'Gangubai Kathiawadi': Alia Bhatt nails it with elan in this grand melodramatic spectacle by Bhansali

'Gangubai Kathiawadi' may not be a 'Mandi'. It doesn’t aspire to be. But it’s interesting to see how it keeps men at the margins, even if they are useful for Gangu. It’s her story that matters

'Gangubai Kathiawadi': Alia Bhatt nails it with elan in this grand melodramatic spectacle by Bhansali

Namrata Joshi

Early on in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi you have a scene of a group of sex workers in a Kamathipura brothel sitting on a long bench, next to each other, applying makeup and getting ready to lure their customers. Under the picture of Nargis, which is replaced in a similar scene later by a Suraiyya photograph. At the core of this exquisite, painterly frame is Ganga (Aalia Bhatt) defiantly foisting powder on her face, as though resisting the fate that she is getting saddled with. Ganga, who is unyielding, despite being forcibly turned into Gangu, on way to eventually becoming Gangubai.

It’s an image that has stayed embedded, in my mind and is pretty much representational of all that can be compelling in the polarising aesthetic of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It’s a carefully constructed visual, perfectly set up with each detail and every blithe and breezy gesture of the women in the background regulated and coordinated to segue with Ganga’s contained fury at the centre. I’d call it a choreography of histrionics. An artifice no doubt but one that does exude its own emotional truth.

As opposed to this is a playful song sequence in which Gangu and her lover Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) flirt across the street over a game of cards. Whimsically imagined and executed with sprightliness.

There’s the moving scene of Gangu on a phone call that informs her of her father’s death. Or a sequence much earlier where she is writing a letter on behalf of another brothel resident to her father with each of the group of women chipping in with their experiences, talking by turn as though an invisible mic was being passed in the group, even as the camera moves from one broken face to the other. Their experiences are similar and reciprocal. There is a mutuality in the betrayals, injustices, violence and misfortune that they have been at the receiving end of, individually.

Then there is the larger-than-life canvas in which Bhansali brings them together again towards the end where they affectionately dress up a dearly departed Kamli (Indira Tiwari) for her final farewell. It’s a sorority of suffering as well as strength.

Such designed set-pieces are the bricks with which Bhansali constructs Gangubai Kathiawadi, an otherwise straightforward narration of the journey of a barrister’s naïve daughter Ganga, all the way from Kathiawad to Kamathipura. There’s the undying love for Dev Anand, the dreams of becoming a Hindi film star, betrayal by her beau Ramnik Lal who takes her to Mumbai on the pretext of getting her to work in a film but sells her off to a brothel, the forcing into sex work, the rise to becoming the gharwali (madam) of the brothel and then a political activist championing the rights of sex workers. Based on S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai”, Bhansali chronicles the journey linearly and leaves the audience with a Gangu who is still on an on-going mission seeking empowerment women.

With Bhansali it’s a given that things will always be heightened and overwrought—be it the emotions or the backdrop or the declamatory dialogue. He stuffs in every film poster and advertisement of the period, for instance. The scenes are overflowing—with drama one minute, humour the next, tenderness another and confrontation right after. The screen is like the proscenium and the film an opera. Nobody knows the rules of a grand melodramatic spectacle better than Bhansali. But perhaps it’s to do with the setting or the many shades of white that Aalia wears, the opulence and extravagance felt a lot muted here.

Female bonding, be it in Devdas’s Dola re dola or Bajirao Mastani’s Pinga has been another Bhansali hallmark. What reaches out here too is the sisterhood. I may have wanted more flesh and blood on some of the women, wanted to hear their stories more in depth but they still managed to speak to me as a group. Gangubai Kathiawadi may not be a Mandi. It doesn’t aspire to be. But it’s interesting to see how it keeps men at the margins. Good, bad or indifferent—they are peripheral even if they are useful for Gangu. It’s her story that matters. And, as she herself states rhetorically: if shakti (power), sadbuddhi (good sense) and sampatti (the property) are all feminine then what are men so proud of?

Bhansali’s gaze on the women is not coarse in the manner that say a Begum Jaan was. He doesn’t turn the audience into a voyeur but makes them a part of their world, a stakeholder in the debate, points a finger at the society and holds it responsible for the discrimination against the very women who are its custodians.

There’s something to be said about the portrayal of Gangubai, however real or fictionalised it might be. Despite being brutalised in every which way—emotionally, psychologically, physically, sexually, spiritually—there’s still is a sense of humour, boundless love and a zest for life. Even more admirable is the fighting spirit backed with a canniness and foresight. She is crafty enough to figure how to appeal to a man in power, don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) and make him an ally. Men too can be enlisted by women in causes for and of women. There are tricks up her sleeve that make her a true-blue politician as she goes about destroying the enemies—be it her brutal rapist, the arch-rival Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) or the cops and politicians. Using an open-air screening of the film to gain followers in the neighbourhood and even sacrificing the love of her life to achieve her ambitions. But these are ambitions for a larger cause and greater good—the legalisation of sex work. For her it’s a calling, a business in which customer, and their satisfaction, is all. But what is needed in return is izzat se jeena (living with dignity), darna nahin (fearing nothing), days off work and right to education for the children.

Gangu harnesses the performer within herself just as astutely. The speech she makes at the women’s rally at Azad Maidan or her interaction with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is all about speaking from the heart but is also a virtuoso, effective presentation. The masterstroke of using Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry of anguish and cynicism: “Madad chaahti hai ye hawwa ki beti, Yashoda ki hamjins, Radha ki beti, Payambar ki ummat Zulaykha ki beti, Jinhe naaz hai hind par wo kahaan hain” (The daughters of Eve, Yashoda, Radha, Zulaykha need help to claim their right to dignity). Could the fictionalised Nehru have not offered her the red rose in return for hearing the black ones that flower in their world?

Aalia Bhatt is a powerhouse in her petiteness. Despite the extreme youthfulness that sits on her visage and the fragile frame, she can seem senior, mellow and mature next to the callow loverboy. Maheshwari, incidentally, is older than Bhatt, if Wikipedia has it right. She brings a gravitas and rootedness to the character despite the necessary flamboyance and flourishes and forges a delicate emotional connect while maintaining a high pitch in the performance, in tune with Bhansali’s universe.

I have always found Bhansali’s films exhausting and engaging, in equal measure. Gangubai didn’t wear me down as much and Aalia Bhatt could well be the big reason why. In the sweeping saga the diminutive actor is a towering presence.

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