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#FilmReview: Witness the Birth of Alia Bhatt, The Superstar in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali injects his signature style made up of all his obsessions, while Bhatt rescues the film when it begins to drag

Suparna Sharma Feb 25, 2022

Alia Bhatt in and as 'Gangubai Kathiawadi.'

Gangubai Kathiawadi

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Shantanu Maheshwari, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari, Seema Bhargava Pahwa, Jim Sarbh

Direction: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Rating: ★★★½

Playing in cinemas

After two years of our on-and-off relationship, Bollywood couldn’t have thrown a more fitting welcome-back party than Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s colossal and heartfelt ode to a sex worker, Gangubai Kathiawadi

Like most Bhansali films, Gangubai Kathiawadi is a visually seductive spectacle, and like he does with all his leading stars, Bhansali mounts Alia Bhatt on a scale so grand that she feels almost cosmic — not of this land and earth. In return, Bhatt graces the film with a powerhouse performance that doesn’t just own the character she is playing, but also fires up the film.

Bhatt has always been a very fine actress. Her performances have always been sharp and measured. But here Bhatt outperforms herself. She weaponizes her baby face and petite frame to give her character the swag of a don and the sensuous allure of a diva. She goes from being theatrical and dazzling to soulful and emotionally stirring in seconds, almost making the theater screen swell and shrink at her will.

With her bravura performance in and as Gangubai Kathiawali, Alia Bhatt has grown in stature overnight. She is now an actor who can single-handedly carry a mega-budget, blockbuster film on her slender shoulders. And she’s just 28. She has only just begun.  

Set in Mumbai’s red light district of Kamathipura in the Fifties and Sixties, Gangubai Kathiawadi opens on a lurid, violent note. A 14-year-old girl, who has been sold to a brothel, is being decked up for business. Lipstick is slapped on her face and a nose-pin is pierced in. But she won’t give in. Her desperate flailing is driving away customers, so Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) is summoned — to talk some sense into her, to explain that there is no way out of the brothels. 

Gangubai arrives in a gleaming black car wearing a glamorous white saree and walks with the swagger of a veteran sex worker and a VIP. 

As she begins telling the young girl about her own life, we are in flashback, back in her home in Gujarat where girls in ghaghra-cholis and ethnic silver jewelry are dancing the garba. The camera follows Ganga, the pretty, young daughter of a barrister, as she elopes mid-song with a boy on the promise of a role in a film but lands up in Kamathipura. Sold to a brothel run by Sheela Madam (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) — a grisly gargoyle with dark maroon lipstick — she must now do as she is told.

We have all visited many Bollywood brothels. The majestic, Mughal ones in Lucknow, the garish ones of the Seventies and Eighties, the ones that promise Amar Prem, and the grimy, seedy ones in busy cities. In almost all of these we have seen girls being forced into prostitution, and later watched them standing outside brothels, their bosom thrust out, making titillating gestures.  

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Bhansali uses all the tropes of this stock filmy scene, but stages the transformation of young Ganga into Gangubai as a haunting moment of human tragedy. It’s a brief masterclass in how to put some power back in filmy clichés. 

Bhansali’s film is based on the story of Gangubai Kathiawadi as told in Hussain S. Zaidi’s 2011 book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai. And he recounts the real life story of Ganga Harjivandas chronologically, but with flourishes and embellishments that are now his hallmark. 

Gangubai’s rise, from prostitute to madam, begins when she is attacked by a customer. Her torso slashed from shoulder to stomach, she seeks the help of Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn) to settle scores. With that connection, and driven by her ambition and rage, she begins to grow in stature and clout. She first challenges Sheela and then Razia, Kamathipura’s powerful, transgender president (Vijay Raaz), to become the elected matriarch of Kamathipura, and lead the good fight for the rights of the 4,000 sex workers that, towards the end, brings her face to face with the Prime Minister.

Vijay Raaz and Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt and Vijay Raaz in a still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi.’

In between taking swipes at her rivals and acquiring a Bentley, there is a cute romance with a young tailor, Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari). They play a corny, romantic game of teen patti and go on dates only for Gangubai to have clarity about the sort of touch she craves — the one that gives, doesn’t want.

I am not a fan of Bhansali’s gender politics, especially not since he so lovingly decked up Padmavati and scores of other women in red ensembles and sent them to their fiery death (Padmaavat, 2018). But in Gangubai Kathiawadi, he redeems himself.

Bhansali mounts the story of a sex worker who rose through the ranks while taking swigs of Rani Chap daru as a tale of human grit, a theme he has explored before, in Khamoshi (1996), Black (2005) and Guzaarish (2010). The character he creates here and the world he constructs for Gangubai to inhabit is without sanctimony and pity. His camera follows her like an admirer and ally who sometimes levitates her with his awestruck gaze. 

At one point towards the end of the film, when Gangubai is heading to Azaad Maidan to deliver a speech and demand some basic rights for sex workers, she murmurs to herself: “Hey Bhagwan, aaj tak tune meri laaj nahin rakhi, aaj toh rakh le.” 

This candid acceptance, this honest embrace empowers Gangubai’s character and gives her street cred. 

Like he did in his earlier intense character studies, Bhansali styles Gangubai as a minimalist. White sarees, red bindi, thick wavy hair and a pair of embroidered blue juttis. But since excess is his nature, he can’t give Gangubai just one chunky silver anklet. She must wear two. It’s cute and adds to her swag. 

Gangubai’s feet, in fact, play a significant role in adding oomph to her character. In a nod perhaps to Sahibjaan, the inimitable tawaif played by Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (1972), we are often in conversation with them, at eye-level.

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In films about powerful, ambitious women, actresses are made to express, flex and flaunt their power by imitating the filmy mannerisms of powerful men. Bhatt walks that fine line carefully. She uses some masculine gestures, but keeps her character and its power sharply feminine because it is born out of that experience.

Alia Bhatt
Alia Bhatt in a still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi.’

When she’s out and about, Gangubai keeps her head covered with her short saree pallu, but her legs are sprawled out, even in polite company, conveying that her regard for the world outside Kamathipura is limited and has a short fuse.  

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is that rare breed in Bollywood — a director who has his own, unique cinematic language. Gangubai Kathiawadi carries his signature style and is made up of all his obsessions we have admired in the past. 

The film’s color palette is shades of blue with big brown-and-beige strokes and some specks of red thrown in. The film’s main set is Gangubai’s gully which is crowded with the usual antiques and vintage stuff. There are shops selling brassware and LP records and gramophones, a small theater under an overcast blue-grey sky.

There is a scene lit only with candles, and the film treats us to the three types of song-and-dance sequences that Bhansali loves so much: The Dizzy One where girls in ghaghras twirl with urgent, kinetic energy in a circle; The Mime, a romantic rendezvous that becomes a silent, teasing foreplay; and The Durga Dance where women unravel as they express their rage. All of them beautifully synchronized and shot with a swooning camera. 

But Bhansali’s films are also victims of their own excess. While his overwhelming pageantry levitates the story he is telling by giving it the heft and span of an epic, the spectacle sometimes dwarfs the human drama it encases. 

Towards the end, as Gangubai Kathiawadi winds its way to earnest activism and is engaged in a fight for survival, the film begins to sag. That’s partly because Bhansali wants to portray Gangubai as a pristine savior, and when there is no spectacle to orchestrate, Bhansali seems to lose his bearings. Just as the gash across Gangubai’s torso disappears after it served its purpose, so does all the sex work. When Gangubai the madam collects money, it’s from her illicit booze business and not sex work.  

But every time Gangubai Kathawadi begins to drag and wilt, Alia Bhatt grabs the film’s reins and rescues it by amping up the power. In several scenes, especially towards the end, Bhatt has some heavy-duty, seeti-maaro dialogue, and she delivers them all with the ease and punch of a pro.  

It’s been several hours since I finished watching Gangubai Kathiawadi and I still can’t stop gaping in admiration at Alia Bhatt’s performance. I plan to watch the film again. Not to treat myself to Bhansali’s beauty, but to witness once again the birth of a superstar, female.

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