Acclaimed Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt is no stranger to playing real-life characters. In the critically-lauded 2018 thriller Raazi, she played an Indian spy who marries a Pakistani army officer as an undercover operative.
In Gangubai Kathiawadi, which is being released in the UAE on Friday, Bhatt portrays real-life gangster Ganga Harjivandas Kathiawadi, a mafia head in 1960s Bombay, whose rags-to-riches story was documented in the 2011 book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.
Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, known for his opulent period dramas, early reviews have given the film and Bhatt, 28, glowing praise.
"There is an entertainingly brazen quality to this movie, a brashness and recklessness to go with the mawkishness: it has a storytelling killer instinct," The Guardian writes, while The Times of India calls it "an Alia Bhatt show all the way."
Gangubai Kathiawadi had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this month.
What is 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' about?
Set in the 1950s and '60s, the film tells the story of Kathiawadi, who was born in a small town in Gujarat, and dreamt of becoming an actress as a young girl. At 16, she elopes with her boyfriend, who was also her father's accountant, and heads to Bombay, the centre of Bollywood. But instead of the promised bright lights, she is soon sold to a brothel where she is imprisoned, raped and forced into prostitution.
The film details Kathiawadi's rise through the ranks within the brothel, eventually becoming the brothel madam and mafia queen Gangubai, with the help of a local politician.
Who's in the cast of 'Gangubai Kathiawadi'?
Bhatt, known for her performances in films such as Highway (2014), Udta Punjab (2016) and Gully Boy (2019), dominates the film. But various acclaimed actors also feature in supporting roles, including Vijay Raaz, who plays a trans woman and Kathiwadi's opponent in a local election, as well as Jim Sarbh, as a journalist. Bollywood and action star Ajay Devgn appears in an extended cameo as a politician and Kathiawadi's mentor.
What do reviews of 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' say?
Early reviews of the film have been glowing, with much praise heaped on Bhatt's performance.
"What raises it above your standard Bhansali spectacle is Bhatt’s willingness to go the mile," The Indian Express writes. "Alia Bhatt makes her Gangubai real. We are made to feel the pain of the women whose lives are so circumscribed and who feel so abandoned by their loved ones that they can find camaraderie, rough and tumble it may be, only amongst themselves."
The Times of India says Bhansali excels in "some beautifully crafted, heartbreaking moments".
"The beauty of the film lies in how it shows Gangu’s character transform through various stages in her life. The narrative takes time to build up, even slowing down along the way, but not without leaving an impact through some fiery dialogues and powerful moments," it writes.
The Guardian calls the film a "luxuriously sleazy-sentimental melodrama about the Mumbai underworld", but praised it for its "terrific verve and audacity and some spectacular fantasy-musical setpieces".
"In fact, it is the streak of schmaltz within the gruesomeness which gives the story its outrageous energy," it says.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is in UAE cinemas on February 25