By Divya Unny Feb. 26, 2022
Alia Bhatt single-handedly shoulders this Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, and while her performance is the key takeaway you can’t help but feel that the script and writing could have helped her better.
Before you walk into a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film you already have a sense of being transported into a space that you have only read about. Currently, the sole master of period dramas in India, who also happens to be a visual genius, Bhansali this time chooses a world that isn’t embellished with kings and queens, shiny palaces and historic battle cries. Gangubai Kathiawadi’s story is closer to reality, and doused in the grit and gumption of one woman who changed the fate of sex-workers in Mumbai in the 50s. This is the story of Gangubai, a woman who battled all odds to fight for the basic life rights of over 4000 women in Kamathipura. She was both a mafia don and mother India to those living a life outside of the moral high grounds of civil society. Understandably it’s a character easy to render but difficult to embody.
This is the story of Gangubai, a woman who battled all odds to fight for the basic life rights of over 4000 women in Kamathipura.
Bhansali interprets this world with large glossy retro lenses, where we see a clean and classic Kamathipura in saturated earthy tones. The sky is always a single untouched shade of blue, and the lanes are dotted with stores selling gramophones and large music records. The last memorable cinematic rendition of this red-light district was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay where we smelled the smut and filth off the walls. It was maybe too close to reality for some. Bhansali’s 50s version is far from it.
Production designers Amit Ray and Subrata Chakraborty go all out to erect a set that almost feels like a dreamy recreation of what Kamathipura may have been. Stunning camerawork by Sudeep Chatterjee blows life into the set. The milieu is sanitized with vintage hues and though you know it’s far from what the mohallas would have looked like, the larger-than-life-ness draws you in. Gangubai strolls through the gullies of Kamathipura adorned with posters of then supremos of Hindi cinema like Dev Anand and Madhubala, giving us a glimpse into the golden era of Bombay city.
Gangubai Kathiawadi’s story is closer to reality, and doused in the grit and gumption of one woman who changed the fate of sex-workers in Mumbai in the 50s.
The film opens with Gangubai rescuing a young girl from the flesh trade she herself was thrown into when she came to Bombay to become a heroine. She was sold off by a boy she loved and trusted, and though fate failed her, she decided to turn it around. Alia Bhatt’s transformation from a young girl to the matriarch who leads her gang of women towards a life of dignity, is swift, but riveting. Now here’s an actor who from frame one sinks her nails so deep, that she becomes Gangu.
You think her petite personality might make it difficult for her to carry off playing a female don from the 50s but Alia makes up for it in performance. She arcs out every physical and emotional nuance that belongs to Gangubai and leaves little to chance. She builds an obvious baritone for this one, which weaves in the density Alia’s girl-next-door persona lacks. It works, sometimes so well that you often see this 28-year-old girl effortlessly disappearing into soul of a woman whose world and wounds are so remarkably different from hers.
Bhansali interprets this world with large glossy retro lenses, where we see a clean and classic Kamathipura in saturated earthy tones.
Be it some very deliberate dialogue-baazi, or scenes where she’s being traumatised, Alia powers through the part fearlessly, and shoulders the film pretty much like a one-woman army. She delivers sharp punchlines like ‘Izzat se jeeneka. Kisise baap se darneka nahi,’ with such nerve, that if this was a hero-led film, it’d be inundated with whistles from audiences. Maybe it already is. She does full justice to some very gritty dialogue-writing by Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha. After ten years of playing such varied roles, with Gangubai, Alia has built herself up to a point of versatility no other actor of her generation can match.
With Gangubai, Alia has built herself up to a point of versatility no other actor of her generation can match.
The supporting cast including Indita Tiwari, Ajay Devgn and Shantanu Maheshwari do a fine job of creating characters that run Gangu’s world to form her core team. Seema Pawha somehow does a better job of playing the small town mummy than a brothel owner. Jim Sarbh is excellent as the wide eyed-journalist who brings Gangu’s story to the world. Vijay Raaz as Razia Bai, Gangu’s transgendered nemesis, is so intriguing that you wish the character was fleshed out better.
The screenplay in fact is so taken by its protagonist’s achievements, that it doesn’t really build any of the other characters well enough for us to feel for them. Bhansali mounts this purely as a tribute to Gangubai, and makes no bones about it. Scenes have been written in to show off her oratory skills and sequences have been stacked together to hail her success in slow motion. It’s Bollywood-esque to the core.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is engaging, entertaining, and almost worth the penny you’d pay for it.
A wholesome screenplay would have included sub-lives of others in Gangu’s journey that would have added some depth to the film. But Bhansali’s films have always been about what’s on the pardah than what’s on paper, so you’re not surprised when the film falters in pace and promise in its second half. He takes the writing for granted, and makes it up with grandiose on screen, and it’s a serious but often overlooked loophole. He’s edited this one and also composed the songs- of which Jab Saiyaan sung by Shreya Ghoshal is among the most striking and soul-searching numbers I’ve heard in recent times. Gangubai Kathiawadi is engaging, entertaining, and almost worth the penny you’d pay for it.
Divya is a Mumbai-based journalist-turned-actor and now director. Some say it's too many hats for that one small head, while she insists there be more.