A Few Thoughts on SLB’s Gangubai Kathiawadi

An inconsistent but fun second half, a tinge of Benegal's Mandi and Alia Bhatt's magic - there's a lot to unpack
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known for his extravagance in every element of his cinema – the sets, the music, the dialogue-baazi, the conflicts, and unforgettably – the teary-eyed heroines. He's also known for melodrama! Films like Devdas and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, for example, were melodramatic in their approach – a method that some enjoyed and some didn't. But this method was always supported by screenplays that understood the nuances of human relationships. My observation though is that as the years progressed, Bhansali's extravagance has remained, but the substance in his stories has faded. Take his collaborations with Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. Characters suddenly started feeling caricature-ish, stories started feeling dry. I was convinced after watching Padmaavat that his films have now become only about the grandeur of their individual elements; the poignance that brewed from their mixture, though, has disappeared.

Enter Gangubai Kathiawadi. A movie that I predicted to be an indulgence with little substance, but hoped to be proven wrong. The film is about how a woman, who was once sold to a brothel in Kamathipura, Mumbai, has now taken control over it and rules its lanes through her underworld connections. It is based on the true story of Gangubai, adapted from Hussain Zaidi's book Mafia Queens of Mumbai.

My viewing experience with Alia Bhatt's Gangubai Kathiawadi was the most unique out of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's filmography. Here are a few personal observations I would like to share:

A story better suited for another format

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a collage of different events from Gangu's life put together into one package. The visual grammar of the movie is such that the fade-to transitions become a staple: they bug your eye and remind you of the break in the storytelling. I was watching different episodes from her story that didn't culminate into one comprehensive journey, it's a problem that many biopics have fallen prey to. But look at it in another way and you'll realize that this kind of a story had immense potential to become Bhansali's OTT debut. Episodes from Gangu's life were cut out, and with additional writing, I can imagine the story making a smarter space for itself on Netflix.

Alia Bhatt's magic 

In the film, there were scenes that were airbrushed and artificial, and there were scenes that were charged with substance and emotions – and they started playing one after the other.

There is a scene where Ganga makes a call to her grandmother after 17 years. She faces a grandmother who is unwilling to speak to her and a telephone operator constantly reminding her that she is running out of time. There were things Gangu wanted to say and feelings that she wanted to convey, but she didn't have the luxury of time. That scene pierced my heart and reminded me why Bhansali is one of those directors who can make a spectator surrender to the tragedy of his characters so tactfully. Gangu and Afsaan's love story and the choreography of 'Meri Jaan' and 'Jab Saiyaan' are also filled with the Bhansali charm – but it's a charm that keeps entering and exiting the frame. It's especially missing in Razia Bai's and Rahim Lala's sequences.

What conquers these bits, though, is Alia Bhatt's Dadasaheb Phalke award-winning performance. Many thought that considering her age and physique, she would be a misfit for Gangubai, but her command over her craft may compensate for it. What I saw on the screen, though, wasn't mere compensation. It was magic! Right from her expressions to her delivery to her pauses, she breathed Gangubai. She juggled between the different personalities of Gangubai so skillfully that it was difficult to take my eyes off her; it was Gangu's world and I was living in it!

An inconsistent but entertaining second half

The second half of this biographical drama is filled with doses of humour. Gangu bribes policemen and political leaders, gives public speeches, meets with the Prime Minister and tells her story to a journalist. One would assume that her encounters with these stakeholders of the society would be charged with tension and drama, but most of these scenes are actually light-hearted and even so, entertaining. Gangu deals with almost everything coming her way with her wit and humour in an airy, unworried fashion. It's as if the film wanted us to take it too seriously in the first half, but now, it's time for some laughs as well. So the second half keeps switching between drama and comedy. Although inconsistent, the light-hearted bits of the second half were some of the most entertaining scenes I have seen in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film.

Gangubai Kathiawadi and Mandi

Since Gangubai Kathiawadi is based on Gangu's true story, one can expect to be enlightened about her life. But since Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the director, it's safe to assume that the enlightening process will be romanticized. The movie is observant of the lives of sex workers, sensitive to their plight and progressive in its approach – but it's all presented in an airbrushed manner. Gangubai's virtues are focused upon throughout the film and one is likely to forget that there's more to a mafia queen than just those virtues. If you want to take a more objective look at the reality of the world of prostitution, I'd say give Shyam Benegal's Mandi a watch. It's a film that's equal parts funny, satirical and dramatic. The film is about Rukmini Bai's brothel in Hyderabad, its day-to-day working, and how the sex workers are being forced out of the city. The film educates, entertains, and comments. To add to that, as Anurag Kashyap pointed out in AK v/s AK – Shyam Benegal's art films are filled with superstars. This movie is no exception. Shabana Azmi, especially, kills it as Rukmini Bai.

You can watch Gangubai Kathiawadi on Netflix India. Mandi is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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