After the enforced pause of the pandemic, Indian cinema is all set to supersize again in 2022. Advanced notice was served via December's rowdy Pushpa: The Rise, a surprise success from a region that recovered from Covid sooner than most; SS Rajamouli's long-awaited Baahubali follow-up RRR opens - in multiple languages - this week. In between, we've been treated to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's remarkable Gangubai Kathiawadi, a period crime saga - drawn from the pages of Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges's non-fiction anthology Mafia Queens of Mumbai - which has seen off the reissued Godfather films (not a bad comparison point) to achieve the impossible and hold down multiplex screen times a month into its theatrical run. It might initially seem faintly implausible that so much lavish maximalism should rest on the dainty shoulders of Bollywood's current sparrow-in-chief Alia Bhatt. Yet I concluded my review of 2018's spy thriller Raazi by floating the idea that Bhatt may be the best young actress working anywhere in the world right now, and Gangubai comprehensively firms that idea up. Bhatt has never had a bigger stage than the one Bhansali provides for her here, nor a role more carefully tailored to her thoughtful strengths, and she seizes it all with the aplomb of a true movie star - perhaps the first great new movie star of the 21st century. Netflix, for one, have already sat up and noticed, casting Bhatt alongside Jamie Dornan and Gal Gadot in their next slab of content; I'm tempted to say she deserves better still, but I guess we'll see.
For the time being, we have what feels even at this early stage like the Queen Christina or Scarlet Empress of the Bhatt filmography: an eyecatching coronation, based on the true story of Ganga Harjivandas, a small town barrister's daughter who was sold into sex slavery before rising to become one of Bombay's most powerful madams, taking her campaign for sex workers' rights as high and as far as then-Prime Minister Nehru. It's a hell of an arc - from wholly disempowered ingenue to steely-hearted businesswoman and no-nonsense bad-ass - and Bhansali establishes the very great distance that needs to be covered early on with a flashback from Gangu's mid-1960s pomp to her younger days as an exploitable field mouse: you'll struggle to believe this is even remotely the same individual, until Bhatt steps forward as both. Harjivandas vowed that if she was being shuttled against her will into a profession that routinely entailed degradation and humiliation, she was going to do the job better and make more of it than anybody else. It'd be a stretch for most cosseted millionaire megastars to portray that credibly, but it's a stretch that tallies surprisingly comfortably with that streak of self-improvement that's been central to the Bhatt screen persona since Student of the Year and Dear Zindagi. We're watching a woman who's put in long hours to conquer her particular corner of the world playing a woman putting in long hours to conquer her particular corner of the world.
And what a world this is. In 2015's Bajirao Mastani and 2018's Padmaavat, Bhansali constructed the same kind of gorgeous traps for his actresses that Shah Jahan did in commissioning the Taj Mahal for his wife. Here, a large part of the filmmaker's attention has been given over to a meticulous recreation of the red light area of Kamathipura, a teeming mini-metropolis with sunsets the colour of faded bruises. Some effort has been made to prettify - or Bhansalify - these sidestreets: when the electricity goes out, the working girls take to their balconies with candles. Yet Bhansali makes his secondary site of action the female body, and in doing so he pushes some way beyond a merely decorative or superficial account of prostitution. The film opens with a close-up of a child being violently made-up, and the same framing recurs elsewhere, first when Gangu is making herself up with a powder puff that lands on the soundtrack like a baseball bat, then after her face is set about by an abusive client. In a genuinely horrifying reprise - where it almost seems as though Anurag Kashyap has hijacked the camera for a few scenes - the client returns to the brothel a few days later, and Gangu agrees to meet with him for four times her usual asking price. This is at once a more confrontational strategy than Bhansali employed over the course of Padmaavat, where Deepika Padukone remained pristine - a goddess - even as she was driven towards self-incineration by the clingiest man in the cosmos.
Whether rightly or wrongly, Bhansali has gained a reputation for being ultra-demanding of his performers, insisting they subjugate themselves to his overall vision for a project. (It's what elevates him above the many Indian filmmakers who have next to no idea how a film should look, and even less about what to do with their stars.) Yet the Harjivandas story does seem to have prompted him into thinking a little deeper about coercion and control, and to recognise that sometimes a badass is often an ingenue who's been treated badly - someone who's healed and hardened, and determined that others should not suffer as they have. There are clearly drawn parallels between the fate of the working girl and that of the actress, not least in the epitaph the film writes for both itself and its heroine in the closing moments: "She wanted to be a moviestar, and her life played out like a grand movie." Yet they're always in play throughout an unusually self-aware and self-reflexive magnum opus, one that feels very much like Bhansali's first significant contribution to post-#MeToo discourse. Gangubai Kathiawadi is the story of a woman in the sex industry first and foremost, but that story also provides a model for another sometimes disreputable industry - the film business - which itself remains in urgent need of reform.
It is also, I should point out at this point, a rollicking piece of entertainment; its near-three hours pass far, far quicker than those of The Batman. After a run of pre- and mid-pandemic Hindi films that seemed to be making themselves up (badly) as they went along, it's a relief to see time and money being spent on a vision of India expressed with supreme confidence and fluency by a creative working somewhere close to the top of his game. The Bhansali touch is evident in the film's finely drawn supporting roles; the attention to detail extends outwards. There is excellent, genuinely characterful work from Seema Pahwa as the madam Gangu first works under, then supercedes; a shrewdly cast Ajay Devgn as the gruff politico our heroine looks to for protection (and far outstrips in the memory); Indira Tiwari as Gangu's in-house confidante, foremost among a set of sex workers who all have individual personalities, inner lives; Jim Sarbh as a rare sweetheart journalist who helps bring Gangu's push for equality to wider attention; and from Vijay Raaz as a trans rival whose bid for red-light power is doomed the minute Gangu puts on a free public screening to divert voters from a rally. (In Bhansali-land, movies trump politics every time.) This is Gangu's story, but it's also a film of a thousand stories, and Bhansali realises he has to do justice to them all if he's to do true justice to his protagonist.
That would hobble lesser motion-picture makers, and there are even places in Gangubai Kathiawadi where you feel the responsibility of hauling history into the present weighing heavy on Bhansali's shoulders. The first half has the flat-out momentum of any notable rise to power, but the second initially looks to be scrabbling to find the one narrative line that would carry everybody through to a satisfying conclusion. (Eventually, it realises: the throughline is Gangu herself, her life and achievements. You don't need to invent much when the raw biographical material is this strong.) But there's so much else to marvel at here beyond narrative. The old Bhansali, the great image-fetishist of contemporary Indian cinema, manifests from time to time in images that are so just so that you can't help but smile, like the group hug where the pastels of the brothel girls' skirts complement each other perfectly. The tenderest scene has Gangu being measured for a sari by a lovestruck young tailor's assistant; the song sequence it cues - "Jab Saiyaan" - constitutes the loveliest swoon anybody's troubled to film in years, though even here Bhansali isn't content with sweetness and light, demonstrating a sharp eye for the myriad ways in which potential lovers interact. (Call it romantic anthropology.) Crucially, he rejects the tired old melodramatic trope that insists anyone who strays from the path of righteousness is doomed to die sooner and lonelier than anybody else. For once in recent history, a Bhansali heroine isn't a martyr, which seems a major step forward.
Bhatt repays the compliment by giving what may well prove the performance of the year, in part because this role forces her to cover so much territory - from punchbag to sorority officer, from there to union rep and life coach - and often to transform from one incarnation of Gangu into another in the course of a single scene. One obvious masterclass, which prospective starlets would do well to study in coming years: Gangu's first phone call home in twelve years, a rat run of gear changes from nerviness to relaxation to genuine upset, handled with immense skill. Another: the drum song "Dholida", where the arc - communal celebration to personal desolation - seems to mirror that of a million sex workers who've burned themselves out by giving too much (and yet lived to dance again). Like the truly great star roles, Gangu allows Bhatt to reveal something hitherto unseen or unheard at every other turn: she does something earthier with her voice, if I'm hearing correctly, and she's a terrific screen drunk, looser than she's ever been on screen, and funny with it. As "Dholida" demonstrates, she can dance expressively, too. Is there anything this young woman can't do? I worry that RRR - which was meant to open back in January, and in which the actress apparently appears in a supporting role - is now set up to seem like an egregious squandering of Bhatt's talents. Then again, after Gangubai Kathiawadi, even the role of Cleopatra might seem like an egregious squandering of Alia Bhatt's talents.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is now showing in selected cinemas.