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Gangubai Kathiawadi Movie Review: Alia Bhatt impresses as fearless sex-worker but Sanjay Leela Bhansali disappoints

Alia Bhatt's Gangubai Kathiawadi consciously restricts itself from trivializing the pitfall for many well-meaning films based on prostitution in India. In that respect, the film feels decent and compassionate without precious portrayal for cheap laughs. Sanjay Leela Bhansali portrays sex workers as 'normal' beings and not as specimens. The film’s most potent strength is how it seizes the lives of the prostitutes without ever attempting to pass a judgement.

Vaishali Jain Vaishali Jain Updated on: February 25, 2022 11:54 IST
Gangubai Kathiawadi alia bhatt

Alia Bhatt in and as Gangubai Kathiawadi

Photo:INSTAGRAM/RONKY.EDITZ_
  • Movie Name:Gangubai Kathiawadi
  • Critics Rating: 2.5 / 5
  • Release Date: Jan 25, 2022
  • Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Genre: Biographical crime drama

Sensitive is the most suitable word to explain the aura of Alia Bhatt's Gangubai Kathiawadi in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s placid drama of a movie about the rise of a small-town girl from Gujarat who transforms into the Mafia Queen of Kamathipura. In adapting a chapter from S Hussain Zaidi's book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Gangubai Kathiawadi semi-fictionalizes its subject to free itself from the structural trappings of a biopic. It adopts a more realistic approach to Gangubai’s life and career. 

Playing the titular role is Alia Bhatt who gives the character her all. She plays Gangubai with a palpable sense of dignity, and we see a skillful, tactful and kind-hearted woman. The film’s depiction of Ganga Harjivandas acknowledges her as a woman with agency, competent in taking the battle against those crossing her path. 

Though filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s rendition errs on the side of bloated sensitiveness. For a movie that aims to give tongue to society's hypocrisy and ostracism of sex workers, the sombre affair has a curiously undersized sense of stakes. The film counts a tad diligently on an exaggeratedly old speech pattern mostly made up of Alia Bhatt's squeaky shrieks. Via multiple charming-ish but unimaginative flashbacks to the 1960s, we get to know that the young Ganga left her home with an ambition to be a Bollywood superstar who dreams to share the screen with Dev Anand. But she's betrayed, sold off at a brothel and left to live an 'undignified life'. Gangu defies norms and demands to be treated equally by the said nobles of the community. She lives by her own rules and wants the best and basics for the girls of the brothels, like education. She also believes that legalising prostitution can reform things. You may not agree with all her arguments, but you do comprehend where the notion arrives from. 

At times, Gangubai Kathiawadi feels like an elaborate chapter from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's own Devdas minus the nuances that Kirron Kher and Madhuri Dixit had brought to their characters and the grand romanticism that the film left audiences with. The scene from the 2002 film where Kher holds a mirror to the duplicity of the crooked patriarchal society that chastises prostitutes in the name of morals is more impressive and dynamic than the entire 154 minutes of Alia Bhatt's film.

Though there are some whistle-worthy punchlines that Alia gets to mouth in the film. SLB manages to scoop some intrigue through engrossing but shallow peeks into the multifarious fabric of Kamathipura. What could be the most notable of them all is Alia and Vijay Raaz's exchanges. Vijay plays Raziabai the President of all the brothels in the area. Portrayed with absolute grit, arrogance and conviction, his role is crucial to breaking free of the gender binary.

Then there's Ajay Devgn (Rahim Lala) and Seema Pahwa (Seemabai) who leave an imprint every time they appear on the screen. If Rahim acts like a pillar to Gangu, Seema Masi sets an example for her of all things she doesn't have to do. In less successful scenes that aim to critique a certain kind of relationship are between Alia and Shantanu Maheshwari. Shantanu's Afsaan is charmed by the flamboyant Gangu and he wants to marry her. He tries to weave back the leftover pieces of Ganga in the transformed Gangubai but it's too late. She's moved beyond the phase and the weary pragmatism with which she faces present-day challenges limits her to explore more with him. Jim Sarb too plays his part well.

To its credit, Gangubai Kathiawadi consciously restricts itself from trivializing the pitfall that many well-meaning films based on prostitution in India fail to. In that respect, the film feels decent and compassionate without precious portrayal for cheap laughs. Bhansali portrays sex workers as 'normal' beings and not as specimens. The film’s most potent strength is how it seizes the lives of the prostitutes without ever attempting to pass a judgement. 

Surprisingly, Bhansali slips on the music front. The filmmaker is known for his musical numbers but every song in the film appears to be borrowed from his other films, namely, Saawariya, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

Gangubai Kathiawadi crawls when it needs to be hurrying and begins to appear like a dull street of sentimental boredom. No doubt it has its heart in the right place, but more than often, it's not enough.