The only way you can enjoy Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is to embrace its extravagantly-constructed universe — the elaborate sets that make up the red-light area of Kamathipura that becomes the location of most of the film’s run-time, the frames which look like art deco paintings, and, most crucially, the very youthful and very fair-and-lovely Alia Bhatt playing the lead character who says she is ‘sattaaiis saal’ (27 years), but looks younger, and much less marked by her horrific life experiences of having been sold into prostitution.
Once you get past all of the above, and it took me some time into the film to reach that point, I was invested in the extraordinary story of Gangubai, the naive young girl from a ‘good family’ in Kathiawad, besotted as she is by matinee idol Dev Anand and desperate to become an actress, who ends up in a brothel instead of a studio. Based on S Hussain Zaidi’s ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’, the film touches upon on chosen salient points in Gangu’s life, as she goes from being just another face learning to entice passing customers, to the woman who rules the street and learns to fight for the rights of the ‘chaar hazaar’ (four thousand) sex workers of Kamathipura.
Because it is a Bhansali film, even the grunge and grime of the insides of the brothel, and the ‘badnaam galis’ (infamous streets) is made to look appealing. It is no surprise that Gangubai Kathiawadi is visually resplendent, because that’s Bhansali’s trademark: the glittering vintage car given to Gangu as an extravagant Eidi by her ‘brother’, powerful mobster Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn, in an extended cameo, all ‘surma’ in eyes and slo-mo Pathan smouler), the ‘aankhon-hi-aankhon mein ishaara’ songs between her love interest Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari), the near fetishistic bathing scene behind a curtain (Bhansali loves these: remember the one in ‘Bajirao Mastani’ ?), even the ‘death scene’ in which the women adorn and mourn one of their own who has passed on – these sequences are stunning.
What raises it above your standard Bhansali spectacle is Bhatt’s willingness to go the mile: beneath the cuss-words, the drunken binges and the speechifying-on-podiums, some of which come off as ‘acting’, 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. These are things we have seen before, especially the sequences where young girls are tricked into thinking they are in safe havens, and then are thrown to the wolves: the forcing in of the traditional ‘nath’ into a terrified teenager’s bleeding nose, and the even more terrifying consequences of the ‘utaarna’ is heart-rending.
Not all of it escapes feeling staged. A ‘quawaali’ feels unnecessary. The attempts to create a ‘noble’ Gangubai, especially when a bleeding-heart journalist (Jim Sarbh) decides to make it his mission, becomes fluffy. And despite Bhatt’s best efforts, some of the ‘bhaashans’ she delivers feel like a string of crowd-pleasing ‘taali-seeti’ dialogues.
The ensemble makes up for the slack patches. Shantanu Maheshwari, as a shy young man with feelings for Gangu, is effective. Vijay Raaz as the trans madame Razia is terrific; you wish there was more of him. Indira Tiwari (last seen in ‘Serious Men’) as Gangu’s friend and confidante, nearly runs away with the film, and Seema Pahwa as the cruel-capricious brothel-in-charge is a welcome break from the ‘joint-family-roles’ she has been playing for a while now.
Often, Bhansali’s penchant for heightened baroque tends to overwhelm his film. This time the story matches the tone, and makes for the kind of old-fashioned dialogue-heavy, sentiment-on-sleeve film which Bollywood is forgetting how to make.
Gangubai Kathiawadi movie cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Indira Tiwari, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa
Gangubai Kathiawadi movie director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Gangubai Kathiawadi movie rating: 3 stars