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Movie Review: ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

“Shakti, Sampatti, Sadbudhi – teeno hi aurate hai, toh inn mardo ko kis baat ka guroor hai?” (If the embodiment of power, wealth and intelligence are women {Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati}, then why do men have such an ego?).

This question asked by Gangubai, played by Alia Bhatt, in the forthcoming Bollywood biological drama ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, underlines the story that lies at the crux of the film.

Based on Hussain Zaidi’s novel ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ narrates the story of a young Ganga Harjivandas, who’s scheming boyfriend takes advantage of her dream of becoming a Bollywood actress and lures her away from home to Mumbai. But instead of the promised film casting, she is brought to a brothel and sold to its madam. After her first night with a client, she sheds her sacred birth name and henceforth goes by Gangu.

But no matter how many stones life throws at her, the resilient woman refuses to bow down. Understanding business far better than the matron running the establishment, Gangu soon forms an alliance with mobster Rahim Lala – played veteran actor Ajay Devgn – the first step of her evolution to becoming the mighty Gangubai, who begins her rule over the neighbourhood. As time goes by, Gangubai becomes a messiah figure for all the women working in the brothels of Kamathipura and a national advocate for the rights of sex workers and women rights, even meeting the Prime Minister of the day, Jawaharlal Nehru to put forth her case.

Bhatt in her role as the lead character is formidable. She easily transforms from the young, happy naïve girl from Kaithawad, to the distressed and distraught sex worker and finally to the authoritative and commanding mob boss. In all the various avatars in the film, Bhatt plays it to near perfection. Devgn and Seema Pahwa, as the lead supporting actors also do a fine job, but the limelight is stolen by Vijay Raaz portraying the role of Raziabai, a trans madam who is Bhatt’s rival in the locality. The scene in which Gangubai and Raziabai come face to face at the latter’s failed political rally, with each taunting the other with powerful dialogues and striking body language guarantees to leave the audience with goosebumps.

The film also has its moments which make the viewers laugh out loud. Witty one-liners, though used sporadically, leave their mark. The music, as expected, has a very “Sanjay Leela Bhansali” feel to it – almost resembling previous songs from the Bhansali catalogue of films. The film’s downside, however, is not its lack of originality but maybe its courageous attempt at being so different. In contrast to previous Bhansali helmed films, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ seems to lack engagement with its core underlying issues – in this film, namely around women empowerment and the rights of sex workers and those trafficked into the unscrupulous world of prostitution. Without addressing the issues and emotions behind the situations portrayed on the silver screen, the film seems to lack a sincerity and almost misses an opportunity to educate as well as entertain.

Overall, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ presents some of the industries finest talent at its best with a story that has long been brushed under the carpet. Though not perfect, the narrative is strong enough to make this film one not to be missed.

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