Gangubai Kathiawadi Movie Review: Empty Bhansali elegance
Alia Bhatt essays 60s mafia queen Gangubai in a vague, all-too-adoring biopic
Sentimentality isn’t a mere feature in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. It’s everything – canvas, paint brush, paint. Much of it is reserved for people the director holds close to heart. His past films have been dedicated to his parents, grandparents and pet dog. Similar dedications open Gangubai Kathiawadi, with two additions: Pandit Birju Maharaj and Lata Mangeshkar. The late maestros weren’t involved with the project; Sanjay is so overwhelmed by their recent demise that he lets that grief wash all over his film.
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Seema Pahwa, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari
Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
This urge to eulogize—to look on admiringly at a mythic, bygone figure—stunts this biopic greatly. The film is adapted from a section of the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai. The queen in question is Gangubai, a respected brothel keeper who rose in 60s Mumbai. We meet Gangu (Alia Bhatt), sweary and sharp-tongued, as she entreats a scared greenhorn into the flesh trade. Over flashbacks, Gangu’s past life unfurls, from her elopement with a sweet-talking lover to him selling her off at Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district.
The opening sequences are riven with pain and brutality. Like the underage girl she consoles later on, Gangu’s initiation too happens by force. She is further brutalized by Saukat Khan, a violent Pathan from the neighbourhood. She approaches Rahim Lala—named changed from Karim Lala—for help, and wins his protection. Ajay Devgn is commanding as the dour, kohl-eyed gangster, having played a version of his contemporary Haji Mastan in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai. Still, it’s rather unimaginative to give him a facial scar—a detail implying an awkward kinship with bruised, sewed-up Gangu.
“Gangubai’s goodness is, of course, just one side of the coin”—Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges write in their source book. Sanjay has no interest in this other side. He elevates Gangu as a reformist and a protector, leveraging her newfound influence with Lala to win elections and become the President of Kamathipura. She rescues and rehabilitates a minor from our own household (it’s staged as a grand sacrifice on her part). She goes toe-to-toe with a local school. It’s all great but where is the lowdown? Were Gangu’s predecessors really all evil, and she all good? How did she square her sympathy for young, defenseless girls with the larger demands of her trade? We’re never told.
By some luck, there isn’t a CGI animal in sight, and Sanjay has cut back on the sprawl and extravagance of his last feature, the galumphing Padmaavat. His Kamathipura is a few busy streets and a square. It’s lined by ornate storefronts, cafes, theatres—and pedestrians and traders of all faiths. Indoors, the camera swoops down on an angular courtyard, where Gangu presides. She is pushed to the center of most frames, vignette-ing the other, duskier girls. A couple of frames stand out: Gangu skipping rope with her friend, or lashing out furiously under the moon.
Alia holds the gaze in her first leading role in a while. She is hobbled by the bombaiyaa accent—the words stream out with a filmy, gangster-y force. Gangu is a winner and a boss, flipping almost every situation she’s in to her gain. Her tussle with Sheela bai (an excellent Seema Pahwa) is more tense and engaging than her bland rivalry with Razia (a local trans woman played by Vijay Raaz). Their characters, at times, seem to argue in verse, like a 60s version of Gully Boy’s rap battles.
Sanjay’s cinema hasn’t turned a corner in years. ‘Dholia’ and ‘Jhume Re Gori’ are nods to earlier songs, though there’s much invention to the lush, entertaining ‘Meri Jaan’. The supporting cast is a stack of cameos—many familiar from past Bhansali films. Certain frames are Sawariya blue, others are Bajirao Mastani gold. The visuals dry up before the extended finale does. Sanjay, it appears, has reached a saturation point. Where next to go?