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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Gangubai & ‘Last Film Show’ Of Kathiawadi Dreams

Cinema is what unites us all, regardless of any divisions which exist in society. From Guddi to Om Shanti Om, there have been several titles which revolve around the big Bollywood dream. Quite often, they’ve followed the ‘underdog’ story where a dream comes true after major hindrances. Luck By Chance is one such title which emphasises this. Or in certain cases, like Rangeela, the Hindi cinema dream is the coating of a love triangle.

However, the two latest films Gangubai Kathiawadi and Last Film Show (Chhello Show) narrate the dream story distinctively. This is not a comparison, but an exploration of how both share dark undertones yet fulfilling, in some way or another. In both these movies, the ambitions are showcased through the ‘Kathiawadi’ lens and are biographical. The latter draws inspiration from Nalin’s own life.

Kathiawad, (or Kathiawar), is a peninsula in western India and part of the Saurashtra region on the Arabian Sea coast of Gujarat state. Bounded on the north by the great wetland of the Rann of Kutch. On the northwest by the Kutch Gulf, the west and south by the Arabian Sea and on the southeast and east by the Khambhat Gulf. As a region, it faced several rulers during early civilisation. Its name signifies ‘the land of the Kathis’. A Kshatriya caste who migrated to the region in the 8th century and controlled the southwestern peninsula of contemporary Gujarat. In brief, this is just some historical context.

Protagonists Ganga ‘Gangu’ Harjeevandas (Alia Bhatt in Gangubai) and Samay (Bhavin Rabari in Last Film Show) are brave hearts from the heartlands of Kathiawad. The two are street-smart, sharp and determined to achieve their goals. Within both instances, there is a cross-pollination of cultures which gives birth to a solid friendship.

Ganga is a vivacious young girl who aspires to work in the movies. Luring her with this dream, the boyfriend trades her into prostitution in Mumbai’s Kamathipura area. With the help of Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) a don, she soon becomes the Mafia Queen. She also goes on to fight for the rights of prostitutes in Mumbai’s red-light district. Samay is a nine-year-old boy who trades food with the projectionist Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali) to watch free movies at the cinema. And there, he develops his passion for cinema.

Last Film Show‘s director Pan Nalin presents faith through religious references in films like Karishma Kali Ka and Jodhaa Akbar. The child’s fascination with the Hindu Goddess, Sufism in ‘Khwaja Mere Khwaja’ shows how spirituality is formed due to his passion for cinema. In a way, cinema becomes his reverence and this helps him to quite literally, see the light. Movie posters collaged on walls depict his kaleidoscopic and cinematic mindset. The movies are his religion and method of pure escapism. We also see a flag of Lord Hanuman within a stone which symbolises how God is always looking over his devotees. Shots like these emphasise hope.

Gangubai’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali uses the Hindu dance form of Garba to present the lead’s life journey. In the ‘Jhume Re Gori’ song, we see a naive village belle, enjoying the dance. Later in ‘Dholida’, we see a headstrong, emotionally volatile gangster queen immerse herself in devotion. The goddess’ power resides in her as she gets Mataji – a spiritual trance. The irony of this scene is how the benefactor of Kamathipura’s brothels is worshipping the supreme goddess. There is maternal guidance, which Gangu lacked. She steps up as the mother she once had. Samay in Chhello Show has strong maternal support. Not just in her character, but even on the train, he is surrounded by several women (within the ladies’ special carriage). This acts as a reminder of how motherhood will always stay with him. Trains too are important in both narratives, which mark the start of Gangu and Samay’s new journeys.

Where movies are omnipresent characters in Last Film Show, Gangubai Kathiawadi presents them as a higher but helpless powerWe see posters of films like Awaara stuck up on the walls of the brothels. Such representations showcase the vast distinction between the prostitutes’ lives and the filmy world. They feel the impact of escapism more as stars seem to witness their lives but are unable to save them from the abyss. These posters, in a way, remind me of the eye doctor’s billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Gangu’s favourite Bollywood actor Dev Anand is the temptation to live her cinema dream, but then ultimately, he remains her fallacy. Even more so, when she references him as the brothel children’s father. Cinema becomes a means to fulfil a void in their lives, where it provides some hope.

The loss of innocence theme is relevant in both titles. Post Gangu winning the local president elections, her speech addresses how she lost her original home and life. Even in the ‘safed (white) sari’ scene, we see her exploring several definitions of the colour,  Frequently, we see her ruminating on life back in Gujarat, where she expresses her pain in the deception and loss she has faced. Gangubai‘s procession sequence after her meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru shows her greeting figures who contributed (in some way) to her time in Kamathipura. It is a poignant moment which showcases how the ‘Mafia Queen’ was forced to grow up quickly due to grim circumstances.

Similarly, as Samay departs for his new life to study film and become a director, he bids adieu to the people who made his dream come true. As the train passes, we see the nine-year-old boy leave his street-smart, adventurous life behind. Maturity is deeply ingrained within them as the teacher says “bhano ane bhaago” (study and leave). The children are conditioned to escape the village livelihood at Chalala. This signifies how the innocence of kids is short-lived in pursuit of a utopian life.

Collectively, in line with Gujarati cinema’s current revival, these stories embrace the darkness and emotional struggles of people within their region. The focus is on ordinary people undergoing an extraordinary (good or bad, knowingly or unknowingly) route to achieve their dream. Such titles do not only pay homage to the cultural roots but are human and sentimental in their storytelling. Furthermore, these movies prove that Dhollywood movies are not just about laugh-out-loud comedies, but sets precedent for discovering narratives rooted in the heartlands of Gujarat.

Ultimately, Gangu and Samay became ‘cinema’. That is the silver lining.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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