “He told me to take three days, write 10 scenes, and come back.” Once he saw what she had come up with, Bhansali asked her to finish the whole screenplay in less than a month. But the production hit a snag and he decided to go ahead with the Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh starrer “Ramleela” instead.

Utkarshini at a promotional function of the film Gangubai Kathiawadi with Alia Bhatt and Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Utkarshini at a promotional function of the film Gangubai Kathiawadi with Alia Bhatt and Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Bhansali asked her to work as an associate director on “Ramleela.” He felt it was important for a writer to be on set when their words are being translated into spoken dialogue. Vashishtha recalls him telling her, “You get to see exactly how an actor interprets your scene, how the director interprets it and you have the whole department in motion. You can’t just sit in a room and imagine this is how your film is going to be.” The advice was perhaps instrumental in how the young screenplay writer visualized and wrote the scenes for “Gangubai…”

While “Gangubai Kathiawadi” marinated for nearly 10 years, Vashishtha wrote the screenplay and dialogues for “Sarabjit,” the story of an Indian prisoner in a Pakistani prison. The film had Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a lead role.

A Sanjay Leela Bhansali film is always shrouded in mystery till its release. No photography is allowed on the set, even by cast and crew.

“I went to the set but he doesn’t like anybody to take pictures on the set and then he has the whole set covered with this huge tarpaulin. The set resembles a giant igloo,” she says.

For any writer, recognition comes only after the film is released. Vashishtha talks about the long wait for that moment.

“That’s the thing with our work on ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ started 10 years ago. Then suddenly it is made and launched. Then, for everybody else, it’s current,” Vashishtha says. She says it is difficult to to do justice while discussing her ongoing projects.

Utkarshini with her mentor and guide, Sanjay Leela Bhansali

“That’s the thing with writers,” she says. “I can tell you all my projects, but you would know nothing about them.”

After the Bhansali film wrapped up, Vashishtha set up base in Los Angeles. She is working on an international series that she is really excited to talk about.

“It is fabulous, and I absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s an immigrant tale – the issues faced by men all over the world. It’s a very global tale, not just a South Asian one. I’ve lived on five different continents, so I’ve used all those experiences. The production details for the series are being worked out with a producer already onboard and will be announced soon.”

That will take some time. So Vashishtha will just have to wait for her name to be associated to another piece of riveting content.

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