The film is loosely based on the life of Gangubai Harjivandas, popularly known as Gangubai Kothewali, whose life was chronicled in the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai written by S. Hussain Zaidi.
Ganga Harjivandas (Alia Bhatt) belongs to a family of lawyers. Like every other teenager growing up in small-town India in the ’50s, she’s in love with Dev Anand and wants to run away to Mumbai to become a Hindi film heroine. She elopes with her lover Ramniklal (Varun Kapoor) with plenty of jewellery and money but he isn’t what he seems. He sells her off to a brothel for a thousand rupees and runs away. Ganga is forced by brothel owner Sheela Bai (Seema Pahwa) to take to the life of a prostitute. Ganga accepts her reality but can’t see herself as a victim. She vows to oust Sheela Bai soon and take over the whole of Kamathipura one day. And she manages to do it with the help of mafia don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn), who accepts her as his sister and stands behind her in every difficulty. She falls in love with her tailor’s nephew Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) but is practical enough to know that marriage is out of the question. She’s shown to be a kind-hearted madame, who thinks that the sex trade should be made legal as it fulfils a need of society. She champions the cause of education, housing and other rights for prostitutes and their children. A journalist (Jim Sarbh), champions her cause in the press and advises her that she should use her clout to achieve political power. How she either charms or cajoles her ways out of difficulties forms the crux of the film.
Like all Bhansali products, Gangubai Kathiawadi too is a visual treat. The director has successfully recreated the Bombay of the ’50s and ’60s. Kudos to his production design and VFX team for that. The film is an ode of sorts to Guru Dutt and Sahir Ludhianvi. There’s a tender scene where Gangubai lays her head in the lap of her lover, much like the famous scene from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), where Meena Kumari, playing the much-neglected choti bahu, tries to find some sort of solace in Bhoothnath’s (Guru Dutt) embrace. Gangu is fond of reading Sahir and quotes the opening lines of the song Jine naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai, which Sahir wrote for Pyaasa (1957), while appealing to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to do something for the upliftment of prostitutes. Kudos also to his dialogue writers for writing some pithy, pathos-filled lines. For example, Sheela Bai admonishes her girls for spending too much time on makeup – “Grahak ko tumhara chehra nahi chamdi chahiye.” Another time, she wakes up Gangu at 4 am saying, “Iss dhande ka koi time nahi hota.” Gangubai’s speech near the end is a fiery thunderbolt. “Hamari izzat roz lutti hai par khatam hi nahi hoti,” says she. Where Bhansali and his writers have excelled is in humanising Gangubai. Her friendship with Kamli (Indira Tiwari) is a tender example of the fact that kinship can flourish even under the most inhuman circumstances. There’s a scene where Gangu is writing a letter for one of her colleagues and turn by turn, the pain of being separated from their loved ones is reflected in every girl’s expressions. Her affair with Afsaan is the most poetic portion of the film. It’s played out through their eyes, through glimpses, body language and expressions.
Alia Bhatt owns the film from the first frame. It’s as if she was born for the role. The scene where she romances Afsaan in the car, conveying a wealth of emotions without saying anything is so natural and fluid you forget you’re watching a film. In the song Dholida, she dances like a dervish, losing herself in her character to such an extent that the lines blur between the reel and real. She spouts every heavy-duty line concocted by the writers with supreme confidence and shows her mettle in her joint scenes with actors of fine calibres, such as Ajay Devgn, Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh. But it’s in the scenes where she uses silence and body language to convey Gangubai’s pain and anguish that Alia shines the most. Her bond with the audience becomes so strong that there’s no need for words to communicate what her character is going through.
Debutant Shantanu Maheshwari excels in his brief role. And so does the ever-dependable Ajay Devgn in his extended cameo. He has played mafia dons in so many films and yet manages to produce something new with every outing. One wishes there was more of Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh in the film, who all shine in their respective roles. Indira Tiwary too is in fine fettle as Kamli.
There must be more to Gangubai’s life than what Bhansali has portrayed here. She’s being deified in the film but one certainly expected to see more, given the fact that she was one of the leading figures of Mumbai’s mafia. But niggles aside, SLB has again given us a film which keeps us glued to our seats for close to three hours. In today’s OTT riddled world where the attention span of the viewer doesn’t exceed 15 minutes, that really takes some doing…
Trailer : Gangubai Kathiawadi
Ronak Kotecha, February 25, 2022, 1:25 PM IST
STORY: Based on S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ hard-hitting book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ chronicles Ganga’s rise to power and fame from a demure small-town girl in Gujarat, to the undisputed queen of Kamathipura in Mumbai.
REVIEW: Women invitingly standing at the doorstep of a kotha (brothel) in the bustling bylanes of south Mumbai’s infamous red-light area Kamathipura, is a scene that is real, tragic and dramatic. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, set entirely against this gritty backdrop of Mumbai, tells the story of many young women who were sold off to brothels for a few hundred, solely through the eyes of its protagonist Gangubai (Alia Bhatt).
It’s sometime in the early 1950s or 1960s when a starry-eyed and naive Ganga is conned by her own lover Ramnik (Varun Kapoor) to elope with a promise that he will pave the path for her to make it as a heroine in Bollywood. What turns out is that Ganga (who rechristens herself as Gangu, and eventually Gangubai), ends up being the heroine of Kamathipura instead. Over the years, Kamathipura becomes her home, the brothel girls her family and all of Kamathipura her domain. But her journey is fraught with challenges, opponents and a social stigma that brings out the fighter within her.
The beauty of the film lies in how it shows Gangu’s character transform through various stages in her life. The narrative takes time to build up, even slowing down along the way, but not without leaving an impact through some fiery dialogues and powerful moments.
It’s an Alia Bhatt show all the way, as she slips into the role of the bosslady in a world full of brothels and lustful men. It might take a while to feel comfortable with the idea of Alia playing this part, and she too takes her time to settle in. She does deliver the much-loaded dialogues with supreme confidence, audacity and a killer instinct. What’s unmissable and strange in all of this, while the narrative moves ahead, is that the physical appearance of Alia’s character, always clad in pretty whites, remains unchanged.
Ajay Devgn, even in a brief role as Rahim Lala, leaves a solid impact. The rest of the supporting cast like Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz, and Jim Sarbh put their best foot forward, but don’t have much room to shine. Shantanu Maheshwari as Gangu’s love interest puts out a fine performance, and the bitter-sweet moments between Gangu and him are among the more memorable parts of the film.
Bhansali drives his narrative much like the book with each challenge and episode moving like a chapter. While there is a lot packed into the film — like how Gangu turns into an activist for the women in Kamathipura, her liaison with the city’s underbelly and her political aspirations — we are still left craving to know more about the rest of her life and how it all unfolded. There are some beautifully crafted, heartbreaking moments in Bhansali’s signature style — with a lot of finesse and flair — however, the narrative does not delve deep into any one aspect of Gangu’s life. The production value is top-notch. The film skillfully pays homage to the bygone era through movie posters and actor portraits of that time plastered on the walls. Each song is masterfully and colourfully picturised — even while Gangu stands like a vision in white in the midst of it all. But none of the songs, other than Dholida, are too memorable.
Like every other Bhansali film, this one, too, is a visual delight. While the camera captures the dark alleys of Mumbai’s red-light area, it does so with extravagance and ample gloss. Yes, the story brings to the fore some poignant truths about our society, the lives of sex-workers and raises some hard-hitting and pertinent questions, but there is plenty about her life that remains untold. The screenplay is what falters here, by simply holding on to some well-designed dramatic scenes and heavy-duty dialogues, which keep you engaged for a while. But after a point, the film feels too long for its runtime.
If you’re seeking a real peek into Gangubai’s life, also known as Mumbai’s Mafia Queen, then you will be left yearning for more. But even with whatever is packed into this drama, there are enough moments that will draw you into this world where nights seem endless and the lights never fade.
Also See: Supreme Court dismisses plea seeking injunction on release of ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’