In this patriarchal society, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in SLB’s stylistic and patterned way is a step towards changing the perspective about prostitutes.
Recently there was a series on Netflix ‘The Fame Game’ where Madhuri Dixit as Anamika tells her son that the least he could do is know the name of the woman he spend the night with because she’s working a job, earning and striving to make a place for herself and the least that he could give her is some respect for it. And Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi with its magnum opus set, stylistic vivid color palette talks precisely and in much more detail about this. It’s a coming-of-age story of a prostitute who is unwilling to leave things to her fate and rises back up from the ashes while taking her entire community with her. She fights for the cause of basic human rights for prostitutes and respect for the oldest existing business.
The film is loosely based on a true story from the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai written by Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges which is just 30 pages. But Sanjay Leela Bhansali and co-screenplay writer Utkarshini Vashishtha create a biopic drama of a woman’s fiesty attitude towards being herself unapologetically. Ganga urf Gangu is a barrister’s daughter who dreams of becoming an actress but is sold off on the Kotha by her beloved. While the young Ganga is broken in and molded to become a prostitute she isn’t one to resign to her fate. She rises up while being draped in all white to become Gangubai, the queen of Kamathipura who won’t stop until she legalizes prostitution and helps prostitutes get the right to live like a human. And her defiance and determination over every hurdle end up with her even meeting up with Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
This film, as usual, is a typical Sanjay Leela Bhansali one, with an aesthetic world created out of a book and the only way you can enjoy is to submit to his form entirely and he makes it very easy to do that. It’s a larger-than-life world of massive sets, striking costumes, and color palettes. It’s visually grand with gorgeous cinematography and of course impactful editing and storytelling. Apart from his typical stylistic way of storytelling, there’s a certain emotion that dominates throughout his films. And here, it’s the loneliness wrapped in pain shining out as glory and pride of being a woman of Kamathipura. We see that in multiple scenes like the one where the light goes off and the candles are lit and they resume calling in customers, another where Gangu is trying to talk to her mother and finds out about her father’s death but there isn’t enough time left on the phone. We also love these scenes; Gangu gives up her love, Afsaan; Gangu asks for help from Lala but only as a stake in his business and also the Dholida song.
The emotions that we can see in the eyes of Alia Bhatt‘s innocent face dominate every frame of the film with so much command and that’s what draws you in completely so much so that all the chest-thumping dialogues like Gangu’s speech or the entire climax leave your heart full of pride while there are tears in your eyes. Even though every cast member looks like they were made for their role in this one, Seema Pahwa looks so authentic as a prostitute homeowner, Indira Tiwari as the loyal sister cum friend Kamli is the true depiction of sisterhood and Shantanu Maheshwari shines as an innocent young lover. Vijay Raaz as Hijra and Ajay Devgn as Lala the don with their respective but minimum screentime manage to create a massive impact. As eccentric as Jim Sarbh is, he’s pretty missable in the film.
SLB’s 60s-70s Kamathipura’s world is complete in itself as most of his work is but this one delves into feminism, consent, and the intimacy of sisterhood. Just like casting Alia Bhatt as Gangu worked as an added layer for the film, painting an SLB signature Kamathipura with extra-wide shots and choreographed lanes works towards putting Gangubai Kathiawadi’s message forward even though the darker complexities of the character and the area aren’t explored. Prostitutes have always found a place in Bhansali’s art whether it was Chandarmukhi (Devdas) or Gulab (Saawariya). But he’s never portrayed them the way he did with Gangu; she might be an extension of these characters but she isn’t just a heroine, she is the whole cinema. With all its film references like Dev Anand, the poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi, Begum Akhtar’s singing, Mirza Ghalib’s iconic ghazal, and single-take choreography in the backseat of a car like Meri Jaan, this movie is a tribute to the art and cinematic era of the time.
Gangubai Kathiawadi puts forth the much-needed message out there – we need to change our lens of looking at prostitutes, and in turn towards women. In the due course of its 156 minutes, this film is entirely run by women with male characters merely as sidelines. And it’s quite exhilarating to see a woman in the trope of a hero of a mass commercial film where we’ve only seen men. And on a personal note, I have always respected prostitutes for what they do irrespective of my reserves about how they enter the profession.
Every frame, every dialogue, and every note of music hits home in Gangubai Kathiawadi. While Sanjay Leela Bhansali is that traditional and ingenious master who is very capable of taking you into a world so beautiful that after coming out of the theatre real-life looks all too bleak, this one hits very differently. In the aesthetic sense, the film doesn’t forget its politics and neither do the women in the film. Bhansali’s women have always been bold, strong, and independent in their own ways but this is the most feminist movie in his filmography. You walk out of the theatres with a heavy heart while you’re deep in thought about prostitutes and the politics that comes with being a woman in all our glory and pain.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is screening in theatres near you!
For more entertainment content follow us @socialketchupbinge