‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’: is underwhelming, except for Alia Bhatt

In what is surely an unintended cinematic irony, the fascinating and against-all-odds story of Ganga Harjeevandas gets an underwhelming treatment in the hands of the helmer of gigantic canvas unfurler, Sanjay Leela Bhansali (and his titular character’s agency gets diluted, thanks to two gentlemen). Not that I was expecting a spectacle like his Padmaavat or Bajirao Mastani, both of which reveled in the landscape of glitter-world and choreographed emotions and yet managed to whiz some marked arrows from the bow of the camera to your seat in the hall. The story of Gangubai demands a level of grit and grime that could still have coruscated in Bhansali’s hands. 

Based on the chapter The Matriarch of Kamathipura from S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Gangubai Kathiawadi begins explosively enough, with brothel owner Rashmibai (Chhaya Kadam in an act that grinds uncomfortably and effectively) calling in the services of Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) to drill present sense into and extract past sensibilities from a forced new entrant in the dank world of prostitution. Gangubai arrives as if advertising for a new brand of dirt-busting detergent, the gunge of her past—that the director has to yet let you into—now a seemingly far cry. Not true, as you discover later, but it’s the cut to her past where the movie hits raw and brutal. Shimmering toward the lure of film and Dev Anand—both sprinkling mirage-like magic dust in the Bombay of the mid-50s—Ganga finds herself whisked away to the city by the sweeping power of love in the form of Ramnik Lal (Varun Kapoor), who has other plans for her life-long role. 

Alia Bhatt towers over the locality. And the movie.

Enter the labyrinth of the Kamathipura brothel that’s run by Sheela Maasi (Seema Pahwa in a shiveringly vile turn) and Bhansali, and in turn, Ganga—sold by the love of her life to the Maasi—wade through the morass with a steel whip, ripping off the skin of your experience in a raw 15-20 minute flow. It’s after a horrifying assault and when Ganga reaches out to the local underworld don Rahim Lala— the makers mysteriously renaming their protagonist’s benefactor’s name from Karim Lala—that the movie begins to slowly sink into a comfortable route. Lala is played by Ajay Devgn, and with that swagger, he could be selling a tobacco product, wondering about the final cut of his latest directorial venture, or generally ruminating about Singham’s next move. What Lala actually does is pulverize Ganga’s attacker and pretty much clears the path for Ganga. 

The shadow of Lala (or is it Devgn?) hovers over the rest of the story and Ganga—who’s now rechristened herself as Gangubai, having taken over the brothel—is now a power to reckon with. Irony strike one: her persona, up until now that of a wounded, prowling tigress, now segues into a confident, Mafiosi menace. But it’s all done so easily, and thanks to that Lala umbra, the rest of the movie sails along with a sudden, vacuous lack of friction. And then irony strikes again: enter gentleman number 2 in Gangu’s life: tailor Afsaan (a likable Shantanu Maheshwari). Alia Bhatt plays the role of the domineering interest with elan. In a scene where she sizes up the young dress-master, she’s terrific: she inspects him with not a hint of a coy corner, as a man would before paying for a session, and as the relationship progresses, treats him with part love, part interest, until her veneer melts. It’s here that the movie loses its tight grip, and Bhansali reverts to form. The love angle consumes space, speed, and patience. There’s a sacrifice, and there’s songs, and before you know it, you’ve lost Gangubai. 

The problem with the movie is that the director, writing with Utkarshini Vashishtha, can only add these fluffy layers of romance to fill the cinematic gaps from the book’s chapter. From the book and Gangubai’s story, the writers create a listicle and trudge faithfully on their journey. It all seems simple, right up to the lady getting an audience with Prime Minister Nehru. Thanks to Lala, all the in-betweens and the true dark corner battles that Gangubai must’ve gone head-on into seem like a raffle challenge. It’s as though the lady had little to do except use her champion’s boxing glove to fight life’s challenges. 

Alia Bhatt’s performance, amidst this underwhelming experience—or despite it—is the showrunner. She punches above her petite frame, masking her vocals with a husk and sadness that the single-malt Madhuri Dixit now employs. (For a moment, I actually thought that the latter had dubbed parts of the young actor’s scenes.) She slices the screen with a look, dances some impossible steps with a dizzying combination of grace and vigor, and carries her character’s scars in a hip-flask. There’s Indira Tiwari as Kamli, Gangu’s bestie in the brothel, who adds a touch of vim and joy to the proceedings, while Vijay Raaz as Raziabai, Gangu’s opponent and political heavyweight, has ominous moments, but only just. Like the rest of the plot, his role too is just another lazy glance. Jim Sarbh breezes across his role as a journalist who’s a little fascinated and more awed and possibly bowled over by Gangubai, and yet there’s an emotional connect that the writing misses as his Amin Faizl lends support to her cause célèbre and causes. All of this feels a little episodic instead of organic development.

Alia Bhatt, Jim Sarbh: cause theta.

But there’s one stunning sequence in the first act when Bhansali is still in charge, where he and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee create a hypnotic structural visage. The electricity’s on the blink in the brothel, and the women, at their killing hour of business, stand at the windows of the ramshackle house with candles in their hands. As the camera pulls back, the candle flames curlicue in the night as if attached in slotted holes in a wall, the last vestige of dignity in a fortress waiting to be impregnated one more time. The shot reminded me of an opposite action in a scene from Sholay, where Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai serenades the lonely night with Rahul Dev Burman’s moonlit notes on the mouth organ until Jaya Bhaduri’s Radha traverses the entire balcony above him, snuffing out each lantern, done for the day; at this point, the instrument he plays is for her, the music a mixture of inescapable sadness of the past and a lingering fear of any happiness that their future may bring. If there, the lights went off hoping that there’d be a brighter dawn, here, the women light the candles not to dispel the darkness but to set their dreams aflame for yet another night.  

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Badhaai Do is streaming on Netflix and rated  U/A (Parental Guidance for children below 12 years) for an adult theme and violence.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali Time 2h 32min
Writers Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha
Stars Alia Bhatt, Shantanu Maheshwari, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari, Ajay Devgn, Jim Sarbh
Genres Biography, Crime, Drama