Women of the world's oldest profession plying their trade and fighting for justice in Bombay's Kamathipura in Nehruvian times are the subject of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Gangubai Kathiawadi. The period drama is, however, crafted meticulously not so much for factual accuracy as for effect. The result is an immersive film that does not feel overly stretched even though it runs a little over two and a half hours.
As is the writer-director's wont, he abandons the grimy, granular, journalistic view of the lives that S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges depicted in the book that the film is based on (Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands) and throws a grandiose, melodramatic patina over the exploits of the titular heroine who transforms herself from a grievously wronged girl to an intrepid activist for the rights of sex workers and their children.
It is with a fair bit of trepidation that one approaches the casting of the waif-like Alia Bhatt in the role of an assertive matriarch of 4000 prostitutes fighting for survival in a world where lust trumps love day and night, but the actress puts all doubts to rest with a marvellously lively performance that grows steadily on the audience.
Since Gangubai was a probably only a footnote in the annals of Bombay's underworld and the public in general have no idea what she looked like, we do not need to worry about the actress' physical resemblance with the character. What matters is that with the power of a stupendous star turn, Alia Bhatt brings the real-life protagonist alive so vividly that all questions melt away.
The period details are manifested in the songs that play in the background and the movie posters (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Jahazi Lutera) on the walls of Kamathipura and the cinema hall that serves the neighbourhood.
Ignore the fact that when an Urdu journalist shows Gangubai a copy of his magazine what we see is a periodical printed in English or that all the children born in Gangubai's brothel seem to be girls. These are but minor irritants in a cinematic essay whose ambitions are greater than those little niggles.
Bhansali favours broad and evocative brushstrokes to conjure up a vision of the rapid metamorphosis of a well-off Kathiawad barrister's teenaged daughter and Dev Anand fan who travels with her lover Ramnik (Varun Kapoor) to Mumbai with dreams of making it as a movie actress but is sold to a brothel run by a domineering Sheila Bai (Seema Pahwa).
She screams for help but in vain. The brothel madam does everything that she can to soften her up and ease her into work that she understandably detests but the experience women is quick to see beyond Ganga's innocence and realise that she is not to be trifled with. She becomes Gangu and then Gangubai Kathiawadi, the undisputed queen of Kamathipura.
The visually sumptuous character study, more baroque than 1950s Bombay, is at once sweeping and intimate. With the aid of relentless drama riding on several well-mounted sequences, which, of course, is Bhansali's proven forte, and an unwavering empathy for the lot of the women who are sold for a song and forced to make a living in a hellhole from which there is no escape, Gangubai Kathiawadi takes the shape of a compelling tale of one woman's individuality, tenacity and meteoric ascent to power.
Bhansali, who has edited Gangubai Kathiawadi as well as composed the film's songs, has able allies in production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray and director of photography Sudeep Chatterjee. Through a combination of fadeouts and fade-ins and the contrasts between the benighted world that Gangubai inhabits and the white sari that she wears, the film creates an ambience that despite being consciously crafted draws us in and makes us believe the story.
Itni roshni ki aadat nahi hai humein (We are not accustomed to so much brightness), Gangubai tells a couple of zealous photographers who click away with their blinding flashbulbs on as she prepares to address a gathering on behalf of her maligned sorority. She makes it her life's mission to dispel the darkness that engulfs the lives of women of her ilk. Gangubai Kathiawadi is a deeply felt account of that endeavour that seeks its goal against all odds. Anything less than a larger-than-life scale wouldn't do would be at odds with the essential dynamics of this film.
The technicians combine well to deliver just in a saga that essentially begins in the form of a coming-of-age drama. Over the next 150 minutes, it evolves into a rousing account of a tough-as-nails woman who takes on several whimsical brothel madams (including one played by Chhaya Kadam), a transgender rival (Vijay Raaz) in the election to the post of Kamathipura president and a school that petitions the authorities against the brothels in the lanes and bylanes behind it.
Ajay Devgn has an extended cameo as a mafia don, Rahim Lala. Jim Sarbh puts in an appearance as an Urdu journalist who takes up cudgels for Gangubai when the chips are down for her and the women she represents. Rahul Vohra, in a single-scene appearance, plays Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who grants Gangubai an audience in Delhi.
Shantanu Maheshwari is a young tailor who sets Gangubai's heart aflutter. And Indira Tiwari essays the role of Kamli, Gangubai's closest friend and confidante in the brothel. All of them make an impact notwithstanding the limited scope they have in the film.
A couple of scenes stand out for the powerful dialogues (Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha). One has Alia Bhatt's Gangubai going toe-to-toe to Vijay Raaz's Razia Bai in an Irani cafe; that she and her friends frequent for its bheja fry and nalli nihari. It crackles.
The other is an extempore speech that Gangubai delivers at a women's empowerment rally at Azad Maidan. It not only summarises the purpose of Gangubai Kathiawadi with exceptional lucidity and power, it gives Alia Bhatt an opportunity to hit her peak and sign off on a high.