Sanjay Leela Bhansali's fascination with the sex worker is not new. Before Gangubai, there was Gulabji in Saawariya, and before her, Chandramukhi in Devdas. The writing and treatment of each has been different, Gangubai coming out as perhaps the most mature and honest of the three, often brutally so.
Like Madhuri's iconic Chandramukhi, Gangu has angst and loneliness seeped deep in her character. Unlike Chandramukhi, who handled her circumstances with grace, restraint and piety – Gangu counters pain with a fiery tenacity. While Rani's Gulabji was content finding the happiness in life, Gangu goes several steps further – she is seeking dignity, respect and eventually, power.
"Genrelist?", we see Gangubai inquire to a journalist in one scene. "Prostitute," she introduces herself smiling, with a firm handshake. There is pride to her admission, not the pain or shame we are conditioned to associate with the trade. Throughout the film, Gangu refuses to be a sex worker resigned to her fate, becoming instead, one who actively charts her own destiny.
Based on the scantly documented life of Gangubai Harjivandas, Mumbai's "mafia queen" of the 50's, the film begins with a teenage Ganga coming to the city with the dream of becoming a heroine. Her lover however, dupes her, selling her to a brothel for a thousand rupees – transforming Ganga to Gangu, and Gangu to Gangubai – madam, politician and guardian angel to the girls of Kamathipura, Mumbai's infamous red light district.
As Gangu is "broken into"- tortured, beaten, assaulted and forced to mature overnight, the viewer is a helpless bystander. Bhansali's frames are embellished as always, but the emotions are raw and real. He envelopes us in darkness as we hear the teenager scream and weep, making for an uncomfortable but hard-hitting first half. Alia Bhatt grows into the character effortlessly, imbibing dialect, style, body language and energy in a performance to remember.
The cast includes Seema Pahwa breaking away from her typical funny-mother typecast to act in a darker zone, as the brothel's money-hungry, heartless madame. In his memorable, though limited screentime, Vijay Raaz plays the trans-woman Razia Bai who holds Kamathipura's politics to ransom. Shantanu Maheshwari is earnest and likeable in his debut role as Gangu's lover, as is Indira Tiwari as her friend Kamli. Ajay Devgn too makes a neat cameo as Rahim Lala, the local don. He takes in Gangubai as his sister, and she sees him as "Khuda". That said, he isn't the macho man saving the day, rather just another enabler of Gangu's grand rise to power. The film is hers alone, and Alia owns it with conviction.
Gangubai becomes the madame of her brothel, president of the district, and soon begins to look out for the entire community of Kamathipura. In many ways, she becomes to these women what she wished for, but never had in her own initial days as a sex worker. Alia fully sinks her teeth into the role of the evolving mafia queen who does pehelwan-esque work outs and doles out cash as if it were nothing. In one scene, Gangu eagerly sets her hair in place when she hears a journalist had arrived to take her picture. The filmy heroine in her hasn't been completely extinguished. However, her crushing reality and subsequently, newfound purpose, has reduced it to a wisp of its former self.
At one stage, Gangubai has won everything Kamathipura affords her, and yet, has little for herself. Her romantic fling with the tailor's son Afshan is shot almost fully in moving vehicles, as if in constant flux, away from the realities of her circumstance and the disapproval of society. Most of Gangubai's relationships are instruments to reach her goal, making her seem stone-hearted in moments, and opportunistic in others. For herself and her people, she makes peace with this, and the solitude it brings. When a heartbroken Gangubai weeps on a swing, listening to a distant qawwali, her pain is hers alone.
It is interesting that Gangubai misses most elements of the trademark Bhansali grandeur, and yet has been described by the director as his most personal film. The tones are muted, the costumes lack splendour and the lighting is dim; shot entirely at night. Yet, there are snatches of SLB – the Ravi Varma paintings that line the walls, the insulated fantasy of Kamathipura's gullies, and the callbacks to a bygone era of Bollywood. With hand-painted movie posters from the time, frequent references to Dev Anand and Madhubala, a film showreel projected onto a purdah in Gangu's kotha, Bhansali pays homage to the era of the great traditionalists of Indian cinema – a style of which he is perhaps the last flagbearer.
The film doesn't live in the delusion that Gangubai has won it all. For the the fatherless children of the prostitutes, she secures the rights to education and marriage. For the prostitutes themselves, however, she is unable to get even recognition under the law. As the film leaves us, a voiceover declares that while Gangubai was alive, not one girl of Kamathipura went unprotected. What of after Gangubai's time? The film makes you ask the question, but doesn't give any answers. The viewer is left to introspect.