A couple of months after its big theatrical release, Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is now available to stream online on Netflix. Praises have already been heaped on Bhatt for her portrayal of the controversial character and I’m fully aware of how late I am to the party when I say that Alia Bhatt has delivered one of her best performances in this Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. But, and there’s always a but, is that enough to save this under-written over two-hour long movie? Should you really spend precious hours of the time you can, I don’t know, otherwise spend staring at a wall contemplating the end of free speech as we know it now that Elon Musk is buying Twitter and will most likely censor memes about his children’s names? This is something you’ll have to decide for yourself after you read this review, so get your snacks and settle in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Let me start off by saying that I’m not a Bhansali fan. The excess and grandeur get exhausting once you realise there’s no story backing all the beautiful set pieces. To me, it feels like patronising your audience, while others would say he is delivering an experience. We’ll just agree to disagree. With Gangubai, however, there is an attempt to move past the artfully constructed sets to flesh out a story that has heart and enough emotional depth to keep you hooked for the long two-hour thirty-minute run time of the movie.
Based on a chapter from Hussain Zaidy’s 2011 book The Mafia Queens of Bombay, the movie tells the story, albeit a sanitised version, of the real-life Gangubai who fought for the rights of sex workers over half a century ago after rising through the ranks in the brothel she was sold to at 17.
At the beginning of the movie we see Bhatt as the fresh-faced, naive Ganga Jamnadas from Kathiawad, the daughter of a barrister, who gets swept up in dreams of making it big as a Bollywood star in Bombay, enough to trust her boyfriend (fiance?) and follow him to the big city. She ends up in a brothel in the Kamathipura district, known for being populated by sex workers, after being sold for mere INR 1000. From here on now, we see Ganga’s slow and heartbreaking transformation into Gangu, a much stronger, dignified, and smarter version of her old self. Bhatt shines when she is Ganga, dancing without any care in the world because are you even a Bhansali heroine if you don’t perform Garba to showcase your free-spirit and spunk? You want to reach out and shake her by the shoulders as she listens, enraptured, to her boyfriend’s tall tales of what awaits her in Bombay. You want to hug her as she lays on the floor, clutching the keys to her father’s wardrobe in her hands, spirit broken and a dull acceptance of her fate settling in her eyes.
Bhatt delivers and how.
It’s when the activism starts seeping into the character that you start noticing the cracks in the facade. The story and characterisation, while on the surface seems complex, remain woefully two-dimensional in its treatment. We’re to believe that Gangubai, the golden-hearted madam of Kamathipura’s most progressive brothel, is absolutely black and white in her decision-making? Is it because of a lack of conviction in the belief that sex workers deserve equal rights and respect from the society that patronises them? Because the stark white saris and the pointed lack of any grey areas in Gangubai’s characterisation in the movie suggest this strongly. Her rival, trans woman Raziabai (played by cis-gendered male Vijay Raaz), is shown to be vaguely evil, with suggestions of her not being a good gharwali (head of the brothel), but how has Gangubai managed to remain ‘clean’ and ‘good’ all those years? Also, the fact that Gangu doesn’t end up with a happy ending to her love story with a local starry-eyed apprentice tailor Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari) hammers in the fact that pain and suffering are still the benchmarks of a strong, female lead, which is disappointing but not a deal breaker.
The second half of the movie is dedicated to showing Gangu’s rise towards becoming the leader Kamathipura deserves and her quest to give dignity to the sex workers and their children through crowd-pleasing dialogues and unsubtle writing. This is where the movie starts veering strongly into the ‘preachy, moral science lesson’ territory.
Also the lack of conflict in Gangubai’s rise to the top, other than the perfunctory upstanding citizens and a flimsy rival, make it feel like the story lacks depth, it feels like it’s easy for her to get things, when in reality it shouldn’t be that way. For instance, when Gangu goes to Raheem Lala (Ajay Devgn), the friendly neighbourhood don who adopts her as his sister, and asks him to let her run his bootleg alcohol business, he lets her do that without much difficulty. Or when a local politician wants her help in return for securing her a meeting with the Prime Minister of India, it happens without any thought given to the implications it has for the character, especially given how politics drive most of the latter half of the movie.
Let me reiterate by saying that Bhatt is exceptional as the main lead. Bhansali treats her character with the amount of respect usually reserved for male leads in mainstream Bollywood affairs, with a grand entry and larger-than-life picturisation. But her too-perfect diction and dialect often takes you away from the story, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes like the legendary speech at Azad Maidan, where Gangubai eloquently puts forward the case for legalisation of sex workers in front of a women’s right rally. Her strength lies in the moments where her character is allowed to show vulnerability and playfulness. That’s when you find yourself truly feeling for the character. The Gangubai who quotes Sahir Ludhianvi in front of Jawaharlal Nehru and who speaks in exaggerated, overly-written dialogues comes off as a blander version of the Gangu from the first-half. The emotional core of the movie is Bhatt’s relationship with the other prostitutes of the brothel. It gives weight to her fight against society’s mistreatment of sex workers as it is extremely believable that she is protective of her found family. To my slight disappointment, this also plays out to fit each beat. We, of course, have a friend who has to die to remind us that Gangu will never achieve true happiness. Was she the right choice to play such an intense character? Yes. But the choice of keeping her skin remarkably unblemished and luminiscent, despite living in a crowded corner of Bombay, seem odd, especially when Gangu reveals it’s been 15 years since she was sold to the brothel when she looked exactly the same she did when she arrived in Kamathipura.
There are the obvious elemnts of hagiography most Bollywood biographical films are prone to, which is a bit of a let down, especially because this hinders in adding a layer to the character that could possibly explain her conviction to dedicate her entire life to fight for the rights of sex workers. Why does Gangubai consider herself to be only the saviour of Kamathipura and the 4000 prostitutes it inhabits? According to the movie, it’s because literally every second charcater keeps reminding her of this without anything to base it out of to begin with.
Ajay Devgn is adequate in his guest appearance, while Seema Pahwa, as Sheelabai, is delightful and a treat to watch. Also, Jim Sarbh is there. The soundtrack, while pleasant, is largely forgettable, barring ‘Meri Jaan’, which is also picturised beautifully.
Should you stream or skip Gangubai Kathiawadi? You should definitely stream it. Bhatt is one of the few competent performers in Bollywood at the moment and this one is a good example of why she remains on top of the lot.