Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Once Upon a Crime

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his co-writer Utkarshini Vashishta indict us for turning a blind eye to the happenings of our world — in lanes not too far from our own, to people not unlike ourselves
Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Once Upon a Crime

In the moonlit veins of Kamathipura, a notorious district of Mumbai that is peppered with Parsi cafes and second-hand bookstores, Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali discovers an abundance of life. With street vendors wailing prices of Banta Soda before a lavish New Roshan Talkies theater and the scent of Nalli Nihari inundating every bylane, Kamathipura drips with an old-world charm in every frame, laden with memories of a golden age. Beholding the fractured years of the 1950s through cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s lens, each set is bathed in a fairytale-like quality. 

Only, Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) never begins once upon a time. 

Adapted from The Matriarch of Kamathipura — a chapter of S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ book Mafia Queens of Mumbai — Bhansali’s newest film chronicles a tightly-woven tale on the lives of sex workers in a red-light district of Mumbai. In that, the film’s opening shot is telling, revealing a disturbing close-up of a young girl, who was recently sold into prostitution, being smothered with cosmetics for an unsettling customer. 

This sets up the haunting tone that consumes the movie. Foregrounded by the echoes of Mirza Ghalib’s ghazal yeh na thi hamari qismat (This was not my destiny), her gut-wrenching shrieks are drowned out by the din of passing trains, as Bhansali and his co-writer Utkarshini Vashishta indict us for turning a blind eye to the happenings of our world — in lanes not too far from our own, to people not unlike ourselves. 

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In wielding its compelling narrative, the story urges our empathetic gaze to linger further, as the life of the young girl is mirrored in that of our protagonist; Gangubai Harjivandas Kathiawadi (Alia Bhatt). All-consumed by the world of Hindi cinema and dreams of stardom, Ganga — the naive daughter of a venerated barrister in Kathiawad — falls prey to the exploitation of her suitor, Ramnik Lal (Varun Kapoor).

Lured to the big city under the pretext of a promised role in a Bollywood film alongside star Dev Anand, Ganga finds herself stranded in Sheila Massi’s (Seema Pahwa) local brothel, chained to her destiny and oblivious to being sold into prostitution. Somehow, the endless horizons of Kathiawad melt into the four walls of Kamathipura, as they choke Ganga into finding a home in the cracks of the forlorn city. 

In a spine-tingling scene where the electricity supply of the neighborhood is cut off, the gallis are lit up by the dwindling radiance of hand-held candles. The narrow street is strewn with hints of yellow flickers that accentuate the bodies of the brothel women as objects of desire, who struggle to lure customers into their abode of closed doors. In many ways, this scene exhibits the necessities of their survival, lending it an ethereality that defines the aesthetic of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It is here, in the shadows of the darkness, that Ganga sheds her skin and steps into herself as Gangu, a milestone on her journey to becoming Gangubai Kathiawadi: President, Kamathipura.

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In Gangubai, Bhansali reveals a throbbing heart. In tandem with his stylistic approach, each carefully choreographed scene spills out of the screen into the real world. It absorbs its beholder into the lanes of Kamathipura, translating them from a mere pair of eyes into stakeholders in the fight for justice. 

Although flesh and bones on characters like Gangu’s rakhi brother Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) and arch-nemesis Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) are scant, as broken pieces in Bhansali’s puzzle, they seem to fit just right. Beyond extravagantly lackluster sets and their cesspool of characters, however, Gangubai Kathiawadi — a genre-bending creation in a male-dominated industry finds an indescribable comfort in Alia Bhatt. 

Draped in a swan-white saree against the sunless backdrop of Kamathipura, Bhatt is floodlit with desire. Her youthful features coupled with a rich baritone and black sunglasses offer an incorrigible swagger to her character, bringing Gangubai to life with ease. Each scene is delicately painted with a whirlwind of emotions, complemented with Bhatt’s tailor-made expressions. Her eyes, which shoulder the film’s poetic dialogue-baazi, are marvelously strung together with its lyricism. 

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For this reason, the audience finds itself filtering through a gamut of emotions, often caught between an intense tear-jerker and a one-line comic relief that is masterfully delivered by Bhatt. Imbuing layers of mortality to her character that is unfounded in any script, Alia’s Gangubai is beyond words. 

In Bhansali’s profound universe, the soundtrack bleeds seamlessly into the film, the characters breathe in syncopation and the beholder is left with a fragment of infinity that outlives even Gangubai Kathiawadi. In the silences between dialogues, her gaze meets the eye, a bidi rests in the crevice of her lips and her resemblance to the moon permeates the film: ‘Gangu chand thi aur chand hi rahegi’. 

Lost in the midst of a once upon a time and a happily ever after, Bhansali’s Kamathipura is not fraught with princesses, only a mafia queen. 

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