Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films have an odd relationship with realism.
Sometimes the whole piece is a visual dreamscape (Sahara); Sometimes a film opens with a segment of rustic violence and then descends into a dreamy mythical romance (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela); Sometimes the two worlds collide when a warrior falls in love in the middle of a bloody battlefield amidst falling corpses (Bajirao Mastani).
Transcending space and time, these intense vibrations create an intriguing combination – to see a person open-eyed dreaming. It’s a difficult style to master – and it doesn’t always work – but when it lands, it kills. How would such a filmmaker then approach a biopic, a genre that requires a fundamental allegiance to realism? The answer is Bhansali’s latest film, starring Alia Bhatt. Gangubai Kathiawadi.
Inspired by the life of a famous courtesan from Kamathipura, Gangubai Kathiawadigiven its genre and milieu, may not easily fit 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 have been shot on one set. We get artistically designed street lamps, stately tongas, majestic minarets. Even everyday things – like the old dusty walls, the pamphleteed doors, the chaotic streets – have been airbrushed to impress and invite. The Kamathipura of the 1950s, in Bhansali’s imagination, looks less like a hapless corner of a new poor country and more like the confident colony of a ‘benevolent’ rulership.
The net result is filtered and controlled realism. A tongue-in-cheek follows: the protagonist, Gangubai (Bhatt), comes to Bombay to become a heroine, to star alongside Dev Anand, to live her life as if she were on a… movie set. (There’s even a voiceover at the end – no spoilers – reinforcing this confident style: “She came to Bombay to be an actress but ended up in the cinema.”)
Is that Kamathipura from Gangubai Kathiawadi, so the extension of an unfulfilled dream? Cinema is a recurring motif here: there are multiple references to Dev Anand, multiple takes from theaters and posters, even a small subplot where Gangubai literally uses cinema to outwit her opponent (Vijay Raaz). So this isn’t a traditional biopic, and the filmmaker seems to be well aware of that.
The film begins with present day Gangubai and then cuts to a flashback where she was Ganga and traveled to Bombay with her boyfriend who sold her in a brothel in Kamathipura. As with many Bhansali films, the shape is spot on.
In an early scene, Ganga celebrates Navratri at her home, dancing in a dizzying circle, and the camera doesn’t crop as if admiring the story in transition. Later, when the power goes out in Kamathipura, the sex workers stand in front of their houses with candles in hand and try to lure customers. The scene goes back to show an entire place bathed in candle flames – desire and despair, hot and cold, light and dark, all in one take. Even the trickiest part – her transition from Ganga to Gangubai – is accomplished with remarkable finesse and economy.
Two main forces drive 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 herself. A feat 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 enduring preoccupation 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 tradition – exploding through charged monologues, chiseled motivations and hungry misfits. But this film isn’t just about how it makes you feel, it’s about how it feels even. Like Gangubai, it moves with over-the-top assertiveness and imposing swagger – like the carnivorous coping mechanism of someone trapped in a jungle (similar to the protagonist), where confidence looks like retribution and threats hide pleas.
When Bhansali and Bhatt are in their element, it’s hard to look away. The tempo, the performance, the tonality – everything is in sync.
I wasn’t overly convinced by Bhatt’s cast when I first heard about the film, but everything I thought would work against her — her delicate face, petite frame, gentle demeanor — works in the film’s favorite actress. Her keen innocence and engineered aggression make you feel she’s still clinging to her past life – and the film shows it, of course. Do you remember the Navaratri scene at the beginning? It’s repeated later in Kamathipura, where Gangubai again dances in a dizzying circle and the camera sticks to her fevered joy in a long shot. Who is the dancer here: Gangubai or Ganga?
Bhatt is – by far – the best actor in commercial Hindi cinema, but here she is sensational even by her own standards. Her command of the vehicle is just so sure – so light and sublime – that it has an enchanting effect. Many Bollywood actors are good at the standard melodrama, Bhatt is too, but she does something else as well.
Her charged scenes often start on a conventional note — a hurtful complaint, an escalating voice that walks past the bank of tears — and just when you think you’ve got the scene, it’s there changes the scene and gives it a palpable realism: a runny nose, uncontrolled speech, a tangential irritation.
Once, after 12 long years, she calls her mother; The operator keeps reminding her that she only has 30 seconds left. Gangubai tries to ignore the voice, but when it can’t, it explodes and the scene reframes our feelings: we’re 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 that genius of Bhatt, an intricate triangulation of performer, performance, and audience, where the acting hides the actor—that consistently rises Gangubai Kathiawadi.
In fact, bhatt and bhansali are so effective that they manage to hide the many obvious flaws. But only up to a point. After a confident start, writing is painfully hackneyed.
Many plot transitions only need one sequence – literally – to move the story along. A client attacks Gangubai; She turns to a famous local don, Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn), whom she has never met, for help. He immediately agrees. When the police search her brothel, she bribes the boss – and that’s it, problem solved.
Later in the film, Gangubai again only needs one conversation to convince Rahim to make her a business partner in the illegal liquor trade. If that’s not enough, a journalist (an unforgettable Jim Sarbh) writes a cover story about her by asking her three questions (all leading to almost one-word answers) – and so on and so on.
This apparent sloppiness once again confirms Bhansali’s image: a director of intriguing vision and design, but with a limited capacity for political thinking. For Bhansali, a world exists for its own sake that drowns out everything else, but such an approach, especially in a biopic, can boomerang back, 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 won’t come out the wiser when it comes to the mechanics of the sex worker industry (and its intricate connections to the corridors of power). It doesn’t even do Gangubai justice, as it rather aims to be a hagiography – either cushioning or ignoring the troubling aspects of their lives – culminating in a bizarre, climactic voiceover that connects its ends.
Bhansali can do many things, but he can’t do moderation – sometimes it makes him rise, sometimes it makes him sink.