Gangubai Kathiawadi Is A Celebration Of The Art And Anguish Of Being A Woman, Film Companion

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Writers: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari, Jim Sarbh, M.K. Raina
Cinematographer: 
Sudeep Chatterjee
Editor: 
Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Gangubai Kathiawadi begins with the sounds of Begum Akhtar singing Mirza Ghalib’s iconic ghazal: Yeh na thi hamari qismat, which sets the tone for poetry and pain. This is a film brimming with both. In the life of a sex worker who thrived in the bylanes of Kamathipura in the 1950s, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali finds feisty feminism, joy, brutality, heartbreak and unstinting courage. He tells her story with dramatic flourish, rich emotion, gorgeous visuals and always, a bruised, beating heart.

The character of the sex worker has a cherished place in Sanjay’s cinema. These broken, beautiful women who refuse to be confined by their circumstances personify his brand of heightened, operatic tragedy. Think of Rani Mukerji as Gulab in Saawariya who says with a smile, ‘Jeene ke liye kuch na kuch toh karna hi padta hai.’ Or Chandramukhi in Devdas. In one scene, Paro warns Chandramukhi about harbouring notions of marriage with Devdas. She says: Tawaifon ke taqdeer mein shauhar nahin hote to which Chandramukhi replies: Tawaifon ki taqdeer hi nahi hoti.

Gangu proves Chandramukhi wrong by writing her own destiny. She comes from an affluent family – her father is a barrister. Unfortunately, she also has a grand ambition to be in the movies and a lover who betrays her and sells her to a brothel for one thousand rupees. Gangu ends up standing in a doorway, beckoning customers. But her daring, defiance and determination enables her to find another kind of stardom and eventually even gets her an audience with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

 

Gangubai Kathiawadi is loosely based on a true story from the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai written by Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges. Gangu’s chapter is only around thirty pages, which gives Sanjay and co-screenplay writer Utkarshini Vashishtha ample room to embellish. At one point, Hussain writes – Although Gangu wasn’t the most attractive girl in her brothel, men spoke endlessly about her skills in bed. But Alia Bhatt, draped mostly in white sarees, radiates beauty. As does Sanjay’s and art director Pallab Chanda’s version of Kamathipura.

Mumbai’s notorious red-light district becomes a bustling, lively mohalla filled with outsized personalities – like the don Rahim Lala, a stand-in for Karim Lala, who Gangu makes her brother, or Gangu’s arch-rival Razia. These are streets lined with movie theaters and colourful hoardings. In one scene, the electricity goes off and the sex workers stand outside with candles, calling out to customers. It’s a breathtaking visual.

Which of course contradicts the inherent cruelty of their circumstances. But to accuse Sanjay and DOP Sudeep Chatterjee of making the ugliness aesthetic is like accusing Rohit Shetty of defying the laws of logic and physics. It’s a given. It’s what you sign up for.

What takes this film beyond the rigorously composed, beautifully lit, signature SLB frames is the thumping storytelling. In some of his films, like Saawariya or Guzaarish, Sanjay creates airless, hermetically sealed worlds which seem populated by ideas rather than flesh and blood beings. But Gangubai Kathiawadi throbs with old-school melodrama and dialogue-baazi. When Gangu talks about herself in third person saying, ‘Gangu chand thi aur chand hi rahegi,’ you cheer for her. When she introduces herself to a journalist as Gangubai, prostitute, you applaud. When sitting with prime minister Nehru, she quotes Sahir Ludhianvi from Pyaasa, saying: Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, woh kahaan hain? You instantly tear up.

These hat-tips to the golden era of Hindi cinema are littered through the film. Gangu is a big fan of Dev Anand – his photo hangs in her room. There is a lovely moment in which as she flirts with Afshaan, the tailor’s nephew who she falls in love with – she turns the photo around so Dev Saab can’t watch. In another scene, the camera tracks over a hoarding advertising Jahazi Lootera, which was produced by Sanjay’s father, Navin Bhansali. The bright lights of these theaters, with names like Alfred and Roshan Talkies, are both seductive and gently mocking because the fantasies they sell are so far removed from the lives of the people who buy them.

Despite the violence – emotional and physical – that Gangubai endures, she remains a poet at heart, almost as though she is the cinematic descendent of Meena Kumari from Pakeezah. In one scene, she expounds on the various shades of white in the sarees she wears – white, she says, can be the color of chand, badal, baraf, doodh, namak.

 

This lyricism couldn’t have worked if Alia Bhatt had faltered. Gangubai is in almost every frame of this film. And the actor’s girlish face is instantly at odds with the character. And yet, with a purposefully lowered voice and carefully modulated swagger, she owns it. Watch the smaller moments – like one in which Gangu is going out with Afshaan. As she walks toward the waiting horse carriage, she turns to look at her fellow workers. She’s like a school girl on a first date. Or the gamut of emotions she goes through in the song Meri Jaan. In a superb single-take sequence, she is flirtatious, controlling, angry, vulnerable, wounded and desperately sad. During a moment with a man that is non-transactional, Gangu doesn’t know who to be. Eventually, she just has him stroke her head. What she needs most is comfort.

At 156 minutes, Gangubai Kathiawadi is a little too long. The songs are beautifully staged – look at the intricacy of swaying bodies and camera movements in Dholida – but some, like the qawwali Shikayat, slow the film down. Also, while casting everyone’s favourite small-town matriarch Seema Pahwa as a brothel madam is terrific, her character is the one of the few that seem to veer toward caricature. As does Vijay Raaz as Razia. Though even with these two, the film gives us fleeting glimpses of humanity. And Ajay Devgn, playing the charismatic and stoic don, looms large.

This empathetic gaze fuels Gangubai Kathiawadi. Some of the storytelling is simplistic and the real Gangubai was most likely darker and more complex than this version – after all, you don’t become a mafia queen by being nice.

But Sanjay’s rousing interpretation holds together. Céline Sciamma, director of the brilliant Portrait of a Lady on Fire, said in an interview that to share the intimacy of a female character, you have to share her loneliness. Sanjay, his A-list team and Alia manage to make us share Gangu’s loneliness, her ache and her steely resilience. This film is a celebration of the art and anguish of being a woman.

You can watch Gangubai Kathiawadi at a theatre near you. Please remember to wear a mask.

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