In his historical epic Bajirao Mastani (2015), Sanjay Leela Bhansali evoked moving pictures in the ingenious scene where, through an arrangment of mirrors and a silk screen, the Peshwa's wife watches him in another part of the palace. In his latest film, set in mid-20th century Mumbai, there’s no need for allusion, and you can sense the glee with which Bhansali plasters the screen with movie paraphernalia. On the walls of the kotha in the red light district of Kamathipura where Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) lives, pinups of film deities—Madhubala, Nargis—outnumber mythological ones. On the street outside, there’s always a billboard or poster in view. There is one god in Gangubai Kathiawadi, and it is cinema.
Gangubai’s journey starts with the promise of film: her lover lures her to Mumbai by telling her she’ll become a star and act with Dev Anand. He leaves her at a brothel, the property of the ruthless madam Sheelabai (Seema Pahwa). From here on out, Bhansali maps her journey in cinematic terms. Her first act of rebellion is organizing a trip to the movies for the workers in the kotha. Years later, she arranges a community screening in the neighborhood as an election strategy. Everyone keeps telling her she looks like a movie star. The last lines of the film, their flavour somewhat lost in translation, are: “She came here to become a heroine, but she ended up as cinema”.
Almost from the beginning, the film maps a relentless upwards trajectory for its protagonist. Gangu suffers under Sheelabai for a few scenes, then transforms into the steely personality she’ll remain throughout. It’s a bit too quick, but not out of character for Bhansali, whose heroines of late seem fully equipped from the moment we lay eyes on them to deal with everything fate throws their way. After Sheela tries to regain the upper hand, allowing a sadistic local thug to abuse her, Gangubai makes a risky, life-changing move, petitioning the don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) for protection. It works, and overnight Gangubai is a woman of influence, pushing for better working conditions, and taking over the brothel when Sheela dies. In time, she stands for local election, campaigning on sex workers’ rights—and wins.
This sort of trajectory might sound like an impossible girlboss fantasy. But Gangubai actually existed, and, as per S. Husain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ nonfiction book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai, did most of the things attributed to her in the film, including meeting prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to request him to legalize sex work (Rahim is a stand-in for Karim Lala, one of the first legendary Mumbai dons). Addressing a crowd at Azad Maidan, she slyly suggests that sex workers are involved in the maintenance of ‘Hindustani sabhyata’, not its destruction. One can feel Bhansali speaking through Gangubai, given how systematically his last two films were attacked in the name of Indian culture.
When the trailer released, some suggested Gangubai should have been played by an older actor. In fact, at 28, Bhatt is the age the real Gangubai was when she sought Lala’s help. Bhatt doesn’t look much older at the end of the film than when she starts it, but then it only spans 10-12 years. Still, I do wonder what a slightly older actor—one less subtle than Bhatt but with a better death stare and more of a physical presence—might have brought to the role. You can’t read the toll of the years in Bhatt’s face, which remains moon-bright and unlined despite all the hardships.
When it comes to minimalism, though, she's in her element. The scenes where Gangu flirts with the tailor Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) are charmingly conceived, and a reminder of how much Bhatt brings to small gestures. In the romantic number ‘Meri Jaan’, they’re in the back of her car; he tries to get fresh and she rebuffs him (it recalls ‘Yeh Lo Main Haari Piya’ from Aar-Paar, a more chaste song from 1954 that also takes place entirely inside a car). Bhatt goes from coquettishness to annoyance to desire and regret, with just a few minor adjustments.
After the lavish Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat (2018), Bhansali, working with his regular cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, is comparatively pared down here, his bold colours replaced by a blanched palette. The framing and choreography, though, is as finicky as ever, and some of the visual ideas—a dead sex worker sitting upright, propped up by her grieving friends—are striking. What the film lacks is a substantial opponent for Gangubai. The closest it comes is Raziabai (Vijay Raaz), a trans woman whom Gangu challenges in the election. She remains a curiosity—just as the eunuch general in Padmaavat was.
It's no wonder Nehru turns up in a film that adopts the moral concerns of the 1950s films of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy. The link to ’50 cinema is made explicit when Gangubai quotes Sahir Ludhianvi’s famous lines from Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957): Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain? Time and again, it’s pointed out that Gangubai is working for the women of Kamathipura, for their children, for the betterment of society. I preferred the film in its more irreverent moments, like when Gangubai meets a reporter from the Urdu Times. Patrakar, he introduces himself. Prostitute, she replies evenly.