Well, I have no doubts now. Alia Bhatt is a natural born, bonafide screen legend in the making, if not already. I had huge reservations on her ability to play the title role of a brothel madam who becomes something of a mafia woman and political heavy during the course of the 1950’s and 60’s in the Kamathipura red-light district of Bombay. And in turn, reservations on a film which I felt had probably got its basic casting decision wrong. But wow. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has always had an exquisite visual language for the screen, which make them perfect candidates for the big screen, but his movies storytelling power are at times engulfed by his visual mastery. Which is why I tend to make sure I can watch his movies in the cinema to revel in the indulgent pleasures they provide and yet, once the spectacle is over, there isn’t much that sticks. But this time he has got the balance perfect and it is probably my favorite film of his since Black in 2005. And with a spitfire of a leading actress running the show, the movie is a clear winner.
It starts off with Gangubai already something of a mini-legend in her circles, as she is called by a rival brothel madam to talk ‘sense’ into a new young arrival into the brothel. Gangubai locks herself up in the room with the poor young thing and proceeds to narrate her own tale as a young woman duped by her lover and sold off into a brothel in Kamathipura, a place from where there is rarely any way back home. But after an initial period of mourning her cursed luck, she steels herself and realizes that she has it in her power to usurp the madam of the brothel (a deliciously wicked Seema Pahwa) and turn around the fortunes of the whole brothel. A particularly vicious customer causes her to seek the help of the don, Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn), who becomes a steadfast supporter of hers and helps in her plans of advancement. There are other adversaries in her path though, including political rival, the trans-madam Raziabhai (Vijay Raaz), as well as the biggest one, the warped morality of the great Indian middle class. But she leaves an impression on all who cross her path, and even finagles a brief meeting with then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (an incident which supposedly actually happened). Help also arrives in the form of a besotted and charmed reporter played by Jim Sarbh, which all culminates in a speech worthy of any Bollywood hero in a packed Azad Maidan. There is also a brief opportunity at love with the charming Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari), but as the many curveballs life has thrown her way has shown her, happy endings in her line of work are a rare bloom of mostly dashed hope.
As always, the production design of Bhansali’s movies are immaculate, over here perhaps slightly more realistic than his usual oeuvre. Even then though, there is a tendency to highlight the era in an artistic flourish rather than as the dark, seedy places the places actually may have been. But it is all very beautiful to look at so I can’t complain much. For example, the legendary Irani Café, Yazdani, where a lot of the ladies’ communal gatherings happen, is rendered with a perfectly vintage flavor that soothes the palette of the screen. And the simple but exquisitely romantic one-take song within the confines of a taxi between Gangubai and her would be paramour. In the hands of a lesser actor the movie could have become overblown masala fluff. But Alia Bhatt lords over everyone here, an even greater feat when you consider that she literally is the smallest person on the screen for most of the time. She brings vivacious sass and energy to this character which is based on a real-life madam in a story of the anthology, Mafia Queens of Mumbai by Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges: the Matriarch of Kamathipura. And while I wish the movie had focussed a bit more on her darker side (she is shown as doing most of her deeds only for the betterment of her community of prostitutes), it’s tough to argue with the impeccable skills on show. It would have also been nice to have some more depth into some of the supporting characters, especially Raziabhai, but again, it looks like Bhansali wanted his leading lady to dwarf everything else on screen. And that she does magnificently. This is a towering work from a young actress in an already crowded resume of brilliant performances. Long may she continue to wow us.