The phrase ‘it is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film’ evokes grandeur and larger-than-life storytelling. With Gangubai Kathiawadi, he finds both a character who is extraordinary and a riveting story. An adaptation of chapters from Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai, the film stars a flawless Alia Bhatt in the lead role.
It is a biopic, and Bhansali never lets you forget that all must be charmed or vanquished by Gangubai, including the audience. The spotlight never wavers, and that is what makes the film engrossing.
What stands out, or has stood out in Padmaavat (2018) and now Gangubai Kathiawadi, is how violence is depicted. From the opening scene of a nose piercing to the beating up of Gangubai by a customer, violence is part of the film constantly and that is a world that Gangu learns to not just survive, but rule over. In the Kamathipura created by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, there is no other option.
It is an Alia Bhatt show
From being forced into prostitution to becoming a woman who has politicians knocking at her door, Gangubai’s rise in her 30s is meteoric. After the trailer was launched, many on social media wondered if casting Tabu or Vidya Balan for the role would have been better. But Alia proves she is up for the challenge and how.
The trailer made many feel that Vijay Raaz as Razia Bai would steal her thunder. But Alia manages to hold her own against Raaz, both as an actor and as the character she plays. From being funny and vulnerable to the woman almost helplessly in love, and yet choosing her 4,000-odd family of sex workers over everything, Alia aces all emotions without a glitch.
Alia spouting gaalis in the street at midnight, in between hiccups, while chasing two of Razia Bai’s cronies is an iconic moment in the film and in the history of drunken moments. The other is when a trunk call operator warns her that the call has 30 seconds left when Gangubai is informed that her father is dead, and she has no idea how to absorb the news.
The men in Gangubai’s world
In the world of Gangubai Kathiawadi, men exist as extras and in extremes. They either exploit you or push you forward. But that is it. Despite a whole range of actors from Ajay Devgn, Jim Sarbh to Shantanu Maheshwari, who makes his Bollywood debut with the film, who propel Gangubai’s journey forward. She needs them, but she can also survive without them.
The actors do their job well, be it Sarbh’s journalist Faizi or Devgns’ mafia don Rahim and Maheshwari’s besotted lover Afsan. But Gangubai is the story. From the man who sells her for a mere Rs 1,000 to Rahim, who makes her the Mafia Queen, Gangubai is a force that will survive even without them. Their names are not important, hers is.
Her focus never shifts–her priorities is her fellow sex workers, their rights, and the rights of their children. She takes on the goddess role and makes sure she follows through. Cigarettes, desi tharra or alcohol, and her gold teeth are her indulgences, but when it comes to business and politics, the focus is Kamathipura and how to live a dignified life in an ‘undignified’ profession.
The Bhansali factor
One cannot talk about a Bhansali movie without talking about costumes and dance. From the iconic Dola Re to Pinga Re and now Dholida, Bhansali ensures one song stands out in terms of its grandiose. Despite Dholida not being as glamourised as the songs that have played similar roles in his earlier films, it has its charm clearly and has already been picked up by Instagram Reels.
A Bhansali movie is a lot about its costumes, with their own life and historic moments. In Gangubai, it is white sarees and Alia’s monologue where she describes white in all its avatars. Her donning white is a subversion, of course. She is no longer directly engaged in prostituting herself, but she never lets anyone forget that she is one and that she is proud of that. The white of Mother India and ‘madame’ of a brothel is woven in her attire.
From cotton to chikankari, Gangubai dons every fabric, every kind of white, with roses in her hair.
The movie’s end feels predictable and underwhelming, compared to the fiery attitude that it otherwise displays. It does not quite end with a bang, but it does tie all the narrative threads together and reminds you that the woman who ran away to become a heroine, does become the queen of Kamathipura.