Gangubai Kathiawadi review: Alia Bhatt leads the fight for dignity for all Gangubais of the world

Far from perfect, the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film shines for its message and the stellar show of its lead actor.

Rating: 3 / 5

Alia Bhatt in and as Gangubai Kathiawadi [2022]

By Mayur Lookhar

A leading mainstream actress and a mainstream filmmaker known for his populist and opulent cinema. The trailer made it clear why Gangubai Kathiawadi [2022] was bound to be Alia Bhatt and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s maiden avant-garde cinema. As the screen flashed ‘A Sanjay Leela Bhansali film’, a voice emanates from behind, “Oh s**t, this is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film! Then we will be in for three hours.” This reviewer turned around to find a big burly man. Well, the ignorance was surprising but also a reminder why Gangubai Kathiawadi [2022] is perhaps such an unBhansali film. And it isn’t a three-hour marathon like most Bhansali films.

The gentleman was snoring post interval. Chuck him, but it was a pleasant surprise to find a theatre to full permissible capacity on a Tuesday for a 11.00 am show. What delighted us more was the fact that most of the audience was filled with young women. A film on a 60s commercial sex worker being viewed largely by a female audience in 2022. That’s a positive change. The late Gangubai Kathiawadi (1939-2008) would have been pleasantly surprised by such turnout. Bhansali’s film is derived from a chapter from noted crime writer S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai [2011], with original research by journalist Jane Borges.  

The essence is on change. Has Gangubai Kathiawadi succeeded in changing the attitude of civil society towards commercial sex workers?

The Kamathipura today looks more like a dungeon with better maintained competitor brothels buzzing more with lusty customers. We weren’t around in the 1960s, but it’s safe to say that that if not opulent, Bhansali’s Kamathipura is lit up by the free-spirit, the courage of its Madam and her fellow sex workers. The brothel of Bengal was turned into grandiose harem by Bhansali in Devdas [2002[. That was simply no option in Gangubai Kathiawadi [2022].  Bhansali and his team capture the external and the internal milieu of Kamathipura aptly. Whilst the exterior is buzzing with noise, economic activities, wandering philanderers, it’s the internal turmoil that transcends well into Bhansali and Utkarshini Vashishtha’s screenplay. It’s not the walls in Kamathipura, but the societal boundaries that have stifled not just their spirit but also robbed the sex workers of their shadows. Mostly sleep deprived and abused at odd hours, their world is limited to the walls of Kamathipura. These women are caged souls in every sense.

Ganga Harjivandas [Alia Bhatt], the daughter of a Kathiawadi [Gujarat] barrister was lured by celluloid dreams, only to be tricked into prostitution by her lover Ramnik Laal [Varun Kapoor]. It was the first time she travelled in a train, and unfortunately, it would be a long time before Ganga would see one again.  

She didn’t choose this life, but once part of the trade, Ganga became Gangubai, the Madam of the brothel, a fearless lady who would later fight for the right to dignity for commercial sex workers and demand a level playing field for their children.

The first half plays along expected lines, a tad dull and its only Bhatt’s intensity that doesn’t break the engagement.  The film though gains momentum post interval where Gangubai doesn’t bat an eyelid in taking on any adversary nor afraid to ram home her point. Legalizing prostitution is likely to result in polarized views. But among those opposing it, could be many who veil their identities and roam in the lusty streets.  Be it the police, politicians, religious lot, Gangubai spares no one in exposing the hypocrisy of the society. Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha’s dialogues are straight, maybe crude, but hard to ignore.

If there is no demand, then the morally conscious society wouldn’t have the Gangubais. Unfortunately, we live in a morally bankrupt world that is driven by a currency. Bhansali’s sex workers appear more as women coerced into flesh trade.  Whilst that might hold true for the Kamathipuras, but the greed of the escort services in upscale society is a subject that still needs to be explored more holistically in Hindi cinema. The film industry itself is tainted with casting couch but sexual exploitation is also part of other walks of life.  

These can be debated on another day, in another film. Reverting back to the film, the first half suffers from a laboured Gangubai-Afsaan [Shantanu Maheshwari] romance [pin it on populist trope] and the territorial supremacy between Gangubai and Rashmibai [Chhaya Kadam], and later an electoral contest with Raziabai [Vijay Raaz]. The eerie introduction suggests that the eunuch Raziabai could be the chief antagonist. Raaz’s brilliance through comes in a guest appearance. As informed by a reliable source, Raziabai is a dramatized character. But through him Bhansali draws our eyes to the presence of such characters in the sex trade business.

Ajay Devgn’s Rahim Lala is modelled on late don Karim Lala, but dons a Haji Mastan hat. The Gangubai-Lala sibling-like bond draws few cheers, but it is hard to mute voices that often cry hoarse of Bollywood presenting underworld men as larger-than-life characters.

There’s only a chapter on Gangubai in Hussain Zaidi’s book and maybe that is where Bhansali and his writers had to improvise to flesh out the story of Gangubai Kathiawadi. If the much famous meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t happen, it could have been hard to find impact moments in Gangubai’s story. Bhansali and Alia Bhatt though make the few moments count.

Maybe with time, the Kathiawadi accent gave way to the bitter Mumbai lingo. Alia Bhatt had a crash course in the local Mumbaiyya accent in Gully Boy [2019], but she does the full course in Gangubai Kathiawadi.  A mainstream actress, one on top of her game, Bhatt braves to play a character that many A-list actresses would have happily snubbed to protect their image.  She didn’t mind the tan as the Bihari labour in Udta Punjab [2016], Bhatt sheds all inhibitions to give an empowering performance. Don’t go by her thin frame, but the girl can amp up the tempo when required.  Until now, all the world had of Gangubai was a picture of an old lady. Bhatt gives her a voice, highlights the purpose of her life. The strong views, the drama will divide opinions, but there’s unanimity on the fact that this is another stellar show by the 28-year-old. The lone blip here is that as her characters ages, Bhatt still looks young.

The message though is spelled out loud – Respect, dignity, and a level playing field for children of the sexworkers. Bhansali’s Gangubai rakes up feminism at a time when the word didn’t even enter the contours of India. All children of sex workers are shown as females, thus all the more strengthening its feminist cause. Gangubai makes her point hard, but without being in your face.

Seema Pahwa is menacing as Sheelabai, Gangu’s predecessor. There’s more chemistry between Gangubai and her co-worker Kamli [Indira Tiwari] than Gangu-Afsaan. Ah, that affair a bit too mushy for our taste. Tiwari is as competent as Alia.  

Though late, Jim Sarbh makes an instant impact on the film playing the well-meaning journalist Amin Faizi. Zaidi, Faizi, is there any connection here? We learnt though that Faizi is a fictitious name, but the character isn’t. And not modelled on Zaidi (54). Watching Sarbh speak in barely few English words must have been a test for him, but the gifted actor regales in the humility of Faizi.

Maybe the plot didn’t warrant any grand music, and so that is missing in this Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. The few tracks are perhaps stuff of fantasy, but it adds some color in the dark lives of the girls of Kamathipura. The Ghoomer, Dholida folk justify Gangubai’s Kathiawadi roots. There’ also bit of Mughal-E-Azam hangover, mujra culture of 60s.  One such moment has Huma Qureshi playing a mujra dancer. The film could have done without it.

The production design matches the story, but also adding a certain charm to Kamathipura. The film doesn’t have an archetypal dramatic Bhansali climax. Gangubai is all about seeking dignity, respect. 152 minutes later, you may not agree with her views, but Bhansali, Alia Bhatt compel you to show a certain respect to all Gangubais of the world.

Gangubai Kathiawadi [2022]] is currently running in theatres. Watch the trailer below.


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