February 25, 2022
Hands come into the screen, putting lipstick haphazardly on a young, crying girl’s lips and eyelids as eyeshadow. They dot her forehead with red and white, ending their ritual by pressing a stud into the girl’s nose, causing fat droplets of blood to drip down. “Now you look beautiful,” the matron says as the camera pans to her and a group of women. “Just open your legs,” another adds.
This is how filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali jolts us into the world of Kamathipura, Bombay’s famed red-light district. Its history goes as far back as the 19th century, if not earlier, when people trafficked women from all over the world, including Europe and eastern Asia, selling them into sex work. The girl being made up is Madhu; her husband has sold her to the brothel matron, and after days of the young girl not cooperating, the matron calls on Gangubai, who is allegedly the only person who can keep people in line.
Watching a Bhansali movie is like settling into your most comfortable sofa. You know what to expect: lyrical songs, lavish sets, haunting cinematography, a strong script based on an adapted story, and some of the best acting Bollywood stars have ever done (we’ll excuse the theatrics of Devdas). You’ll get all this and more in Gangubai Kathiawadi — a biopic based on the real-life story of a brothel matron who fought for the legalization of prostitution and education of the district’s kids. But don’t be surprised if the classic Bhansali ingredients often feel derivative of his earlier work.
What makes Gangubai Kathiawadi a distinct Bhansali offering, however, is its sole superstar: Alia Bhatt, who plays the titular character. No other person, many of whom have had memorable roles in Bhansali’s earlier films, gets remotely equal screen time — whether it is Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s Ajay Devgn, Padmaavat’s Jim Sarbh, Monsoon Wedding’s Vijay Raaz, or even fleeting love interest Shantanu Maheshwari (who looks very much like an almost-Ranveer Singh). Bhatt bares it all — her eyes trembling as she asks if her lover loves her or as she screams into the phone when she has only 30 seconds left on the paid line to speak to her mother. Her performance makes us almost forget the film’s shortcomings.