Gangubai Kathiawadi Review
By any standard, the story of an Indian sex worker who campaigned for the legalization of sex work more than 50 years ago is compelling enough to make a movie. In her fight for women's rights in a red light district as far back as the 1960s, the heroine of Gangubai Kathiawadi by Sanjay Leela Bhansali achieved all of this and more, according to the film.
The film is based on Gangubai's life as it is presented in the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai by author Jane Borges and journalist S. Hussain Zaidi. Beyond the costumery, the showy choreography, along with the art design so characteristic of a Bhansali production, this woman's overt feminism distinguishes Gangubai Kathiawadi from the rest of the writer-directors filmography as well as from the numerous tales of courtesans, madams, as well as pimps told by Hindi cinema since its inception.
Though it is clear that Gangubai Kathiawadi has sanitized Gangubai, maybe in an effort to make the activist and leading woman more appealing to a conservative audience. Logic suggests that Bhansali is giving us a rosy view of Gangu because he doesn't do much to explain how she ran her business if she was, as the movie variously says and suggests, allowing the women in her care to leave at their discretion, trying to stop the daughters of sex workers from working in the industry, getting rid of pimps in her brothel, and opposing forced recruitment into the trade after assuming a leadership role. After making all these idealistic choices, how did she continue to operate under the guiding principle of "beimaani ke kaam mein imaandaari," as she refers to it in the context of another profession?
This sanitization is ironic, of course, as Gangubai Kathiawadi calls for an end to the hypocrisy of a culture that both patronizes and denigrates sex work. It is also ironic as the movie itself appears unwilling to delve into the truths that might not have supported this perfect portrayal of Gangu and/or would have required more nuanced writing.
The story follows Ganga (Bhatt) from her affluent family's happy adolescence to the time her paramour sold her to Kamathipura, a neighborhood in Mumbai known for its sex trade. It follows her through her early trauma and eventual climb to activism.
It is encouraging to see Bhansali give Bhatt the treatment that commercial Indian film typically saves for male actors in men-centric extravaganzas: a dramatic entrance, and camerawork that bestows a larger-than-life air on this little lady.
For this play, Bhatt's practically childlike body and features undergo a change that is both striking and perplexing, remarkable and insufficient, the product of her own efforts and the labour of a team. When the camera zooms in on her in the second part of the movie, she is visibly different from the baby-faced performer we first meet thanks to her noticeable makeup, her hairstyles, her allegedly slightly enlarged facial structure, and her growing attitude.
Her posture, smile, and other features develop with Gangubai nee Ganga. But when she says later that it has been 15 years since she first came to Kamathipura, it surprises me since, whatever else has changed or not, her radiant skin seems miraculously unaffected by growing older. Of course, this is the final resort for commercial Hindi directors who simply cannot stand the idea of a stunning female lead with even the slightest hint of a lined or drooping face. A woman's personality, not her complexion, determines how radiant she is, and Ms. Bhatt, for one, has tonnes of personality. But try telling Bollywood that.
All of this, however, pales in comparison to the way Bhatt seems to have absorbed Gangubai into herself, giving her a towering majesty, a mischievous nature, a vein of steel, and a crushed heart all at once. She also manages to maintain an incredibly constant accent and raspy voice, which she cultivated especially for the part, without being bothered with either.
Even putting aside the heroine's looks for a moment, the timing of the story occasionally seems odd when real-life cultural and political allusions are spaced apart by years rather than months or years.
The friendship between Gangubai and the delightfully portrayed local tailor, Shantanu Maheshwari, and their endearing method of communicating are the best examples of her humorous nature.
Maheshwari and Ajay Devgan, who gives gravity to his prolonged appearance as a notorious Mumbai criminal fashioned after the real-life Karim Lala, are two of the more creative casting decisions in Gangubai Kathiawadi. However, Seema Pahwa is cruelly treated because of the way cosmetics, camera angles, and lighting are used to exaggerate her reactions. Indira Tiwari is excellent as Gangu's buddy at the brothel and Jim Sarbh is excellent as a journalist.
While Bhatt's character steers the emotional centre of the movie, she frequently has to contend with Bhansali's propensity for excess. However, unlike 2010's Guzaarish and Padmaavat, where the filmmaker made even a Sati scene into a fashion parade, Gangubai Kathiawadi never becomes tediously symmetrical and beautiful. Additionally, the director does not aim for the obnoxious, wearisome visual perfection of Padmaavat. However, this movie has a constant stream of pointless, if visually appealing, set pieces, many of which have become a staple of the Bhansali formula and this time contain hummable but forgettable songs.
When a sex worker passes away and her coworkers surround her like precisely placed figurines standing for a painting rather than real people lamenting the loss of a friend, the perfection might become irritating. The spirit and vitality of the movie are eroded by these sections.
Even Vijay Raaz, who portrays a transsexual person in Kamathipura named Raziabai, is viewed more as a spectacular image than a living being. The politics of using cis males as trans characters has been the topic of enough public discourse in India in recent years for Bhansali to have heard about it. It's disappointing that he went with a cisgender actor for this role, especially since real-life Tran's actors have already been cast in non-caricatured trans roles in conservative India, like Sheethal Shyam in the 2018 Malayalam film Aabhaasam and Meera Singhania in the 2017 Bhima Jewellers commercial. The manner Raziabai is portrayed in the movie as well as manufactured images make Bhansali's casting decision worse.
The second half of Gangubai Kathiawadi is particularly hampered by the urge to create impressionistic vistas, yet a sequence in Mumbai's Azad Maidan rekindles the by this point rather plodding story. In that scene, the protagonist's charm, sense of humour, and oratory prowess are all on full show.
Even as Bhansali's story rises, shines, falls, descends, and rises once more, Gangubai Kathiawadi's fire, pzazz, and brightness - Bhatt and Gangubai's - remain its throbbing heart.
This movie is stunning to look at, just like all of Bhansali's work is. There are many details about her life that are still unknown, even though the narrative puts to light some important realities about our society, the lives of sex workers, and important concerns. The narrative maintains some really dramatic situations and clap-worthy exchanges that keep you interested in a movie that feels longer than it should be.