Gangubai Kathiawadi: A Solid Spectacle With A Beating Heart

Over the years Sanjay Leela Bhansali has become synonymous with telling stories on a larger than life canvas. His last three films Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat are good examples of that. This larger than life canvas has also backfired in films like Ranbir Kapoor’s Saawariya but there is no denying the artisticness of Bhansali irrespective of whether you agree with his storytelling or not.

In Gangubai the director takes up a gritty real life story and narrates it with his trademark dramatic touch. The result is a largely satisfying film which touches upon a very important topic. He is also aided by the supremely talented cast led by his formidable leading lady. Alia Bhatt sinks her teeth into the role and comes up with the best performance of her career but more on that later.

The story of Gangubai is set in the 60’s and is inspired by a chapter from S Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai. With the help of the cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee Bhansali immediately transports you into the area of Kamatipura. The plot is divided into three chapters. First you have Ganga being brought into the streets of Kamathipura and sold by her lover Ramnik. Ganga had aspirations of becoming a Bollywood heroine and Ramnik used that to his advantage and coaxed her to run away from home under false pretences. Seema Pahwa plays the brothel owner Sheela Masi. It is good to see the actress taking a break from her usual mother roles and doing something different, she is delightfully evil.

Much like the other four thousand woman of Kamatipura Ganga has no other option other than to make a living there. She gives up all hope and in a heartbreaking scene we see her standing in the front of a brothel, leaning on its door and seducing men by calling out to them in whispers. From here we see the character transforming into a fire brand go getter who gradually climbs up the ladder. She wears her past proudly on her sleeve, for example there is a scene in the later half where she introduces herself to Jim Sarbh’s character as Gangubai the prostitute. The interactions of Gangu with the supporting characters and how that shapes up her life also form an important part of the story. One of the most important supporting characters is that of Ajay Devgan’s Rahim Lala. He is a Muslim gangster who is a huge pillar of support for Gangu along with being her rakhi brother. Ajay is in smashing form and brings his trademark swagger.

There is a line in a film which says Gangubai wasn’t Mahaan but she wasn’t a devil either. This perfectly sums up the approach that Sanjay Leela Bhansali has taken. Early on in the film we see Gangubai freeing a girl from a prostitute house and sending her back home. This is done with a certain political purpose as we get to know later. There is also a scene where she sets up the marriage of a prostitute daughter with a son of a Muslim Tailor Afshan ( Shantanu Maheshwari); here also there is a reason why she does that. In these scenes we can see the shrewdness that Gangubai has learnt from the harsh circumstances that she has gone through. At the same time there is a genuine empathy that she has for sex workers, there is a reason why she wants to become to become the madam of Kamathipura. The reason is she wants to improve the lives of the sex workers. This comes out perfectly in her stunning speech at Azad Maidaan. Bhansali does a splendid job in bringing out these two shades.

Gangubai’s love story with Afshan also gives the film some of its best moments. Their romance is subtle but yet heartwarming. The two love songs Jab Saiyaan and Meri Jaan have been perfectly used by the director. They don’t come across as speed breakers. Out of the two my favorite one is Meri Jaan. You wish that Gangubai had a happy ending with Afshan.

Another track worth mentioning here is the friendship between Gangubai and Kamili played by Indira Tiwari. Their on screen bond is a treat to watch. There is a strong emotional scene between Gangubai and Kamili when the latter is on the verge of dying. It is a scene which is highly moving.

The scenes between Ajay Devgan and Alia are also good to watch but you wish there was little more of Ajay. The same goes to Vijay Raazi’s Rajyabhai. He plays an opponent to Gangu. Their rivalry is fun to watch but Vijay Raaz comes across as underutilized after a point.

As I earlier said Alia sinks her teeth into the role. Since the release of the teaser there has been a certain talk about alternate casting but once you see the film you realize why Sanjay Leela Bhansali stuck to her.

The best thing about Alia’s performance is the authority that she brings in her voice when the character makes the transition from being a helpless prostitute worker to the madam of Kamathipura. Her comic timing in the lighter bits is also too good. In short this is truly an award winning performance. Out of the supporting cast Indira Tiwari and Shantnu stand out the most.

The music of Gangubai mostly works but the one featuring Huma Qureshi could have been done away with. The song Dholida isn’t too high on lyrics but it still highly watchable thanks to Energetic performance of Alia. The second part of the song makes more of an impression.

The one area where the movie falters is its pre-climax and climax, Gangubai’s conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru could have been more impactful, in the sense she should have been talking to him with more humility. Also the climax where a swarm of people are cheering Gangubai stretches a little too much.

Watch Gangubai for its leading lady and the importance of its real life story.

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