Disclaimer: You have been warned, there are A LOT of spoilers ahead.
Watching newly released shows or films, mostly on the day they premiere, is a part of my job as an entertainment journalist. But once in a while, there comes a film that I don’t watch solely to write about. And Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi was one of them.
So I sacrificed my sleep on the weekend (it’s a big deal) to catch the earliest show. And it was absolutely worth it, or the Bollywood-y way to say it, a total paisa vasool.
Even before its release, the Alia Bhatt starrer was brought under social media trial for its premise, supposed miscasting of the lead, and alleged whitewashing of Gangubai, a brothel madame and mafia queen.
Based on Gangubai as it is documented in journalist S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, truth be told, the film barely does any of what it was accused of prior to its release. The creator has just given us a rose-tinted view of the character to make her palatable for the audience. But one can easily accuse Bhansali of transforming the tragic life-story of a young girl sold to prostitution, into an aesthetically beautiful film.
In a scene, one of the oldest red-light districts in Mumbai lights up with candles at night as the sex workers stand on the street to invite customers. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, too, tries to focus on the little spark of light that is Gangu in the dark alleys of Kamathipura.
Of course, if this had to be an Anurag Kashyap film, we would witness the ugliest facet of the sex trade, but Bhansali (living up to his reputation) prinks up the scrubbiest aspects.
But then again, it makes me wonder if "whitewashed" films about male crime-lords would equally concern us.
Among the ample moments celebrating the glory of Gangubai in the film, the director also doesn't let slip the plight of the brothel-dwellers, in his own way. From time to time, when the camera isn’t focusing on the charismatic and fierce Gangubai, it adjusts the focus to capture a clearer image of the miseries of numberless young girls, unwillingly pushed into the flesh trade.
In particular, where Gangu pens down a letter for her fellow sex worker, each girl adds in a line or two. The agonizing yet brilliant scene shows that the same pain binds all of them. In fact, Bhansali's heroine proudly introduces herself as 'Gangubai prostitute' to a journalist (Jim Sarbh) in one of the scenes. Even after abiding by the limitations of mainstream cinema, the film calls a spade a spade.
Speaking of the core of the film, Gangubai, played by Alia Bhatt, is the one who has all the limelight here. And Bhansali makes sure we know that from the very first frame of the film.
Gangubai is dragged back to her past life when she encounters a teenage girl who is being sold in Kamathipura, just like she was years ago. Now a Gharwali, she first set foot in Kamathipura's lanes as a young, innocent girl. Sold by her lover, Ramnik Lala, it takes Ganga just a few days to accept her fate. Sheela Bai (Seema Pahwa) captures her inside a dark, dingy room to conceal Ganga’s cry of pain. That particular room, as I see it, symbolises the anguish Gangubai holds within her flinty exterior throughout the film.
Following a brief look at her past, the film traces an upward trajectory of Gangubai's life while navigating through the conniving Sheela Bai, ruthless customers, and the hurdles of her own fate.
The protagonist, like a play, is summed up in three phases of her life: Ganga, Gangu, and Gangubai.
Many times, Bhansali zooms in on Bhatt’s face as if to make us peek deeper into Gangubai than what is showcased on the surface. In fact, a scene where she indicates Afsana (Shantanu Maheshwari), her lover, to stroke her head aptly unveils her vulnerable side.
And speaking of Shantanu, one of the most inspired cast, the actor brings the innocence expected from his character in the film as well as passes on the same to Gangubai.
With her luminous presence, on-point performance, and range of emotions expressed even in the dialogue-free moments, Alia Bhatt shakes off the doubts about her acting prowess. What was pleasantly surprising is that, unlike Bollywood’s previous dialect blunders, Bhatt pulls off nearly perfect diction and remains consistent with her accent throughout the film.
On the other hand, Ajay Devgn, who plays Rahim Lala, a replica of the real-life Karim Lala, brings gravity each time he is on screen. However, his extended cameo, at times, comes as a filler for the loose ends of the plot.
And for those who have forgotten the range of Seema Pahwa’s acting brilliance, as she has lately been cast only as an unconventional mother, Sheela Bai comes as a reminder totally called for.
Vijay Raaz, who essays the role of Razia Bai, a trans-gender brothel-madame, probably has a few more minutes of screen time than what we already saw in the trailer. A spectacular actor, without a doubt, Raaz won't let you down even in that brief role. But his performance isn’t enough to suppress the miscasting of cis-gendered actors as trans characters.
In his second collaboration with Bhansali, Jim Sarbh is note-worthy in a role that is pivotal but lasts for a few minutes. He essays the character of a journalist, who, as per the film, guides Gangubai to the platform where she can fight for the rights of sex workers.
Besides the beating heart of the film that is Alia Bhatt, Bhansali’s latest offering thrives on Sudeep Chatterjee’s bewitching cinematography. The latter, much like in any other film by the director, is the strongest pillar of the plot. One look at the frame and you are instantly transferred to the bustling, dimly lit lanes of Kamathioura in the ’60s, with small eating joints and film posters stuck on every second wall.
When you move past the dramatic storytelling and the grandeur of the film that is hard to resist, you will see that Gangubai Kathiawadi is Bhatt and Bhansali’s finest so far.