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Gangubai Kathiawadi Movie Review: Alia Bhatt Puts Up Brilliant Act in Sanjay Leela Bhansali Film

Alia Bhatt on the poster of Gangubai Kathiawadi

Alia Bhatt on the poster of Gangubai Kathiawadi

Gangubai Kathiawadi movie review: Alia Bhatt practically disappears into the character of Gangubai Kathiawadi. There's a hard-to-miss intensity in her eyes, and tenacity in her voice.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Seema Pahwa and Vijay Raaz

What I love about Sanjay Leela Bhansali is that he is a champion of flawed characters. Bollywood’s usual wholesome, pretty people who live happily ever after don’t interest him. His movies are propelled by extreme personalities who are racked by doubt, fear, lust, and greed. Think of Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat or Mastani in Bajirao Mastani or Michelle McNally in Black or even Devdas Mukherjee in Devdas. To this pantheon of deliciously twisted protagonists, Bhansali adds Ganga Harjivandas Kathiawadi or Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Early in the film, Gangubai declares – Kehte hai kamathipura mein kabhi amavas ki raat nahi hoti. kyunki waha Gangu rehti hai! Aur Gangu chaand thi aur chaand rahegi. It could have been Sanjay speaking. Because above all, Gangubai Kathiawadi is a thing of beauty – the rich white fabrics, the bygone era of Kamathipura, the dingy brothel houses, and of course the sheer gorgeousness of the lead character– Alia Bhatt. Every element in Gangubai Kathiawadi is like chaand.

But films are not paintings. They need a beating heart to come alive and this is where Bhansali excels. The film is based on the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai written by S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges. The film chronicles the life and times of criminal, don, and sex worker Gangubai Kathiawadi, who was prolific in the 60s in Mumbai as the matriarch of a sex empire.

And so we have Bhatt, a young girl who migrates to Bombay with someone she loves as he promises to make her a big heroine in Hindi films. That never happens. Instead, she is sold into prostitution, where she finds herself being sucked into a world from which there is no escape. She accepts her fate early on and within a year, she wins the heart of her fellow sisters from the brothel.

That early promise of the portrayal of a promising young feisty woman, wronged and forced into prostitution withers away as she gains clout in the community and grows bigger in stature, and gains a superwoman aura. She even forms allies with the local gangster Karim Lala, played magnificently by Ajay Devgn.

However, even though the film has technical finesse, it has several hiccups in the way it builds its narrative. I wasn’t particularly seduced by the storytelling. Bhansali’s screenplay along with Utkarshini Vashishtha sets up the tone well, but the movie slumps in its middle section, which follows Gangu as she grows older. There isn’t enough material to warrant 156 minutes, and the tone gets uneven in the middle sections. But the film sputters back to life in the second half, especially during the climax. The problem also is the single-track narrative and its unwillingness to explore anyone or anything other than the Gangubai Kathiawadi-worshipping angle.

Bhatt practically disappears into the character of Gangubai Kathiawadi. There’s a hard-to-miss intensity in her eyes, and tenacity in her voice. She commands the screen with a fiery, arresting presence, never letting your attention wander away from her. She’s simply there, in that zone, casually drawing you in, scene after scene. Gangubai might be a flawed character, but Bhatt plays it with such brilliance that the audience is rooting for the character till the very end.

Take the scene in which she makes a long-distance call after 12 years to her parents when she comes to know that her father is dead, and she retaliates with an outburst to the operator who tells her that she only has 30 seconds remaining on the call. Or the scene in which she gives a passionate speech fighting for the rights of sex workers and their kids who deserve the right to be educated.

The film boasts of some of the best performances you will see by an ensemble cast in a long time, and that includes even the bit players. Of the central cast, Devgn is fantastic as the local gangster, and Seema Pahwa hits all the right notes as the brothel madam, also delivering impressive turns are Indira Tiwari as Kamli, Shantanu Maheshwari as Afshan. The only weak link is Vijay Raaz who plays the role of a transgender Raziabai. The character which is supposed to be pitted against Gangubai doesn’t seem to develop at all.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a glossier version of Gangubai’s own accomplishments to portray her struggles as a real person, sacrificing them for the sake of palatability. It is also shown that things come really easy for her and every hurdle is passed without any hesitation.

This is a seriously slow and steady film, although slightly scattered, but stunning all the same. If you’re expecting the roar and rumblings of a regular Bollywood film, this one is far from it. But therein lies the beauty of it.

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first published:February 25, 2022, 11:22 IST