Based on authors S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borge’s Mafia Queens Of Mumbai, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is the story of a girl named Ganga (Alia Bhatt) forced into becoming a sex worker and how she rises up the ranks to be the madam of a brothel and a messiah for the sex workers from the Kamathipura area of Mumbai (then Bombay).
Rarely do you come across a feature film whose story can be summarized in a short and simple manner. However, the film isn’t as simple as the aforementioned synopsis. It has a deep and layered storyline presented on Bhansali’s larger-than-life and vibrant canvas.
The story of how Ganga becomes Gangubai might not be pleasant in the first half but the filmmaker succeeds in keeping the narrative entertaining with some creative visuals and impressive dialogues. This doesn’t mean that he has compromised in exploring the depth of a helpless woman forced into flesh trade. Despite the entertainment, you surely feel for the protagonist and the rest of the girls.
Like the director’s previous works, the sets and production designing are grand and larger-than-life. It brings alive the Bombay of the yesteryears and at the same time does justice to the dark world of the sex workers.
Mainstream Hindi films are often guilty of going downhill or losing grip in the second half. But Gangubai Kathiawadi rises further in the post-interval portion once Gangubai acquires more power and spreads her clout.
It is during this portion that the protagonist gets to mouth some of the most powerful dialogues that are generally mouthed by male stars. But they create such an impact also because of Alia Bhatt’s rousing talent.
To say that the actress is in great form would be an understatement. If she compelled us to notice her talent in films like Highway (2014), Udta Punjab (2016), Raazi (2017) and Gully Boy (2019), she now announces herself as one of the most talented artistes in India. Her journey from the meek Ganga to the powerful Gangubai is as natural as it can be.
The film is also laced with some talented supporting cast; some who are relatively new. Indira Tiwari, as the fellow sex worker and Gangu’s right hand, succeeds in displaying her natural talent in a challenging role. Shantanu Maheshwari, as Gangu’s love interest, doesn’t let the tag of a newcomer bother his performance. In the role of a transgender Raziabai, Vijay Raaz is terrific. Ajay Devgn provides a mature act as Rahim Lala in an extended cameo.
Gangubai Kathiawadi also has some experienced names who are memorable despite the limited screen time. Some of them include, Jim Sarbh, Seema Pahwa, Chhaya Kadam, Lata S Singh, Mitali Jagtap Varadkar and Rahul Vohra.
Bhansali’s films are always high on music and Gangubai Kathiawadi is no exception. Songs like ‘Dholida’, ‘Meri Jaan’, ‘Shikayat’ and ‘Jab Saiyaan’ show us what is missing in the current era of remixes. The filmmaker himself has composed the music.
Bhansali’s films of the past have also become victim of his over-indulgence. In other words, his style and grandeur overpower the storytelling aspect, which ensures that the end result isn’t much satisfying, despite the visuals. But the filmmaker has avoided that over here. There is a lack of conflict in the key portions but the presentation of a sex worker as a hero wins you over and forces you ask a lot of questions to the ‘normal’ and ‘respected’ society.
The only problem area here is that Gangu’s initial rise to power in the pre-interval portion should have been more elaborate. It almost happens suddenly. It would have also helped the cause of the film more if the advancement of Gangubai’s age would have been visible. Instead, she appears almost the same even 15 years after the story begins.
Overall: Gangubai Kathiawadi is thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time with a career-best act by Alia Bhatt. The film can be best enjoyed on the big screen because of its visuals. Don’t wait for it to come on OTT [Netflix].
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Producers: Jayantilal Gada and Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Writers: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha and Prakash Kapadia
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Indira Tiwari, Shantanu Maheshwari, Seema Pahwa, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Ajay Devgn