Gangubai Kathiawadi is essay of passion

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a work of passion. Photo: Universal Communications

To convert a non-fictional and rather clinical real story into a passion-suffused film is no cakewalk. It requires a monumental talent and even more ardor to convert this human drama into a celluloid (Okay, Okay, we are digital now, but the term still remains apt for big-screen entertainment!) masterwork.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has shown this exemplary passion in his movies with their mix of grandeur and gifted and substantial storytelling, from Khamoshi—The Musical 26 years ago to Padmaavat in 2018, even in moments in the misfired Saawariya. His propensity for a larger-than-life narration of classic dimensions remains—make that even progressively enhanced— even after decades of making varied genres.

The fabulous sets and production design of a period era in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Mumbai (Subrata Chakraborty, Amit Ray & Pallab Chanda), the opulence of the costumes (Sheetal Sharma) and make-up (Preetisheel Singh), the skilled computer graphics (Hitesh Patel) and choreography (superlative work by Kruti Mahesh) and the lavish-if-a-shade-routine background score (Sanchit Balhara & Ankit Balhara) all point to a captain of the ship that is determined to extract the best from his team, knowing that without that he will not be able to excel in this cinematic voyage!

The cinematography by Sudeep Chaterjee adopts the right shades for the right moments, imbuing deep feelings into the scenes from beginning to end. For Gangubai Kathiawadi is a take-home product: it is only after one leaves the cinema and ponders on the contents and their presentation that the film really strikes home. And this, despite our admiration while watching the film’s various aspects and both consciously and subconsciously registering them.

Bhansali multi-tasks: besides producing, editing (competently) and co-writing his latest work of passion, he directs fabulously and makes it graphically different from other films (mainstream or otherwise) that focus on sex workers. With his co-writers, he scripts and shoots a saga where the underlying tragedies of the girls’ lives—most of them are beguiled into the world’s oldest profession—is an immeasurably moving contrast to their seeming external carefree ways. The pain of the initial deception, the horrors of both the initiation into giving your body without love to a stranger and the encounters with sadistic brutes as clients, the diseases and the pregnancies and resultant children, their desire to shut shop for special days— Bhansali spotlights everything in a subtle way, almost without effort. And that makes the impact greater!

It is only in the music department that Bhansali strangely goes amiss—yet again after the average score of Padmaavat and the utter disappointment that his Malaal  was musically. Jab saiyyan is the sole saving grace here, but carries too much of a déjà vu of songs from his earlier films. Shikayat is well-worded, but all that lingers after hearing the songs in context are the immaculate musical arrangements of the songs. Where, oh where, is the brilliant mind that created the successively better melodies from Guzaarish (2010) and Goliyon Ki RasLeela—RamLeela (2013) to Bajirao Mastani (2015)? Is he too succumbing to market forces that have been inimical to good music since over a decade now?

The film is almost episodic in its narration: we have a girl, Madhu, being deceived into the flesh trade, with her protests and the inevitable retribution; Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) summoned by her brothel-keeper to make her ‘see sense’; Gangubai narrating her own tale to her; her ascent in the brothel she is in; a fleeting relationship with the tailor’s innocent son (Shantanu Maheshwari) and her acquaintance with and bonding with a ‘brother’ in don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn).

Then come the clash with Razia (Vijay Raaz) for power; Gangubai’s selfless struggle to better the lot of the girls and their kids and her final victories against a society that has no qualms about exploiting the women sexually but then adopts high moralistic stand. Amidst all this is Gangubai’s last and very poignant conversation with her mother on the phone, and her resultant outburst.

Bhansali avoids going dark and keeps all happenings palatable, and I loved the final and realistic scene with the obnoxious Razia, Gangubai’s fiery speech at Azad Maidan, her interactions with the journalist Amin Faizi, her many and especially final interactions with Kamli (Indira Tiwari), Gangubai’s bathing sequence with Afshan, the restaurant sequence with Rahim Lala and two others, her first face-off with Sheela (Seema Pahwa), her brothel-keeper, and so many other moments. And yet, this unending series of episodes is strung seamlessly into a riveting whole.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is the tour de force of the film. She is amazing in her range and intonations, and her character is written with dogged consistence. Ajay Devgn is pitch-perfect and his casting as Rahim Lala is a brilliant inspiration. Vijay Raaz as Raziya steals every scene he is in, and Jim Sarbh is a delight in his brief appearance. Shantanu Maheshwari is endearing, and Seema Pahwa makes her character, astonishingly, both menacing and pitiable at the same time. Indira Tiwari is superb as Kamli, and the others fit the bill.

This one’s another must-watch for lovers of passionate cinema.

Rating: ****

SLB Films & Pen India present Gangubai Kathiawadi  Produced by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali & Jayantilal Gada  Directed & Edited by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Written by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali  Written by: S. Hussain Zaidi & Jane Borges, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha & Prakash Kapadia Music: Sanjay Leela Bhansali  Starring: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn (Sp. App.), Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa, Jim Sarbh, Indira Tiwari, Shantanu Maheshwari, Baldev Trehan, Varun Kapoor, Rahul Vohra, Sp.App.: Huma Qureshi & others






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