Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is about women from the world’s oldest profession doing their craft and striving for justice in Bombay’s Kamathipura during Nehruvian days. The period drama, on the other hand, is precisely produced for affect rather than real truth. Even though it runs a little over two and a half hours, the result is an engaging picture that does not seem unnecessarily stretched.
As it’s customary for the writer-director, he abandons the grimy, granular, journalistic view of the lives depicted in the book on which the film is based (Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands) in favour of a grandiose, melodramatic patina for the exploits of the titular heroine, who transforms herself from a grievously wronged girl to an intrepid activist for the rights of
With some trepidation, one approaches Alia Bhatt’s casting as an assertive matriarch of 4000 prostitutes fighting for survival in a world where lust trumps love at all hours of the day and night, but the actress dispels all doubts with a brilliantly lively performance that grows steadily on the audience.
We don’t need to be concerned with the actress’ physical similarity to Gangubai since she was most likely a footnote in the annals of Bombay’s underworld and the general public had no idea what she looked like. What matters is that Alia Bhatt, with the strength of a phenomenal star turn, brings the real-life heroine to life so vividly that all doubts go away.
The tunes playing in the background and the movie posters (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Jahazi Lutera) on the walls of Kamathipura and the cinema theatre that serves the neighbourhood reflect the period.
Ignore the fact that when an Urdu journalist presents Gangubai a copy of his magazine, what we see is an English-language publication, or the fact that all the infants born at Gangubai’s brothel appear to be female. These are tiny annoyances in a cinematic essay with far higher goals than those little niggles.
Bhansali uses bold, vivid artistic style to conjure up a portrait of a well-off Kathiawad barrister’s adolescent daughter and Dev Anand admirer who flies to Mumbai with her lover Ramnik (Varun Kapoor) with ambitions of making it as a movie star but is sold to a controlling Sheila Bai brothel (Seema Pahwa).
She screams for assistance, but it all in vain. The brothel madam does everything she can to soften Ganga up and ease her into employment she despises, but the experienced woman sees right through Ganga’s naivety and recognises that she is not to be trifled with. She transforms into Gangu and subsequently Gangubai Kathiawadi, Kamathipura’s uncontested queen.
The aesthetically lavish character study is both broad and intimate, more baroque than 1950s Bombay. Gangubai Kathiawadi takes shape as a compelling tale of one woman’s individuality, tenacity, and meteoric ascent to power, with the help of relentless drama riding on several well-mounted sequences, which, of course, is Bhansali’s proven forte, and an unwavering empathy for the lot of the women who are sold for a song and forced to make a living in a hellhole from which there is no escape.