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Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: The Pictorial Voice Against Patriarchal Oppression

Lockdowns and COVID-19 can no longer hinder the release of Gangubai Kathiawadi. Following its Berlinale world premiere, the highly awaited Sanjay Leela Bhansali biographical crime drama is here (and how). Unlike other Bhansali films, this certainly seems to be his grittiest and most distinct style.

Gangubai’s story is one that is inspiring yet extremely heartbreaking. She was a criminal, don, sex worker, businesswoman and controversial figure from Kathiawar, India. She operated a sex racket in the Hera Mandi red-light district during the 60s. Like Padmavaat, this too shows how women have suffered greatly due to (some) deception and misogynistic dominance. Like other works, this too is adapted from a novella, here titled Mafia Queens of Mumbai by S Hussain Zaidi.

Born as Ganga Harjeevan Das Kathiawadi (played by Alia Bhatt on screen) she came from a well-settled family. Being the only girl child in her family, she was apparently quite pampered by her parents. Aged 16, she fell in love with her father’s accountant and ran away with him to Mumbai. An aspiring actor, her life changed when her husband sold her for Rs. 500 (1000, in the film) to a brothel. This forced her into prostitution. Thus, begins her journey from Ganga to Gangubai.

Apparently, she was compassionate towards other women from the community. She used her influence to champion the rights of sex workers and affirmed that their job didn’t authorise anyone to violate them. Her association and ‘Rakhi’ relationship with sworn brother Karim Lala (Rahim Lala in the film, played by Ajay Devgn) became her rise to power.

Gangu maintained and operated many brothels in the red light district of the city, ultimately earning herself the name, ‘Madam of Kamathipura’. The powerful individual rode in a black Bentley, the only brothel owner to have one in those times. Because of her personal ordeal, Gangubai was compassionate towards other women from the community. Thus, she used her influence to champion the rights of sex workers and their empowerment and affirmed that her job did not authorise anyone to violate her.

Bhansali’s bright colours often emphasise opulence and style. Here, he settles for softer greyish blue, green and brown combinations. These schemes fuse the trauma of Gangu and sex workers as well as the glimmer of hope the protagonist brings to Kamathipura. Objects are brought to life and seem like additional characters and the magnitude of brothels depict the emptiness and incomplete dreams of all the prostitutes.

We even see photographs of Bollywood actors like Nargis and Dev Anand hanging on the wall. These are not only escapism for the women, but also feel like omnipresent witnesses. Plus, these pictures seem to highlight the class disparity where the rich would get richer and the marginalised would be continuously on the fringes of society. There are several moments that bring goosebumps and heartbreak. Scenes of brutality against the women unsettle me. Yet Bhansali highlights it in a way that is sensitive but effective in conveying the action. He explores emotions with high intensity and conviction. There’s something so personal with the way he accentuates the issues and emotions in this film.

SLB has always presented strands where strong women defy patriarchy – be it, Paro, in Devdas or Padmavati in Padmaavat. Interestingly, titles like Devdas and Saawariya have always humanised sex workers. In a way, characters like Chandramukhi and Gulabji provide a voice for the marginalised women of our society. Once again such tropes, including loss of innocence, is prevalent in Gangubai. These concepts are evident in dialogues like “Jab Shakti Sampati Sarbudhi, Yeh Teeno Hi Aurtein Hain Toh In Mardo Ko Kis Baat Ka Guroor” and “Kuwari Aapne Chhoda Nahi Aur Srimati Kabhi Kisi Ne Banaya Hi Nahi.” Such powerful lines are heartbreaking and eye-opening. They reinforce empowerment and independence.

When it comes to the technical aspects, the movie scores well. Sets are intricate and raw and as a result, we get engulfed by the creation. From record shops to the lanes, the team endeavour to present 60s nostalgia where the dim lighting yet engaging score are effective in combining the filmmaker’s vision with the grittiness of the subject. A special mention to Sanchit and Ankit Balhara’s background music as it stirs a plethora of emotions in audiences. The camera movements quite often travel with characters and this makes the viewing experience more visceral.

The soundtrack is not Bhansali’s most ‘commercial’. But he encompasses several genres like Garba, Qawwali and Ghazal. All of which are in sync with Gangu’s life. Kruti Mahesh’s choreography in tracks like ‘Dholida’, ‘Jhume Re Gori’ and ‘Shikayat’ are stunning to watch. She adds extra sparkle to the ‘SLB’ magic.

Gangubai‘s cast and performances are formidable. Alia Bhatt is a delightful surprise and it is evident that Bhatt has surrendered herself to the role. From her dialogue delivery to body language, Alia has certainly pushed the envelope. A very sincere endeavour on her part. The delivery of the Azad Maidan speech is very emancipated.

Ajay Devgn might have limited screen time, but his special appearance is solid. He is such a joy to watch and leaves an impact even in a small role. A fabulous actor. Seema Pahwa delivers a performance that contrasts with her previous works. She is fiery as Sheela Mausi, the brothel madame. Shantanu Maheshwari plays Afshan. A tailor and the lead love interest. He makes his Bollywood debut in a brief role. Maheshwari is cute and charismatic but some work on dialogue delivery would elevate his craft. Having said that, a promising talent to look out for. Jim Sarbh does well as Fezi, the journalist of an Urdu magazine and well-wisher of Gangu. Indira Tiwari as Kamli, the loyal friend of Gangu leaves a lasting impression.

Vijay Raaz plays Raziabai, a eunuch and head-honcho of Kamathipura, Gangu’s rival. Raaz is a remarkable actor and he does a fabulous job once again. Though I’m not sure how historically accurate this character is or whether this is created for the movie, filmmakers need to be sensitive in portraying transgender characters. The community has fought hard for acceptance and equality and seeing them as villains of our society is a no-no. Going forward, it would be helpful if filmmakers could stay away from portraying the LGBTQIA+ community in a caricaturish manner.

Another area that movie-makers could stay away from is portraying forced communalism, especially when India as a country is trying to move on, as a whole. In fact, portrayals of child marriages and teen pregnancies are quite disturbing to watch. Whilst I’m sure this may have happened back then, we are in the 21st century and living in a progressive society. Perhaps portrayals of such incidents may just reinforce and normalise such archaic norms. After all, cinema is a very important medium for social conversation and change. It’s more than just ‘entertainment’.

With a lengthy run time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, the transition from Ganga to Gangu seems quite rushed. Within a few scenes, that journey is completed. From being a coy village belle to a brooding mafia queen, I wanted to see more about her change of character. What exactly was that moment where she snaps and comes to terms with circumstances, more clarity on this would’ve enhanced the character arch.

Gangubai Kathiawadi, despite its few shortcomings and flaws, is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s most distinct work yet. Which probably may not be his best. Despite the grim incidents addressed, the movie is aesthetically mesmerising and gripping, to say the least. It is most hard-hitting work and at times I found myself to be highly sentimental. Like the Jauhar scene in Padmaavat, I felt helpless how humans caused great suffering to another. And I sat there, unable to do anything.

The movie makes me reflect on issues like child safety and women’s rights too. It certainly makes one gain more respect for the plight of sex workers. It does not glorify Gangubai nor her actions, but at the same time, does not antagonise her. On the contrary, it infuriates us to see how unassuming women were (and to an extent, are) lured by predators just for a quick buck.

There was a Gangubai and she suffered… A lot. She conquered many hearts too. Nonetheless, the sad part is I fear there may be many such stories within dark chapters of our history. It’s high time those voices are heard and innocence are no longer robbed or presented in a way that makes reconcile difficult and aids society to move forward.

⭐⭐⭐.5 (3.5/5 stars)

Watch our interview with leading lady Alia Bhatt here: 

Gangubai Kathiawadi is backed by Bhansali Productions and Pen MoviesViacom18 Studios & Paramount Pictures International are distributing in all International markets outside of India. The picture releases on 25th February. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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