Alia Bhatt Soars in and as ‘Gangubai’, Confirms Place as Best Actor in Commercial Hindi Cinema

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films share a curious relationship with realism.

Sometimes the whole piece is a visual dreamscape (Saawariya); sometimes a movie opens to a segment of rustic violence, then segues into a dreamy mythic romance (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela); sometimes the two worlds collide, where a warrior in the middle of a bloody battlefield falls in love amid falling dead bodies (Bajirao Mastani).

These intense swings, transcending space and time, produce a riveting combination – of watching a person dream with their eyes open. It’s a difficult style to master – and it doesn’t always work – but when it lands, it slays. How would such a filmmaker, then, tackle a biopic, a genre that demands a fundamental fealty to realism? The answer is Bhansali’s latest, starring Alia Bhatt, Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Inspired by the life of a famous Kamathipura courtesan, Gangubai Kathiawadi, given its genre and milieu, may not fit easily into the ‘Bhansaliverse’.

But look closely. If the question is how ‘real’ is this film, then the answer is embedded in the film itself. Two words: production design.

Just look at Kamathipura here, the whole thing seems to be shot on a set. We get intricately designed street lamps, stately tongas, majestic minars. Even commonplace things – such as the old dusty walls, the pamphlet-papered doors, the chaotic streets – have been airbrushed to impress and invite. The Kamathipura of the ’50s, in Bhansali’s imagination, looks less like a hapless corner of a new poor country, and more like the confident colony of a ‘benevolent’ rule.

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.

The net result is a filtered and controlled realism. It’s followed by a wink in a wink: the protagonist, Gangubai (Bhatt), comes to Bombay to become a heroine, to act opposite Dev Anand, to live her life as if she were on a… film set. (There’s even a voiceover at the end – no spoilers – that reinforces this self-aware style: “She came to Bombay to become an actress but ended up being cinema.”)

Is the Kamathipura of Gangubai Kathiawadi, then, an extension of an unfulfilled dream? Cinema is a recurring motif here: there are multiple references to Dev Anand, multiple shots of theatres and posters, even a small subplot where Gangubai literally uses cinema to outwit her opponent (Vijay Raaz). So, this is not a conventional biopic and – for better or for worse – the filmmaker seems to be aware of it.

The movie opens to the present-day Gangubai, then cuts to a flashback, where she was Ganga, travelling to Bombay with her boyfriend who sold her in a Kamathipura brothel. Like many Bhansali films, the form is spot-on.

In an early scene, Ganga is celebrating Navratri in her home, dancing in a dizzying circle, and the camera doesn’t cut, as if admiring a story in transition. Later, when there’s a power cut in Kamathipura, the sex workers stand outside their homes holding candles trying to attract clients. The scene tracks back to show an entire locality drenched in candle flames – desire and despair, hot and cold, light and dark, all in one shot. Even the most tricky portion – her transition from Ganga to Gangubai – materialises with notable finesse and economy.

Two main forces propel this drama, Bhansali and Bhatt, the literal and the literary.

If the director creates some stunning set-pieces, then the actor is a set-piece unto herself. A performance of such high-caliber and power that it should be accompanied by a ‘flammable’ disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. There are many ways to enter a film but my lasting engagement with Gangubai Kathiawadi was with its energy – a raw energy, a visceral energy, a white energy, a restless energy. This drama is invested in the myth-making enterprise – an old Bollywood trope – that explodes via charged monologues, chiseled motivations, hungry underdogs. But this movie is not just about how it makes you feel, but how it feels itself. Like Gangubai, it moves with exaggerated assertiveness and imposing swagger – like the carnivorous coping mechanism of someone trapped in a jungle (much like the protagonist), where confidence looks like compensation and threats hide pleas.

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.

When Bhansali and Bhatt are in their element, it is difficult to look away. The pace, the performance, the tonality – they are all in sync.

I wasn’t too convinced by Bhatt’s casting when I had first heard of the film, but everything that I thought would go against her – her tender face, her petite frame, her gentle demeanour – works in the film’s favour. Her distinct innocence and manufactured aggression make you feel that she still clings on to her past life – and the film shows without saying. Remember the Navaratri scene at the start? It recurs later in Kamathipura, where Gangubai is again dancing in a dizzying circle, and the camera stays with her feverish delight in one long shot. Who is the dancer here: Gangubai or Ganga?

Bhatt – by far – is the best actor in Hindi commercial cinema, but here she’s sensational, even by her own standards. Her command on the craft is just so assured – so light and sublime – that it produces a bewitching effect. Many Bollywood actors can do the standard melodrama well, so can Bhatt, but she also does something else.

Her charged scenes often start on a conventional note – a wounding grievance, an escalating voice, skirting the shore of tears – and just when you think you’ve got the scene, she changes the scene, imbuing it with palpable realism: a running nose, uncontrolled speech, a tangential annoyance.

At one point, she’s speaking to her mother on the phone after 12 long years; the call operator keeps reminding her that she’s only got 30 seconds left. Gangubai tries to ignore the voice, but when she cannot, she explodes, and the scene reorients our feelings: We are no longer passive participants (many of us haven’t experienced the same life as she has) but active confidants (who hasn’t been annoyed when interrupted mid-conversation?).

It’s this genius of Bhatt, an intricate triangulation of performer, performance, and audience, where the acting hides the actor — that consistently elevates Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Bhatt and Bhansali are so effective, in fact, that they manage to hide the many glaring flaws. But only till a point. After a confident start, the writing becomes painfully trite.

Many plot transitions just need one sequence – quite literally – to propel the story. A client assaults Gangubai; she approaches a famous local don, Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn), whom she has never met, for help. He agrees straightaway. When the police raid her brothel, she bribes its chief – and that’s it, problem solved.

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.

Later in the film, it again just takes one conversation for Gangubai to convince Rahim to make her a business partner in the illicit liquor trade. If that’s not enough, a journalist (a forgettable Jim Sarbh) writes a magazine cover story on her by asking her three questions (all of which result in nearly one-word replies) – and on and on.

Such obvious sloppiness reconfirms Bhansali’s image: a director with spell-binding vision and design, but with limited capacity for political thought. For Bhansali, a world exists for its own sake, drowning everything else out, but such an approach, especially in a biopic, can snake back like a boomerang, because such a setting does not exist in isolation.

Bhansali also shows limited curiosity about this world.

Even after watching this 156-minute drama, you’ll not emerge from it any wiser about the mechanics of the sex workers’ industry (and its intricate connections to the corridors of power). It doesn’t even do justice to Gangubai, as it’s more intent on being a hagiography – by either cushioning or ignoring the disconcerting aspects of her life – which culminates into a bizarre climactic voiceover tying its ends.

Bhansali can do many things, but moderation he cannot – sometimes it makes him soar, sometimes it makes him sink.      

This article was first published on The Wire.