With a scene of a tiny child with a mound of cotton jammed into her mouth and a pin shoved through her nose, Gangubai Kathiawadi sets the tone for the rest of the film. However, after a few blunders, it succeeds and charms with its eloquence. It clarifies how sex workers deserve an equitable living, on par with other professions in society, without being pedantic.
On Friday, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Gangubai Kathiawadi, starring Alia Bhatt in the lead role, was released in theatres. The film made its global premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it got positive reviews despite being frequently postponed due to the pandemic.
Ganga Harjeevandas Kathiawadi was a Gujarati woman who rose to prominence as one of Mumbai’s most well-known and powerful brothel operators in the 1950s and 1960s. Her spouse is believed to have sold her to a brothel proprietor in Kamathipura. One of Mumbai’s oldest and most known red light areas is Kamathipura. She later founded her own brothel and is renowned for pushing for the rights of sex workers in the commercial sector.
Set in a portion of Kamathipura known as Mumbai’s red-light district, it tells the story of Ganga (Alia Bhatt), a part-real, part-fictional woman from a prestigious family sold into the flesh trade by someone she trusted. Unlike Raj Kapoor’s Ganga, she becomes thoroughly sullied, confronts society’s hypocrisy, and eventually rises from the ashes to create a home out of a brothel while fighting for the rights of its prisoners.
Writer-director Thankfully, Sanjay Leela Bhansali doesn’t depict a frantic hagiography of a lady who goes up the social ladder by any means necessary. Instead, he concentrates on Ganga’s interactions with the individuals that enter her life, the wounds and heartaches she endures, and what she becomes in the end.
A mafia don, inspired by Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn), takes on the role of a brother to the sex worker. Then there’s the tailor (Shantanu Maheshwari), who dresses her longing for a life outside the brothel, and there’s Razia (Vijay Raaz), who threatens to sabotage her plans. Not to mention her ties to the brothel’s inmates. These bittersweet sections keep us invested in the story and keep us interested.
Bhansali, who also doubles as a composer and editor, stays on the periphery of his safe territory, avoiding selling suffering and racing into those dark chambers where hopes are mutilated. So much so that he edits scenes just before they are about to enter the exploitative zone in the build-up to the heart of the flesh trade.
Instead, he lingers near the bed of black flowers, as Gangu describes her ilk, and conveys the scent to us. It’s powerful, spicy, and fragrant in turns, and it leaves you with an ethereal feeling. Take, for example, the scenario in which convicts dress up the body of a sex worker who died after giving birth to a kid. Even death looks lovely and provokes various emotions in Bhansali’s hands, which is as raw as it gets.
Bhansali is at his best here, as he has managed to mix art and content. He’s been attempting to build a modern-day Mughal-e-Azam for a long time, and now he almost succeeds with a Pakeezah for the millennials. Bhansali, devoted to cinematic visual grammar, painstakingly strips off the element of lust through melodic songs that are adequate to portray the complicated layers of the human heart behind the linear storey. In particular, Meri Jaan and Jab Saiyaan are essential to the story. They may be seen on repeat and are well worth the admission price.
He has a muse in Alia who can show numerous emotions using words, silences, and expressions in a single shot. She minimises the aspect of acting in her performance, whether it’s through body language or dialogue. In Meri Jaan, she crystallises the complicated that Ganga carries within her in one song, making you cry, laugh, and feel guilty all at the same time. Even the predictable becomes interesting when Alia gradually morphs from Ganga to Gangubai, smiles in pain, and softly hectors a youngster at the threat of approaching conflict.
Even when Gangu attempts to interrupt the lecture, Prakash Kapadia and Utkarishini Vashisht’s conversations remain conversational. Dev Anand’s casual presence is more than merely symbolic.
Alia elicits strong reactions from the supporting characters, particularly Vijay Raaz, who gives a brief but memorable performance. He sends shivers down your spine as the eunuch sex worker and leaves you wanting more. Shantanu uses his dance background to help bring the beautiful romance to life. Devgn’s role is to provide star value, which he does easily.
Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography is reminiscent of Kamal Amrohi’s film, as the camera penetrates filthy surfaces to coincide with the dwellers’ souls. He creates a visual treat in collaboration with Bhansali. Chatterjee rustles up dollops of nostalgia and amazement in the entering shot of Razia, with the larger-than-life film posters in the background and playing a feature picture in the midst of a street, but he also generates a subtle temptation to have us stroll in the forbidden paths of Kamathipura.
The pragmatic could dispute the heroine’s reliance on a don and the lack of a powerful finale, but this one is for the romance of a diminutive underdog with a fierce personality, someone who bites with her beautiful grin.