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    Gangubai Kathiawadi movie review: A landmark film in Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt’s cinematic oeuvre

    Gangubai Kathiawadi movie review: A landmark film in Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt’s cinematic oeuvre

    Gangubai Kathiawadi movie review: A landmark film in Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt’s cinematic oeuvre
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    By Sneha Bengani   IST (Published)


    Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Gangubai Kathiawadi stars Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa, and Shantanu Maheshwari in important roles.

    What does a woman, who has lost her all, stands to gain? Everything.
    Despite the violence, the tragedy, and the grimness of it all, Gangubai Kathiawadi is a celebration—of a trapped woman wanting to uncage the others around her, of the magic of movies, and of a filmmaker and an actor at the peak of their craft.
    The towering brilliance of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the filmmaker, often overshadows the maverick music composer that he is. But I want to make no such mistake. Gangubai Kathiawadi’s background score is its throbbing heart, its aching soul. It’s as indispensable to the film as its dreamlike, make-believe version of the Kamathipura of the 1960s washed in ivory whites, olive greens, soft ochres, pastel blues, and muted reds. It’s as eclectic as the visuals, oscillating between the magical and the melancholic. Gangubai’s music does for the film what Johnny Greenwood’s genre-bending score did for Kristen Stewart’s 2021 film Spencer. It elevates the narrative, makes it river-like—free-flowing, uncontainable, with a life of its own.
    When Alia Bhatt announced two years ago that she would play the titular role in Bhansali’s upcoming adaption based on a chapter in Hussain Zaidi’s 2011 non-fiction book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, it raised several eyebrows. She was apparently too young to play the power-wielding Madam of Kamathipura. However, if casting mistakes result in such sublime performances, I hope filmmakers take a cue from this and continue to make such gaffes more often. Bhatt is transcendental as Gangubai. I cannot imagine anyone else playing her with such brazenness and abandonment.
    Her Gangu is a walking bundle of delicious contradictions. She is bold and yet vulnerable. Empowered but constrained. She is deeply self-aware and yet she dares to dream. Her swan-like beauty is a sharp contrast to the coarse curses that flow out of her mouth uninhibited. Her lips often curve into a smile but her eyes barely mask the infinite sadness of her being. She is beautiful in the way the wilderness is. Unloved, untamed, unstoppable. She looks at the moon—she is it—but her feet are rooted in the dirt.
    There’s a scene in the film in which she takes all the women of her brothel to watch a movie, challenging the madam of the house played by a terrific Seema Pahwa. In that sequence, Bhatt looks unmistakably like her mother Soni Razdan did in another gem—Shyam Benegal’s 1983 film Mandi. That’s the magic of cinema. If done well, it transcends space, time, and boundaries.
    But Gangubai Kathiawadi isn’t just another spectacle of Bhansali’s opulence or a piece of history brought to life through his Midas touch. By mounting a sex worker’s story on a humongous canvas and telling it in such a rousing and compelling way, Bhansali has thrown a spotlight on a section of women that we, as a society, have grown comfortable with being in the dark. When a country wages war on another, it makes international headlines, draws cries of help and support, and rightly so. But what about these women who have been at war with themselves and with the society that they haven’t been allowed to be a part of for centuries now? What about the violation of their human rights? Who is listening to their cries of help?
    Gangubai is a landmark film also because it does not pity, victimize, or villainize sex workers, as has been the norm in Bollywood. It does not even try to seek redemption for its protagonist in love or domesticity. Gangu is her own weapon. There’s a scene towards the end of the film when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asks her if she never thinks of leaving it all and starting afresh somewhere afar. Gangu’s short, straight reply, sans any melodrama or histrionics, shows the distance Indian films have traveled in portraying sex workers on screen and the distance that we, as one populace, still need to cover.
    Gangubai Kathiawadi is a highly stylized, fleet-footed, and wonderfully entertaining film. Written by Bhansali and Utkarshini Vashishtha, the dialogues are flamboyant and poetic, much like everything else—the music, cinematography, art direction, production design, and acting performances. The film is sparsely populated, with each character in the frame only for as long as necessary, each leaving a mark despite limited screen time. Among the motley group of actors, watch out for Vijay Raaz. As Gangubai’s transgender opponent, he is magnificent.
    At one point in the film, Gangu asks a journalist (played by Jim Sarbh) why he’s doing all that he is for her. He just smiles in response. It reminded me of the note that Sally Hawkins’s royal dresser Maggie leaves for Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana in Spencer as she drives away from the Queen's Sandringham estate in the climactic scene. The note reads, “It’s not just me who loves you.”
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