Gangubai Kathiawadi Is Alia Bhatt’s World – And Bhansali Just Lives In It

The first half is intimate and specific, the second half suddenly reminds the film that it is in fact a bland biographical drama
Gangubai Kathiawadi Is Alia Bhatt’s World – And Bhansali Just Lives In It

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Writers: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari, Jim Sarbh, M.K. Raina
Sudeep Chatterjee
Sanjay Leela Bhansali

I have a complicated relationship with Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies. While watching them, I tend to be wholly immersed. Seated in the cinema hall, I'm enthralled by the opera, imagery, scale, sound, theatricality, the physical gestures, the beauty of violence, the violence of beauty, all that jazz. Most directors strive to make their films look effortless, but Bhansali thrives on the effort dripping from each frame. He counts on the madness showing. Yet, the second I'm out of the hall, the spell vanishes. Since Black (2005), the gratification is left at the exit door. I suppose it's the rude shock of walking into the real world after living in an epic for three hours. It's also something else: The senses are stimulated, but the mind – or the heart – rarely is. I'm often left with scattered memories: Ram and Leela shooting bullets with their eyes on Holi, the meet-cute on a battlefield between Mastani and Bajirao, a barbaric Khilji gnawing at meat, nurse Sofia breaking into a jig at a Goan bar, Raj and Sakina skipping over strategic puddles…and so on. Perhaps it's because Bhansali is not so much a builder of stories as a maker of moments. 

His latest, Gangubai Kathiawadi, has many such moments: each more lyrical than the next. Gangubai, the gold-hearted brothel madam of Mumbai's red-light district, wooes a man she likes by shuffling and flicking cards from her balcony. Gangubai falls for him over the course of a single-shot song in the backseat of a car, with her face alone conveying the elation and anguish of love; it's as though she remembers (the fate of) Devdas' Chandramukhi and Saawariya's Gulabji midway through her tryst. A power outage culminates in the shot of the brothel dotted with the glow of candles held by its resident sex workers. When a rival's goons arrive, Gangubai is so drunk after a romantic night out that she keeps hurling abuses into the darkness – in between hiccups – long after she drives them away. When her heart is broken, Gangubai's participation in a Navratri fest morphs into a swirling dance of pain. When Gangubai's suitor enters her room, she flips the photo of Dev Anand – her favourite Bollywood hero – away so that he can't see her flirting with someone else. When Gangubai phones her mother after 12 long years, she yells at the operator's voice interrupting what she hoped would be a cathartic reunion. While delivering a famous speech at Azad Maidan, Gangubai gets irritated by the photographers' clicking cameras. When Gangubai stands on top of an Irani cafe table after winning an election, she loses her train of thought and cackles with glee on noticing her bitter rivals watching from above.

I won't forget these scenes anytime soon. Or the uncanny sky over 1960s Kamathipura, where (feminine) pink shades jostle with (masculine) blues. Or the way Gangubai derives her swag – the shade-wearing, beedi-smoking, lilting walk, even her alighting from a car – from gangster Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn), the one brother-like figure in her life. But the question remains: Are these pieces of pleasure enough to indulge a broken puzzle? The answer lies in the kind of story Gangubai Kathiawadi chooses to be. 

Based on a chapter from S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges' crime anthology, Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Bhansali's uncomplicated spectacle is a tale of two halves. (Gangubai wears white, so the stylized sanitization of sex, bloodshed, drugs and politics – especially politics – is not surprising). The first half is intimate and specific, with the mild Ganga turning into the feisty Gangubai through experiences and people rather than pre-written destiny. Characters like a greedy brothel owner (Seema Pahwa), Rahim Lala, her boyish suitor Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) and evil trans woman Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) start to define Gangubai's evolution. These pieces are strung together not by a journey but a personality. Gangubai here is still a 20-something woman whose ambitions are rooted in a desire to belong. She rarely thinks beyond the next day, the next move, the next person she likes or dislikes, and the next battle for micro-power. The film flows from one time to another with unfussy transitions, with a fluidity rarely seen in Bhansali's heavy-footed historicals. Her life feels interconnected: You can sense Gangubai's episodes with Afsaan influencing her camaraderie at the brothel, or her brothel banter influencing her unlikely bond with Rahim Lala. All of them are established with a sense of continuity and permanence, like they are going to be private surrogates for a public life. 

But then they disappear. The second half feels like another film altogether – a disparate montage of milestones and speeches and rallies and macro-aggressions – almost as though Gangubai Kathiawadi is suddenly reminded that it is in fact a bland biographical drama. After a setup of emotional intelligence and curiosity, this is frustrating. The camera starts to revere Gangubai from a distance. The fantasy-realist production design starts to scream for attention. She becomes an ideological figure: someone who knows how and why she will be remembered in the future. The screenplay introduces a journalist so that the film can zoom out and speed through a checklist of what Gangubai is supposed to signify, not who she really is. She clashes with a school that wants to rid Kamathipura of its brothels, speaks in quotes and lavish phrases, and sets out to be the Mother Teresa of sex workers, fighting for the rights and dignity of her stigmatized community. 

It's not just her transformation from sex worker to social worker. The transitions that seemed unfussy early on now appear convenient; a single cut hides within it hours and days of conflict. Rahim Lala instantly agrees to make her a partner in his bootlegging business; Gangubai instantly supports a male politician who proposes a mutually beneficial arrangement; PM Nehru is instantly bowled over when he hears Gangubai quoting Sahir Ludhianvi from Pyaasa. A character dying feels like a last-ditch attempt to streamline her spiraling journey, but it becomes yet another isolated chapter in a legacy narrative. The climax – featuring a voiceover and slow-motion ride through the Kamathipura streets – reminded me of Delhi-6, another texturally rich film that started as cinema and ended as a moral-science book. 

But Gangubai Kathiawadi has one element that other Bhansali misfires didn't: Alia Bhatt. I'm not someone who believes that an actor can single-handedly rescue a faltering film. When the writing goes haywire, or when a hagiography emerges from the rubble of a collapsed character portrait, the effect is usually terminal. No amount of visual wizardry can repair a reductive gaze. But Bhatt's electrifying turn comes very close to vindicating the film's fractured puzzle of moments. Her Gangubai is in nearly every frame, so the verbal bravado of the second half becomes satisfying in form if not intent. The subtext missing from the script can be found in how Bhatt tempers the hurt of her voice and eyes: Gangubai is struggling to be proud of who she is while embracing the loneliness of who she must be. She often sounds unconvinced by her own showy feminism and courage – staring at people and places just that extra second longer, holding onto thoughts for a beat more than necessary, thus betraying the certainty that the film seems to so naively trust. The way she'd rather be hugged and caressed in Afsaan's lap evokes the tenderness that Gangubai sacrifices at the altar of reluctant toughness. The casting did feel like a gamble. But everything that was supposed to be a fatal flaw – Bhatt's frightfully young face, diminutive frame, urban gait – becomes a triumph in Gangubai's performative armour. 

In other words, Bhatt frames those disconnected flights as a performance within a performance. The recurring theme of cinema – Dev Anand posters, the theaters in the area, an open-air screening that ruins Raziabai's campaign – informs her unconventional nature. Ganga's dreams of becoming a Bollywood actress were exploited by a friend who sold her to the Kamathipura brothel. So Bhatt is essentially playing the role of a girl who is playing the role of a hero to 4000 women: Gangubai is, in many ways, fulfilling her dreams of acting and dismantling them at once. Bhatt consciously reveals the madness and effort – of pretending, rousing, inspiring, fighting, surviving, being – which in turn ties into Bhansali's characteristically effortful craft. So when I'm sitting here, five hours later, pondering over the stilted rhythms of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I'm effectively reflecting on the shape-shifting prowess of Alia Bhatt: a builder of moments and maker of stories. This may not be her film, but it is definitely her moment. 

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