‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ movie review: Alia Bhatt owns the screen, delivers her best performance yet


Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Seema Pahwa, Shantanu Maheshwari, Indira Tiwari, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz and others

Where to watch: Theatres

Rating: 4 stars

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ movie review

Grand, larger-than-life, visual spectacle — these are not just some words that we associate with a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, but are a viewer’s expectation when they know they are walking into a theatre to watch a magnum opus directed by the maverick filmmaker. 

His latest offering, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ starring actress Alia Bhatt as the Mafia Queen too has splendidly constructed setpieces and detailed character arcs, however, the sets aren’t as magnificent, the canvas isn’t as large and the characters aren’t donning elaborate costumes (and rightly so) as in his previous films that made you go wow. But it has a story — brought alive onscreen by Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography, that will touch your heart and even make you shed a tear or two at one of Gangu’s vulnerable moments. 

This larger-than-life tale of a sex worker turned mafia queen who later takes on the role of a social warrior fighting for the legalisation of prostitution and the basic, legal rights of sex workers, is totally worth the pandemic-induced wait.

Through Alia Bhatt starrer, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, Bhansali brings to life the tale of a relatively unknown character from the pages of history with his signature filmmaking style, rightly devoid of the rich colours and the majestic sets. 

Set in the 60s, the colour palette, aesthetics and production design of Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi‘ are distinctive and era-appropriate and Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography captures every nuance of the universe that Bhansali creates.

Gangubai was brought into the streets of Kamathiapura and sold by her lover who had coaxed her to run away from home under false pretences of giving her acting roles, as she aspired to be a Bollywood heroine. 

Much like the other four thousand women of Kamathipura at that time, Gangubai fails to escape the ‘badnam gali’ and days after being held captive, she realises this was it for her. She gives up all hope and aspirations and stands in front of the brothel, leaning on its door, seducing men and calling out to them in whispers.

“Ghar ki jahah gharwali ne le li thi aur dhandhewali ka naam mil gaya tha.” This dialogue, delivered by Alia Bhatt with the right amount of pain and agony, tells you that she had resigned to her fate. But never in the film would you pity Gangubai. She’s a firebrand, a go-getter who gradually climbs the ladder, wears her past like a distinguished badge and ultimately stands on the top moat position of her ecosystem.

Coming to Alia, she simply owns the screen as she becomes Gangubai. The conviction with which Alia has soaked every bit of Gangubai and presented it onscreen is relayed via her body language, voice, dialogue delivery, her expressions and adayegi. Although Alia carries this tremendous burden of convincingly essaying the role of a brothel madam turned mafia queen, she does it all with utmost grace. You can see how much she’s evolved as an actor and the effort and dedication she’s put into becoming Gangubai. It’s only right to shower her with compliments.

Alia is phenomenal, you simply cannot take your eyes off her as she forms allies with the local gangster, Karim Lala, perfectly played by Ajay Devgn, and makes her moves to rise to the top of her social strata. And when Alia’s Gangubai falls in love, she makes sure to retain her stature in the relationship but ultimately sacrifices it for the good of a fellow sex worker’s daughter. This and a few other good gestures, an understanding of what the women go through mentally, emotionally and physically, makes Alia’s Gangubai a favourite among the women. 

Supporting characters Kamli (Indira Tiwari), Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari), Sheela Masi (Seema Pahwa), Jim Sarbh (Faizi Bhai) act as catalysts and further the narrative with their impressive performances. But, Vijay Raaz is unfortunately underused. His grand entry as Raziabai, a transgender woman who is on top of the said ecosystem at that time, gives you an impression that a war is forthcoming between Gangu and Razia as they both are eyeing to win the Kamathipura elections. However, all the build-up is about nothing. You feel disappointed because it would have been a treat to watch the fabulous actor, Vijay Raaz, get some more screen time. 

The film lacks a pinch of reality as it revolves around sophisticatedly constructed sets that don’t give an impression of the grim and soiled streets of a red light area. However, the tones — subdued ochre, sepia tints against the whites of Gangubai, are a vision to behold. 

If you are expecting to watch how Gangubai struggled to make her way as a social warrior fighting for the rights of sex workers of Kamathipura, you’ll be disappointed. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film is a glossy version, engrossed in the accomplishments of Gangubai, for whom each door opens with absolute ease. But that doesn’t mean that the plot is weak, the story uninspiring or the film lacks intensity and material. No. The film’s narrative is such that you will empathise with Gangu, root for her and cheer for her with every small victory, but never pity her. And that’s something!

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