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.