There’s a scene in the trailer of Gangubai Kathiawadi where Alia Bhatt’s character is seen delivering a powerful ‘bhashan’ before a huge gathering. She’s advocating for sex work to be looked at with dignity as any other profession, and children of sex workers be given an equal right to education. In the film, it’s the pre-climax scene which pretty much nails in what the film is all about. It shows what this larger-than-life woman wants more than anything.
Based on the chapters from Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Gangubai Kathiawadi creates a world of its own that’s sleazy, violent, reckless but still overflowing with emotions. Showing the lanes of Kamathipura, one of the oldest red-light districts of Mumbai, Bhansali makes sure that he captures them in the most extravagant way. Young girls, who’ve landed here unwillingly, decorate the streets, having accepted their fate with nowhere to go. Also read: Gangubai Kathiawadi: Supreme Court suggests to change the name of the film
The portions where these girls prepare for a day of work–applying lipstick, tapping loose powder on their faces–to be put up as live mannequins on the gates of the brothel inviting customers, carry a lot of pain. “Grahak ko tumhara chehra nahi chamdi chahiye,” says a heartless and uncouth Sheela Bai, played flawlessly by Seema Pahwa. In another scene, where a customer knocks at the brothel’s door at 4am in the morning asking for Gangu, Sheela Bai walks through the dark and dingy doom swapmed with girls sleeping on the floors or sharing small beds, to wake up Gangu saying, “iss dhande mein time nahi hota”– it captures the miseries of sex workers and the awful conditions they live in. It is from these moments you know that Bhansali is not just trying to celebrate the glory that Gangu creates but also show the gloomy past that she, and many other girls, have been through. There are times you feel that the Kamathipura shown in the film is a bit too exaggerated, but you overlook those for Bhansali instantly absorbs you into his world.
The film is clearly demarcated into two stories. While the first half narrates Gangubai’s story from being a barrister’s daughter Ganga who was forced into sex trade and how she becomes Gangu with her shares of bruises and scars, the second half shows her rise as a ‘gharwali’ (Madame of a brothel) and eventually fighting the elections to be the president of Kamathipura.
The entire flashback sequence into Ganga’s story was tragic yet terrific. Each frame here talks to you as if trying to say something that we often don’t want to accept. There are several silent moments in the first half and those, for me, are the most poetic rendition of emotions, empathy, pain and power. There are moments in the films that totally stand out and strike the right chord. A scene where a few girls are trying to write a letter to their families with everyone throwing a sentence each, forming a thought that they’ve been living with every single day. That is so heart-wrenching. Also read: Alia Bhatt reacts to criticism against girl imitating her Gangubai Kathiawadi character, says video ‘was very cute’
Alia Bhatt, who showed her acting prowess in Highway as her second film itself, has given a superlative performance as Gangubai. Yes, she does look a little too young at times for this roles but strong voice, the way she walks, the confidence she exudes from her smile, the pain she carries in her eyes — Alia puts together quite an impressive show. Her nearly perfect diction, dialect, expressions and how she emotes anger, rage, happiness and helplessness leave you in awe of her screen presence. I only wish there was a little less attempt from Bhansali to make Gangubai the goddess-like figure or the Robinhood she ends up being at most of the places.
There’s Ajay Devgn in a cameo as Raheem Lala who turns messiah for Gangu and packs a punch in a couple of scenes he appears on screen. Shantanu Maheshwari brings a childlike flair with his character Afsaan with his brief romance with Gangu. Reuniting with Bhansali after Padmaavat, actor Jim Sarbh also delivers a decent performance as a journalist who, in a way, acts as a catalyst in letting Gangu discover her strength and what she’s capable of. Going by what’s shown in the film, it was he who facilitates Gangu’s meeting with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a cause she deeply felt for. Vijay Raaz as Razia Bai has a short and sweet part and honestly doesn’t have much to do other than what we already saw in the trailer. There’s a very interesting track between Alia’s Gangu and Kamli played by Indira Tiwari, who was spectacular in Serious Men. Their friendship and bonding in a brothel is not an everyday sight.
Binding all these characters together, Bhansali’s film can’t be complete without some beautifully choreographed and aesthetically shot musical pieces. Meri Jaan and Jab Saiyaan are soft romantic tracks while Dholida and Jhume Re Gori let you groove to some peppy folk beats.
Gangubai Kathiawadi ends with the transformation of a damsel in distress to a warrior. But then, there’s no denying the fact that such stories do exist and deerv