Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Alia Bhatt in an act for Ages: Has anyone been better than her in Bollywood?

Alia Bhatt needs be watched. We have a serious talent in her. She is good enough for us to rethink if our gold standards—Meena Kumaris, Waheedas, Nutans, Sridevis, Madhuris and Kangana—are to be revisited. 

She is no younger than the mentioned names who first lit up our screens. Yet none of them looked just out of teens as she does. When they emoted, screamed, cried, seduced, or held mirror to society, we saw in them an elevated feminine form—unnoticed in their curves, beyond leer, beyond a grope which looks to fondle or pinch. Such women turn men into good boys. 

There are quite a few moments in this long-drawn “Gangubai Kathiawadi” when your mind transposed a Waheeda/Madhuri on Alia and wondered if they could’ve done any better. She is vulnerable as all prostitutes are; mauled every night; yet in control of her surroundings once the dawn breaks. To combine the innocence of a school-girl with the guile of a scheming survivor, the hurt of a lover with the selfless compassion for thousands doesn’t come easy. The only emotion which Alia hasn’t enacted in this movie is, well, of a dead person. 

The beauty is she does all this while being in a cage in every frame. These are walls which are never pulled down. You don’t have money, no parents, no lover, no husband, no kids, you can’t even go to a movie without men not trying to relieve themselves on you. LIke they pee on an obscure wall; where no proposal is made, no consent sought, only money thrown and fornication secured. It’s a horrifying life but she is no Pakeejah where a Raj Kumar rescues her. If anything, she wants to stay put in that very horrifying life; to shame the society which shuns her in daylight. 

There are quite a few scenes which break you down. None is starker when doors close on her for the first time in Kotha. First one entrance is jerked shut, then the other exit, those walls of fading plaster, splashed with stains of paan; enveloping darkness pierced by Alia’s howl, the moment when you see your own sister or daughter in her. You wish they were dead than alive: For who rescues them, who writes their FIRs, who accepts them back in the fold. 

There is a telling scene when a girl, still in an age when fathers pick up their daughters in arms and move them around in a fair, can no longer suffer the butchers who maim her every night. Alia offers her two toffees: One is to accept her life as it is now; the other a poison to free her forever. The girl looks at the two options and chooses poison: You howl what if it is inaudible in the auditorium. 

Or when a prostitute keeps her teenage daughter in a cage on terrace lest the prying eyes fall on her: “I would kill her then let her be dragged into bed every night.” Your mind lingers on that lock outside the cage lest she inadvertently steps out and is spotted. It shakes you to the bone. Or when a dead prostitute is to be taken for burial and Alia asks others to tie her legs lest somebody still takes fancy of her. 

It’s as much an Alia’s film, as it is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s, or its cameraman and dialogue-writer. None of them fall short. The script is frontal. Prostitution is real; it can’t be wished away. But the society can’t use them and yet deny them protection, their children schools, their sick the hospitals. As Alia so famously says to the free world: But for us, your own sisters and daughters could be victims of your own men: We save them by offering ourselves. “Aap kehte ho ki aapki izzat ek bar gayi to laut ke nahin aati; hamari izzat to roz loot-ti hai par jaati hi nahin (You say that your honour once gone never returns; our honour never goes even when it is violated every night).”

It’s a moving film, made richer by cameos of Ajay Devgn and Vijay Raaz, and indeed by all those who often cross our eyes on screens but we don’t bother to look for their names. Give them that respect now. Applaud Bhansali who is in sync with our times of feminism even when our Bollywood in general is still stuck on those garishly painted hip-gyrating, bosom-heaving item girls amidst lecherous loons. 

Above all, thank Alia Bhatt for inspiring this renaissance when women could carry a movie on their slender shoulders yet with inviolable dignity. Like our Waheedas and Nutans once did. Where those gold standards fall in comparison—and it’s no fault of theirs—is that they never had a role of a Don whose writ runs without ever taking recourse to violence. 

But even if they had, one doubts if they could have overtaken Alia Bhatt in “Gangubai Kathiawadi.”

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