This is easily Bhansali at his best as he has been able to marry craft with content; here, he attempts a Pakeezah for the millennials and almost succeeds
Gangubai Kathiawadi opens to the world with the visual of a little girl with a mass of cotton stuffed into her mouth and a pin being forced through her nose, one wonders how will this film speak. But, after a few fumbles, it does and goes on to charm with its eloquence. Without being pedantic, it takes a clear stand on how sex workers deserve an equal life, on a par with other professionals in society.
Set in a part of Kamathipura that is often called Mumbai’s red-light area, it is about a part-real, part-fictional character called Ganga (Alia Bhatt) who hails from an illustrious background, but is sold into the flesh trade by someone she believed. Unlike Raj Kapoor’s Ganga, she gets really sullied, questions the hypocrisy of society, and eventually rises from the ashes to make a home out of a brothel, and fights for the rights of its inmates.
Writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, thankfully, doesn’t paint a breathless hagiography of a woman who rises up the social ladder by hook or crook. Instead, he focusses on Ganga’s interactions with the people that came into her life, the bruises and heartaches that she suffered, and what she becomes by the end.
There is a mafia don inspired by Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn) who becomes a brotherly figure to the sex worker. Then there is a tailor (Shantanu Maheshwari) who dresses her desire for a life outside the brothel, and of course, there is a rival in Razia (Vijay Raaz) who threatens to spoil her ambitions. Not to forget her bonds with the inmates of the brothel. It is these bittersweet sections that make us invest in the narrative and keep us engaged.
Playing on the margins of his safe terrain, Bhansali, who triples as composer and editor, restrains himself from selling torture, from rushing into those dark rooms where hopes are mutilated. So much so that in the build-up to the centre of flesh trade, he cuts scenes just before they threaten to enter the exploitative zone.
Instead, he chooses to linger around the bed of black roses, as Gangu describes her ilk, and translates that smell to us. It is strong, pungent, redolent in turns, and ultimately leaves you with something ethereal. Take the scene where the inmates dress up the dead body of a sex worker who has died after giving birth to a child. It is as raw as it could get, but in Bhansali’s hands, even death looks elegant and evokes multiple emotions.
This is easily Bhansali at his best as he has been able to marry craft with content. For a long time, he is trying to create a modern-day Mughal-e-Azam, here he attempts a Pakeezah for the millennials and almost succeeds. Devoted to the visual grammar of cinema, here Bhansali carefully peels off the element of lust through lilting melodies that are enough to convey the convoluted layers of the human heart beneath the linear tale. In fact, two songs, Meri Jaan and Jab Saiyaan, form the crux of the narrative. You can watch them on loop and are worth the price of the ticket.
In Alia, he has a muse who could depict multiple emotions in one frame, through words, silences, and expressions. Be it the body language or dialogues, she minimises the element of acting in her performance. Watch her perform in Meri Jaan as she crystallises the complex that Ganga holds inside her in one song, she makes you cry, laugh, and feel guilty simultaneously. The way Alia gradually transforms from Ganga to Gangubai, laughs in pain, and gently hectors a child at the sight of impending conflict, makes even the predictable compelling.
The dialogues by Prakash Kapadia and Utkarishini Vashisht remain conversational even when Gangu threatens to be in the lecture. The casual presence of Dev Anand is more than just symbolic.
The support cast responds strongly to Alia, particularly Vijay Raaz in a short but memorable performance. As the eunuch sex worker, he sends chills down the spine and leaves you craving for more. Shantanu brings his dance training to help the elegant romance come alive. Devgn is supposed to bring the star value and that he does that with ease.
Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography reminds us of the Kamal Amrohi film as the camera permeates through prurient surfaces to align with the soul of the residents. Together with Bhansali, he carves a visual treat. In the entry shot of Razia, the larger-than-life film posters in the background and playing a feature film in the middle of a street, Chatterjee rustles up dollops of nostalgia and awe but at the same time, he generates a gentle urge to make us walk in the forbidden lanes of Kamathipura.
The pragmatic could still question the dependence of the heroine of the piece on a don, the absence of a potent climax, but this one is for the romance of a petite underdog with a tenacious character, someone who bites with her golden smile.