Gangubai: Alia Bhatt Carries the Day
This film about sex workers could do with fewer dance sequences
Another film on sex workers gets a powerful heroine but Sanjay Leela Bhansali would have done better not to make such a song and dance of it.
His Gangubai Kathiawadi, based on the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands by S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges got more than its share of controversy before its release.
First, it was Kangana Ranaut attacking her favourite target, Alia Bhatt saying on her Insta account, “This Friday Rs.200 crores will be burnt to ashes at the box office- for a papa (movie Mafia daddy) ki pari (who likes to keep a British passport)... biggest drawback of the film is wrong casting- ye nahi sudherenge.”
Then some people went to court saying that the film should not be named Gangubai Kathiawadi, and even a day prior to its release even the Supreme Court had suggested that the producers change its name. Fortunately the Bombay High Court gave them relief and it comes out with its original name.
The problem is not with the casting at all. Alia Bhatt at 28, is today one of the most talented young actresses we have around in Bollywood who has a very balanced head on her shoulders.
The story of Gangubai begins on a familiar note. A young girl in a village is lured by her boyfriend with the promise of making her a movie star, opposite Dev Anand no less, as he hands her over to one of the Kothas in Kathiawad.
The story takes its novelty from girl’s resolve: she changes her name from Ganga to Gangubai and decides to become the gangleader by hook or by crook, even fighting an election so that she can change the sex workers’ lot. She wants to take care of their health, the education of their children and give them dignity in society.
She gets a huge boost when local mafia don Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn) decides to back her efforts, but the process of the election for becoming head of the brothels itself is very interesting.
In a brilliant speech at the Azad Maidan Gangubai tells a cheering audience that they (sex workers) are in a profession like engineers, doctors, teachers and politicians and they too want to be treated with dignity.
The actual story of Gangubai has it that she finally met the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to demand better living conditions for sex workers. In Bhansali’s film Gangubai demands the legalisation of prostitution in India. Nehru is of course stunned (even though many countries have legalised the oldest profession in the world) but promises to stall the demolition of their colony in Kamathipura for a St.Anthony’s Girls’ High School coming up in the neighbourhood.
The story by Zaidi has it that when Nehru was telling her about leaving her profession and leading a normal life she asked him if he would marry her. Bhansali must have been aware of the risks of showing such a scene in the current scenario so in the film she simply meets Nehru who offers to help her out. He offers her the rose he used to put in his jacket. We are told that a 43-second dialogue with Nehru was removed and visuals of Nehru embedding a rose on her shoulder were modified by the censors, who made four other cuts.
In the ultimate bid to clinch her arguments about the pathetic conditions of the women in the red light area in Gangubai’s short meeting with Nehru Bhansali uses the lines of Sahir Ludhianvi from Pyasa: ‘Madad chahti hai ye Hauva ki beti, Yashoda ki humjism, Radha ki beti, Payambar ki ummat, Juyalkhan ki beti, jinhe naaz tha Hind par wo kahan hain’. These are probably the best and most brilliant lines ever written in Bollywood to describe the plight of sex workers, as they are called.
Alia Bhatt once again proves her versatility in acting out the role of a sex worker that has earlier been performed by such talented stars as Kareena Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Madhuri Dixit, going back to Meena Kumari (who can forget Pakeezah) or Madhubala (Mughal-e-Azam).
She had surprised us in Udta Punjab with her unglamorised look and acting, helping it win several awards that year.
Ajay Devgn is impressive in his cameo and Shantanu Maheshwari as a tailor Afsaan with whom she falls in love is delightful.
The problem is with the Sanjay Leela Bhansali obsession for opulent sets and dance sequences that tend to take away from the powerful impact that the film could have made. And it could have definitely been shorter than 2 hours 30 minutes it currently lasts.
But telling Bhansali to cut down on opulent sets is like telling Ranaut to be less acerbic in her attacks. She had even attacked a film like Chapaak three years ago which highlights the story of a burn victim, because it starred Deepika Padukone who had gone to JNU to talk about her film.