Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been making films for 25 years. And like the nine films that preceded it, his new work Gangubai Kathiawadi, releasing in theatres on February 25, is magnificent bedazzlement. A sensual ravishment. But unlike all the earlier ones, there is something different in the way he has imagined his eponymous protagonist in this film. Gangubai is a character from the peripheries of his own childhood. Bhansali has said in interviews that while he was growing up in Bombay (Mumbai) in the 1960s, his parents would walk him to school through Kamathipura, the city’s historic red light district. In that age, and many years following it, some of Mumbai’s famous gangsters have protected the brothel didis of Kamathipura—in this case, Karim Lala. This is Bhansali’s ode to the 1950s, to a protagonist cured in the process of bearing and surmounting pain, to the margins of a sex worker’s life always meant to be shunned and invisible, and to the throbbing sensorium of Kamathipura.
Bhansali remains Bollywood’s most staunchly devoted fantasist or pictorialist. The sprawling canvas in stories that revolve largely around romance, tragedy and suffering, and the beauty that emerges from it, is beginning to acquire relicdom. But as this film proves, Bhansali is in no mood to adapt. He has never left much of his grand templates to be executed to chance—like most of his films, here too he co-writes, directs, edits and composes the music. And he really pushes the limits of his signature forward. But the singularity in his storytelling in Gangubai Kathiawadi fructifies perhaps because of his own nostalgic link to the story, and to Gangubai, who was a hero of sorts in Kamathipura. In that sense, this is his most personal film.
The defiantly unrealistic and aesthetically overwrought language has gritty, grimy contours. The lack of a sinewy script and eliminating the criminal bent of his lead character’s life—Gangubai’s contribution to gangster-led violence and drug trafficking in Kamathipura do not get screen time; the drugs are replaced by local liquor—does not come in the way of the sublime beauty on offer. His attention to filmmaking details is spellbinding; the architecture and eroticism of Kamathipura and its brutalised but fiery and resilient women are stunningly dilated by the visual language and the lead performance by Alia Bhatt. The thin and thick wedges of Kamathipura life in the 1950s come alive through this electric woman—a sex worker, a woman’s woman, activist and feminist, poetically propped up to be the vehicle of a courage and brazenness that can only emerge from vulnerability.