Gangubai Kathiawadi review: Alia Bhatt shines with a stellar performance in this otherwise flawed Sanjay Leela Bhansali film

The actress redeems every frame she is in. But for what she brings to the role, this would have been a much lesser film

Shantanu Ray ChaudhuriUpdated:Sunday, February 27, 2022, 06:53 AM IST
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After the almost execrable excesses of his last few outings – I could barely keep myself from flinching at their over-the-top tonality – I was bracing for more of the same in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. After all, the territory is ripe for his brand of extravagant cinema: the tale of a sex worker who survives extreme brutalisation to lobby with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru no less for prostitution to be legalised. That it is set in Kamathipura in the 1950s lends the narrative to the dramatic visual flourishes his films are known for.

I came away pleasantly surprised at the film’s rather mellow tone (by Bhansali’s standards). Of course, there’s the trademark eye-catching Bhansali costume and production design and ostentatious choreography complete with a candle-lit courtyard. There’s, however, a subdued melancholic strain running through it, thanks primarily to Alia Bhatt, that keeps the excesses in check.

Classic Hindi cinema has always had a special relationship with the world’s oldest profession. Courtesans and prostitutes in our films have largely been portrayed as noble souls, with a yen for articulating their miseries and worldview in profound language, with little of the nature of their work seen on screen. Bhansali’s film, firmly rooted in that tradition, is no exception. And so you have the film beginning with Begum Akhtar’s ‘Yeh na thi hamari kismat’ on the soundtrack while in another scene Gangubai is shown reading Ghalib’s poetry. In keeping with hoary Bollywood tradition, for the large part, she is draped in white, and there’s also the almost poetic flourish with which she describes the many shades of white.

But you also have the incongruous bits like her plea to Nehru about ‘Hawwa ki beti’, also quoting Sahir’s ‘Jinhe naaz hai’, the chaste purity of the language and articulation here at odds with the way she speaks in the rest of the film. Or the fact that when she says she has spent fifteen years in the brothel, you realise there’s nary a sign of the ravages of time or the profession on her face. Yes, the makeup and hairdo in the latter part do convey a more mature character than her petit, almost frail frame at the beginning. But there’s no sense in her glowing countenance of what fifteen years at Kamathipura might do to a woman. Unlike, say, Seema Pahwa’s brothel madam made hideous by years of deprivation and exploitation, or for the matter any of the other prostitutes around Gangu, including her best friend Kamli (Indira Tiwari).

But such sanitisation is par for the course for mainstream Bollywood, and in any case, when it’s a Bhansali film, you have to buy into or overlook such incongruities. As you do the rather jarring aestheticisation of a place like Kamathipura, most notably in a sequence where the electricity goes off, and you have the sex workers lighting candles while soliciting customers. DOP Sudeep Chatterjee does full justice to the director’s vision with one breath-taking sequence after another, but I, for one, could not help asking myself, ‘Really?’

At the heart of the film, its one towering strength that sweeps you and almost makes you forget its narrative slack – particularly in the second half (till its roaring climactic speech) – and its major drawbacks, the rather rushed transformation and the lack of a strong-enough adversary, is Alia Bhatt. There’s scarcely a false note in her performance that must rank with classic Hindi film acts like Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah or Madhubala’s Mughal-e-Azam. Be it thundering at an adversary, being coy with her lover Afshaan (Shantanu Maheshwari), putting a school’s uppity principal in place, or introducing herself to a journalist (‘Patrakar,’ he says; ‘Prostitute,’ she responds without batting an eyelid), she redeems every frame she is in – and she is in almost every frame of the film. But for what she brings to the role, this would have been a much lesser film. And kudos to the director for giving a female star the kind of larger-than-life treatment that is generally reserved for the Akshay Kumars and the Ajay Devgns.

Above all, Gangubai is an ode to the old-school Hindi film melodrama with some scintillating dialogue baazi. The production and sound design make many a nod at films of the era, and there’s even a golden-hearted Muslim don (Rahim Lala, played by Ajay Devgn), who takes Gangu under his wing as his sister. Like some of those films, the storytelling is simplistic, but you can’t help but go along with the voiceover at the end: ‘She came to become a heroine, but ended up as cinema itself.’

Title: Gangubai Kathiawadi

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari, Jim Sarbh

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Where: At theatres near you

Rating: 3 stars

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)

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