Gangubai Kathiawadi, Alia’s ambitious venture with Sanjay Leela Bhansali was abuzz on the net because of Alia’s bold new avatar, the ‘white saree promotions’ and Dholida reels all over social media. However, Gangubai Kathiawadi with its stellar cast, elaborate sets and seeti-maar dialogues could never be more than the sum of its scenes for me. The reason: lack of depth and nuances in the story.
The movie, adapted from Hussain Zaidi’s novel ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ tells the story of Ganga, a young girl from Kathiawadi who was sold by her boyfriend to a brothel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura. She later befriends the city’s mafia Rahim Lala, rises to power and becomes the voice of women living there. The story is known to us through testimonial sources. Unfortunately, the movie offers little more.
The movie begins on a high, as we see a callous ugly world of brothels wherein the women, sold by deceit, either give in and join the business or die. We see a young girl Ganga(Alia) transform herself to bear the hardships of this world.
Yet, later as we see GanguBai (the strong ‘gharwali’ or brothel manager) overcome challenges, the plot is too predictable to feel anything for her. We are seldom given an insight into Gangu’s ghosts, her struggle or any grey areas to her personality. Instead, presented a perfect larger than life, lovely looking character that feels monotonous after a while.
Apart from this, the story where the movie has been inspired- ‘Mafia Queens’ is simply never explored. Connections with the mafia, a secret business headed by a brothel owner, or a woman who becomes an underworld figure makes way for some thrilling aspects. Yet, this aspect is ignored in Bhansali’s drama. Ajay Devgn as the powerful Mafia appears seldom in the movie. Problems get solved way easily by a simple bribe to the police officers.
Nevertheless, Alia Bhatt delivers a convincing act. She is never too loud yet powerful. There are scenes where her eyes speak. Her Gujarati accent feels inconsistent sometimes, but her dynamics with others, as a friend, and guide are strong. Like Raazi, there is a delicate strength about her being. Yet, this story does not have enough fuel to keep the audience on its toes or engage with her as much.
Probably the best part of this 2 hours 31 minutes movie, are the supporting characters played by Hindi Cinema veterans such as Seema Pahwa and Vijay Raaz. Seema, as the selfish madam of the brothel whose utter lack of morals and sordid looks make her an interesting character. Her dialogues throw you off guard. She looks fearful as the camera closes in on her while she applies 'besan' on her face in the middle of the night.
Next, Vijay Raz, playing Razia Bai, the transgender madam who competes with Gangu in the Kamathipura election is simply brilliant. There is a style to that walk, expressions or dialogue delivery that only an actor as credible as Vijay Raaz could pull off.
There is some emphasis on the lives of women who live in brothels, which is poignant. Scenes where the women bond in adversity, protect each other’s interest and miss their past lives stir our emotions.
Shantanu Maheshwari, who has risen from the TV industry has a small role and does not really further the plot but his and Alia’s chemistry is sweet. The songs shot around the duo are melodious. I personally like Meri Jaan sung by Neeti Mohan. Alia’s expressions in the song are bang on. I wanted to see more of that bottled up grief inside the powerful brothel madam. Like a typical Bhansali film must-have, we see festival songs with a Dhol beating.
Production Design, which has been Bhansali’s USP stands out here too. The lanes of Kamathipura feel otherworldly and classic. The insides of a brothel are well shot. A power cut scene lit up just by candles of sex workers as they seduce potential customers on the street is cinematic. Alia's whites throughout the film are style goals.
The rest of the film, with Jim Sarbh’s small bit as a journalist and GanguBai asserting the rights of sex workers, is weak. One could not completely feel the plight of sex workers as they struggle to live respectfully in society. Issues such as denying admissions to children of sex workers are shown, but so methodically that it does not make us feel anything.
The movie ends in landmark moments yet our emotions are not at the same height. There is a void in the end where I feel detached from this otherwise heroic tale. Perhaps the movie never delved enough into the horrors of Kamathipura and focussed more on the style, bravery and machismo of our leading lady.