Here is a luxuriously sleazy-sentimental melodrama about the Mumbai underworld, directed with gusto by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the powerhouse Bollywood film-maker who 20 years ago had a Bafta nomination for his mighty epic Devdas. It is an adaptation from a tale in the true-crime reportage bestseller Mafia Queens of Mumbai by Hussain Zaidi: the story of Gangubai Kathiawadi, who in the 60s was tricked and trafficked into prostitution in Mumbai’s Kamathipura red-light zone, but through her survivor’s ruthlessness and shrewd cultivation of political connections rose to become an underworld madam involved in drugs and violent crime. She then parlayed this gangland prestige into a media profile, campaigning for sex workers’ rights, even – according to legend – meeting to discuss these with India’s first prime minister Nehru himself.
Alia Bhatt plays Gangubai, the innocent provincial girl who dreams of movie stardom and believes the sinister smoothie boyfriend luring her to the big city. Then she is imprisoned, raped and savagely brutalised in the brothel, but becomes a kind of unofficial union rep for the other women and pleads for justice from a local chieftain of city politics: Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn) to whom she extends the brothel’s onsite booze franchise in return. And so her upward climb begins, which involves a political duel with a rival, trans madam Raziabai, played by Vijay Raaz.
This fictionalised version omits any violence in which Gangubai was reportedly involved and drugs are demurely replaced with alcohol being sold on the premises; when Gangubai finally evolves from being a mafia queen into a revered Mother India figure, blessed by smiling sex workers all around Mumbai, the movie loses a bit of its voltage. But there is terrific verve and audacity in this picture and some spectacular fantasy-musical setpieces. In fact, it is the streak of schmaltz within the gruesomeness which gives the story its outrageous energy. There is an entertainingly brazen quality to this movie, a brashness and recklessness to go with the mawkishness: it has a storytelling killer instinct.