Stories about sex workers are almost always sensationalized. They are far too often presented as prowlers on the street, looking to lure in men to their den of immorality. Or they are the story of someone’s fall from grace, resorting to selling sex to show their low point. “Gangubai Kathiawadi” does begin with a woman being sold to a brothel, but it does not wallow in her misery. After all, this is a multi-dimensional person with her own needs, desires, and convictions, and she doesn’t let her situation define her. This film is a rallying cry to legitimize sex work as a proper occupation and let those who provide these services be in control of their own lives.
Admittedly, the film does not try to subtly weave its politics into the story whatsoever. Alia Bhatt is often tasked with giving big speeches and declarations about the rights of sex workers, and for some, its on-the-nose nature may be a tad irritating. For me, Bhatt’s performance is completely grounded in the reality of the world and the rather didactic nature of the drama almost always connects emotionally.
Even with all that, the film still finds plenty of time to dig into its titular character’s other facets, particularly in romance, and it doesn’t shy away from how her work and station in society impact how she thinks she can operate as a romantic partner in life. Alia Bhatt has become one of the biggest Bollywood stars in recent years. A film like this demonstrates that she is a magnetic screen presence and a fully committed actor who always puts character first. It’s one of the best lead performances of 2022 in my book.