Gangubai Kathiawadi Movie Review : Flower Nahi, Fire Hai Alia Bhatt in Bhansali’s Hard-Hitting Magnum Opus
Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Alia Bhatt 'Chaand Hai', Brightest Not Spotless, in Bhansali's Hard-Hitting Magnum Opus
Review of Gangubai Kathiawadi: Imagine yourself stuck in a small dark room with no communication from the outside world, where you have no means to interact with anyone or no way to let your family and friends know that you need help. Imagine you live your whole life in that 4×4 room with five others – where the darkness on the outside may have been erased, but the screeching darkness on the inside is tearing you apart. Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Gangubai Kathiawadi is full of scenes that don’t let you settle down easily. This is not your usual Bhansali film with giant sets, dreaminess in the songs and fantasy being painted in front of your eyes. This is gritty, full of discomfort, harsh and real.
A young girl from Kathiawad is sold into a brothel of Kamathipura by her boyfriend who shows her the dreams of becoming an actor in Bombay. She is raped, brutalised, and is made to accept and learn the austerity of her business. Soon, Ganga becomes Gangu, a warrior of sorts, and a local representative of hundreds of women for whom the Badnaam Gali is both their home and workplace. Gangu rises to power – with the love and strength of her fellow women at home, and with her political and underworld connections outside. She first rules the brothel, then the area, then the entire red-light zone of Kamathipura and soon becomes the Mafia queen of Mumbai. Gangu continues to have her heartbreaks though, faces incidents that attempt to crush her already beaten soul. But as they say, ‘Gangu chaand hai‘ – shining the brightest with all the marks and the dark spots on its surface.
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Sanjay Leela Bhansali attempts to infuse soul into this story, not with the sheer grandeur of his filmmaking style but with the gruesomeness of the subject he has chosen. This is not a love story where you are asked to feel the pain of the beating hearts or a period drama where you can’t take your eyes off the sparkly costumes the characters are wearing. This is a raw story where you see a 12-year-old girl being decorated to be served to her first client, or another 15-year-old is being exposed to drugs so that she doesn’t resist her life. There’s dark poetry in Bhansali’s storytelling this time. He introduces these prostitutes as ‘chidiya’ who got stuck in a cage forever and ends up referring to them as ‘kaala gulab’ (black rose), who has the same scent but never the same stature as that of a red rose. Even when he shows a love story slowly and beautifully growing into a mature romance, he limits it more to gestures and emotions than spoken words.
Alia Bhatt, as Gangubai, gracefully shushes the voices who didn’t feel convinced with her casting as the madam of Kamathipura. She maintains the dichotomy of the character who has to contrast the softness on her face with the severity of her soul. Gangubai isn’t an easy role to perform. Alia maintains a certain quietness in her eyes. In a scene when Gangu writes a letter on behalf of a friend to her father, or in a scene when she is beaten brutally by a client, tears well up in her eyes but never flow out. Gangu never asks the viewer to feel petty but never even lets them think that she’s glorifying the world no woman is supposed to be in. Her emotions are always in check. She might have chosen to conceal her own pain, but for others, she’s this solid figure of justice and righteousness who will wipe off their tears and also, fight for their basic right to education or opening a bank account.
At around 2 hours and 40 minutes, Gangubai Kathiawadi seems a bit stretched though. It’s a film with a strong protagonist and an even stronger supporting starcast. Seema Pahwa, as the brothel madam, gives her most memorable performance on-screen. This is probably the first film that chooses to see her as a wholesome actor, and not just as a small-town mom rushing her life to become a progressive parent. Vijay Raaz, as trans woman Razia Bai, introduces a power dynamic in the story. Much like other actors in the film, even he comes out of his comfort zone and is given a character that’s unusual for someone who has only been seen as a comedian so far. There’s a sense of unabashed rusticity about his performance that always leaves you thinking there’s more to his presence on-screen than what meets the eye. Shantanu M, as the lover boy, is probably the sanest part of Gangu, the simplest and the spotless part with no conspiracies or complexities. His presence brings a pause in Gangu’s life and she can just be a regular girl of her age in the shared moments with him. Shantanu’s performance is full of love and sheer humility, almost like a pearl gliding off the smooth silk surface.
The hero is still the man who has returned to Bhansali’s cinema after a hiatus of 23 years – Ajay Devgn as gangster Karim Lala. The actor does what he does the best, present a larger-than-life image and capture the scene with intensity in his eyes and his gravelly voice. He’s the perfect hero in the world driven by a heroine.
Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is not his Black, but then it’s not like any other film that he has made so far. The common elements of his filmmaking style are there but it’s not difficult to sense an attempt to give more and see beyond the usual. For an audience who believes in big-screen entertainers and for an industry that largely produces stories about men driving the world with their bare chests and six-pack abs, Bhansali gives a film that speaks about women who are either dissed or feared. Gangubai Kathiawadi has got ‘Bollywood’ written all over it, Bhansali’s style of Bollywood, the one that speaks to you and also mesmerises you!
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