Gangubai Kathiawadi is the new magnum opus from director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The idea was conceived seven years back when Bhansali bought the rights to a chapter from Hussain Zaidi’s book, Mafia Queens.
Bhansali has a history of portraying larger-than-life female characters, accompanied by stunning visuals. Although I rooted for him in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Bajirao Mastani, I felt that the storytelling was weakened by over-the-top embellishments in Devdas and Padmaavat. But he has an eye for recreating the Mughal-e-Azam style retro sets, and it was worth every cent to see Gangubai Kathiawadi in the theaters.
I did not know that Bhansali spent thirty years of his life in close proximity to Kamathipura, Mumbai’s infamous red-light area. This seems to have left an impression on him. One interesting scene in the film has cinemas with lurid hoardings lining that street—one of them is of Jahazi Lootera, a film by Bhansali’s father.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is the tale of a bruised and battered woman who becomes a trailblazing sex worker in order to protect the 4000 women trapped in “the world’s oldest profession.”
Gangubai’s story begins in the early fifties as a naïve teenager when she is tricked by her father’s accountant, Ramnik Laal (Varun Kapoor). This dastardly youth promises an effervescent Ganga everlasting love and fame in Bombay, promising her a role in a movie with her idol, Dev Anand.
Laal eats her Ba’s theplas and khato-meetho chundo and, without batting an eyelid, sells her to a brothel in Kamathipura for a mere Rs. 500. A ghastly melodrama unfolds in the dark rooms of the brothel run by Sheela Moushi (Sunita Pahwa). She is hell-bent on breaking Ganga, and she has Ganga brutalized by a thug.
In the hospital, Ganga is pushed into a dark storeroom to recover from her physical, mental, and psychological injuries. This silent self-reconciliation paves the way for the emergence of the strong Gangubai.
The dusty, dingy, grungy ambiance of Kamathipura, with her true-to-life trafficked co-stars, serves as a stark contrast to the innocent face and radiance of Gangubai. Gangubai’s innocence reminded me of Rekha’s character in the movie Umrao Jaan.
I commend Alia Bhatt for accepting this challenging role and becoming the voice of so many girls who are duped, drugged, and beaten into the sex trade. Draped in shades of white with meticulously stitched bespoke blouses, Bhatt stuns. With her kohl’d eyes, crimped hair, a big red sindoor bindi on her forehead, a silver nose ring, antique chokers, and a deep voice, she becomes Gangubai.
Gangubai exposes a soft vulnerability by flirting outrageously with the tailor’s young apprentice (a pleasant debut appearance by the young Shantanu Maheshwari). She plays make-believe games of true love, with her coquettish smiles, and joy rides in the Bentley with Afsaan Razak. She is at once playful, flirtatious, seductive, desperate, and sad. Her longing for one true embrace, one stroke of comfort, is heart-wrenching. Knowing that her fate is cursed, she vanquishes her aspirations of love and marries off the daughter of a prostitute to her beloved Afsaan.
In actuality, Gangubai was a more complex character than is portrayed by Alia, with embroidered mojaris on her feet, dark shades, and a black purse like a queen. Not only could she kick like a mule, flex every muscle in her body and brain, dance with the dholariya, but she could also wheel and deal. She ran for local elections and won hands down against the likes of Raziabai (played by the talented Vijay Raaz) in his sleazy shararas and beaded chokers.
Ajay Devgn as the Mafia don who becomes Gangubai’s rakhi brother and protector is towering in his personification of Karim Lala. He gives Gangu the keys of his Bentley as her eidi, and a partnership in selling liquor in Kamathipura.
The movie takes on an otherworldly look when the area is lit up with candles. I loved the quaint antique music stores with gramophones, the Muslim tailors, Irani restaurants selling plates of nulli nihari, and Dr. Chung, the Chinese dentist. The music is nice, but not phenomenal.
The movie would be stronger at two hours without the outlandish float of Raziabai throwing silver coins in her wake, and the elaborate qawwali song sequence by Huma Quereshi. These parts escaped the editing scissors of Sanja Leela Bhansali for sure.
Alia Bhatt is convincing as a raped, battered, heartbroken but defiant Gangubai Kathiawadi. When she gleefully introduces herself as “Gangubai Prostitute” to the stunned bespectacled writer Amin Faizi (Jim Sarbh), you applaud her honesty.
Yahan par koun appointment le kar aata hai?
Ma ka naam kafi nahi hai?
Hume to bhagwan bhi nahi bachate.
Kunwari kisi ne rehne nahi diya aur Srimati kisi ne banaya nahi.
Utkarshini Vashishtha says this about Bhansali: I was blown away by the dedication and passion of Sanjay sir on the sets. He leaves no stone unturned and makes sure that every lamp is lit in his iconic “diya” scenes. She continues, “A writer spends several hours alone, but [someone like Bhansali] is needed to add the fine details that enhance any narrative.” Vashishtha mentions that they are all humbled by the success of Gangubai Kathiawadi.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.