Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Bhansali’s Film Is A Surefire Triumph
It’s unfortunate that Gangubai Kathiawadi was met with such transgressions and ill-fate even before its release. The film, shunned for casting the nepotism-stricken Alia Bhatt in its lead role, invited seemingly endless criticism. With countless naysayers already undermining Alia’s performance based solely off the trailers and branding her a misfit for the role, how does she indeed fare as the titular Gangubai?
Well, Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi explodes with his archetypal grandiosity and production extravagance, but Alia shines even more so.
There’s been a painfully recent slew of Bollywood films so desperately yearning to nail the biopic genre. From ones that shamelessly embrace a campy, overblown nature to sincere, shoestring budget ones which struggle to thrive, we’ve seen them all. And what one could seemingly deduce from Gangubai Kathiawadi’s ostentatious trailers and promotions, we had another cheesy, distasteful, soap-opera headed our way. But how could we collectively fathom another generic tale, when the feature is helmed by none other than Sanjay Leela Bhansali himself.
Gangubai Kathiawadi shoots straight to the point, drawing us into the seedy alleys and the sinister underbelly of a red light area. In a conventionally melodramatic fashion, Alia’s Gangubai is heroically summoned to console and persuade a newcomer girl sold into prostitution. And in typical Bollywood fare, a now-aged Gangubai, begins reciting her own past with the gleaming eyes of a former dreamer.
It's over-the-top, shamelessly lavish, and crafted with the kind of eye-catching bravura Bollywood has been so deprived of. Harkening back to her former life as the naïve, gullible Ganga, we see how the young starlet was swayed by her lover, Ramnik to abandon it all and float off to Bombay and pursue her acting dreams. But in a horrifying twist, the aspiring girl finds herself ensnared in Ramnik’s trap, as he abandons her in a brothel, having sold her off for some measly financial gain. From here on, Gangubai Kathiawadi delves into the mafia queen’s tumultuous rise to prominence, and the kind of perturbing and drastic twists her life entailed.
The first half of Gangubai Kathiawadi is shockingly smooth sailing. Sure, it may be rough around the edges but Bhansali recounts Gangubai’s depraved rags-to-riches tale with precision and delicacy, never once feeling exploitative or melodramatic. We witness the appalling ordeals she was subjected to during her prostitution stint, a barrage of distressing abuse and humiliation. There’s a tiny moment as a distressed young Gangubai struggles to pose outside the brothel and invite men in, and the other prostitutes mockingly correct her position to something more seductive, setting in stone her life to come. It’s a passing scene, but it cements a “this is the way, get used to it” outlook for the young Gangubai. Gangubai Kathiawadi’s first half is littered with such crucial moments, as Bhansali deftly unveils the depravity of brothel life and the steely endurance the women bear.
Shantanu Maheshwari and Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi. (Credits: Bhansali Productions/Pen India Limited)
The first half solely spans Gangubai’s reputational upsurge in the Kamathipura area, and the costs she bore on her rise to power. Without giving away critical plot elements, Bhansali’s treatment of the first half is utterly awe-inspiring, and the kind of magic he weaves with his marriage of production opulence coupled with razor-sharp storytelling is truly exceptional.
This makes it even more of a crushing disappointment as Gangubai Kathiawadi begins conforming to excruciating predictability in the second half. What once erupted with promise now dissipates into a traditional Bollywood structure, as we finally catch up to a present-day Gangubai, who begins a tryst with a magazine writer, while also engaging in mild politics. The film slowly starts to fall apart here, losing the thread of what made its first half light up so resplendently. Plot elements assume histrionic turns, and the film begins teetering far too much on melodramatic barriers as opposed to carefully unravelling its narrative. Over-the-top moments become a tad too much and the film even resorts to the old “sentiment-heavy speech on stage” for its climax.
It’s also upsetting how the film swiftly chugs along with Gangubai and her exploits, leaving behind the vital politics of a red light area in the dust. It does stir an essential debate about the ingrained ethical shaming of sex workers across all echelons of society, but regrettably never pursues or probes further to truly dissect such a sensitive theme. Thankfully, Gangubai Kathiawadi, is never fully the victim of an agonizingly cursed second half. It dampens the impact, but never diminishes its overall power.
Ajay Devgan in Gangubai Kathiawadi (Credits: Bhansali Productions/Pen India Limited)
One only expects unbridled splendor and extravagance from Bhansali and Gangubai Kathiawadi is no black sheep. The film is fortified by its unparalleled visuals, courtesy of the magnificent Sudeep Chatterjee. From suffocating bedrooms to cramped alleyways, Bhansali peppers the production with his own sensibilities, transforming minor moments into truly grand ones. And before one commences raving about Alia Bhatt’s performance, the supporting cast is far too splendid to ignore. Seema Pawha is just tremendous as the despicable, evil-eyed, and money-hungry brothel head, who’d been willing to subject her girls to any sexual extremes for a quick buck. The same goes for Vijay Raaz, who arrives for fleeting moments but is so extraordinary, even Alia struggles to hold her own against the veteran master. Jim Sarbh is reliably excellent, as are Ajay Devgn and Imali Tiwari in lighter, more side-lined roles.
But it’s certainly no secret that Alia remains the absolute woman of the hour here. Having to dance elaborate pieces, or to be more specific Bhansali dance pieces, in addition to capturing the rise of a young prostitute to a formidable mafia queen, Alia needed to act the hell of out this role and the starlet most certainly does. For all the criticisms she may invite, Bhatt silences her naysayers with a performance for the ages.
There’s a lot Gangubai Kathiawadi could have dissected differently, both in matters of tone and structure, but Bhansali’s film is far from a miscast blunder, and may truly be one of his most memorable works. It isn’t perfect. It’s ridiculously stylized and sluggishly overdramatic and yes, exceedingly long as well.
But for what it’s worth, Bhansali sure has a definitive crowd-pleaser in his hands, and one that’s fantastically well-made and acted too for a change.
Watch the Gangubai Kathiawadi trailer here.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is now playing in theaters near you.
Author Biographical Note: The author is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Jai Hind College, Mumbai. He is currently working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue in the capacity of an intern.
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