Gangubai Kathiawadi Is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Magical Stage & Alia Bhatt His Magician

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, Paro (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) tells Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit Nene), “tawaifon ki taqdeer mein shauhar nahi hote,” to which Chandramukhi replies, “tawaifon ki taqdeer hi nahi hoti.” Gangubai Kathiawadi is a powerful attempt to prove her wrong. Here, we have Bhansali’s leading lady, a prostitute, writing her own destiny and that of 4000 other girls. At many moments in Gangubai Kathiawadi I felt like Gangu is reflecting upon the decisions Chandramukhi and Gulabji (Rani Mukerji in Saawariya) made in their lives. She doesn’t want their fate, she cannot live their lives. That’s something Gangu makes clear from the very start of the film.

While I have enjoyed Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent films, I haven’t really “loved” any after Black. Guzaarish, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela, Padmaavat and others – these are films that I have enjoyed. While I sat in the theatres watching these, I was entirely immersed in Bhansali’s worlds. But walking out I realised how much a part of these worlds I wasn’t. Not because I couldn’t live the reality of these characters, but because these films had moments to enjoy, and not stories to live. Gangubai Kathiawadi is an exception. Along with co-writer Utkarshini Vashishtha, Bhansali gives us a story, an experience, multiple moments – all of it together, gushing like waves at the seashore. Gangubai Kathiawadi is one of Bhansali’s most layered films, especially the first half. It’s lyrical, poetic, inspiring, enduring, heartfelt – all at once. In the second half, when Gangu walks around in white sarees, like Mother Teresa, she’s no more a sex worker, but a messiah of 4000 girls who live in Mumbai’s red-light area and according to society, have no fate. This is where strings loosen up and the film falters, but even then, Gangubai Kathiawadi worked for me, and it worked wonders.

Bhansali’s USP are moments. Kashibai and Mastani’s tika scene before they burst into song and dance in Pinga, Ram and Leela’s love affair among peacocks in their gardens, Rani Padmavati’s jauhar scene, Sophia’s eyes when Ethan calls out to her, Nandini’s laughter on that porch swing – these and many more moments define Bhansali’s magnificent work onscreen. Gangubai Kathiawadi is a film that has maximum number of such moments. The dreams in Ganga’s eyes when she sets foot on that train to Mumbai, the anguish when she becomes Gangu. Gangu longs to go home, there’s a Navratri sequence in Mumbai that is almost heart breaking to watch, and it’s only Bhansali’s brilliance that a song and dance festival is turned into loneliness for Gangu. Gangu’s speech at Azad Maidan when she asks for rights for prostitutes – that’s a scene to look out for. Jim Sarbh’s Fiji (or is it Faeji?) Babu writes a speech for her and she memorises it too, but on stage, she speaks from the heart.

But my favourite moment has to be when Gangu calls her mother after 12 years of leaving home. She musters the courage to place a trunk call. The operator tells her that it’s going to be a two minute call, because that’s what she had booked. Initially, the mother and daughter have some small talk and when the operator announces that there are 30 seconds left, Gangu looses it at the operator and asks her, “maa naraz hai, unko manana hai, yeh 30 second mein kaise karu? 12 saal ki baatein 30 second mein kaise karu?” And then the call disconnects. In this moment, and many more Gangu’s loneliness becomes her only companion.

Loneliness and love are at the heart of Gangubai Kathiawadi. Gangu builds courage out of her loneliness, broken heart, insecurities. She weaves love out of her vulnerabilities. At centre stage, we have a woman who left home to become a Hindi film heroine, but ended up being a real life hero(ine) for the 4000 women she lives with. Till the very end of the film she’s looking for her ex-lover who sold her for Rs 1000. That is the very essence of her loneliness throughout the film. Also of her love. As Fiji Babu points out, “woh mil gaya toh aap Gangu se wapis Ganga ban jaengi.”

While Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is a magical opera, it is what it is because of Alia Bhatt. If Bhansali’s world is magic, she is the magician. After Manisha Koirala (Khaamoshi) and Rani Mukerji (Black) Alia Bhatt is my favourite Bhansali heroine. Every single time there is a film with weak writing, I have written something like, “even XYZ (the actor) cannot rise above the clumsy writing.” Don’t get me wrong, the writing of Gangubai Kathiawadi isn’t clumsy, but it has its weak moments. But even those weak moments, never seem to be weak because of what Alia Bhatt has done with her character. When Bhatt was initially cast as Gangubai and when the posters, teasers, trailer, songs came out subsequently, everyone doubted the casting. Some said she was too young, some thought she looked too naive, some said too urban. I didn’t believe she could do it, either. But here I am, apologising to Miss Bhatt for judging too soon. Alia Bhatt is a rare, gifted performer, one of the best actors Hindi Cinema has ever had and she’s only getting stronger. She’s both, the hero and heroine of this film. As the hero, she’s fighting for human rights and the heroine she’s living Ganga’s childhood dream of becoming an actor. Gangu looks at Kamathipura as a stage and prostitution as an act. That’s perhaps what Bhatt taps into to bring about every single nuance of her career best character, performance. Alia Bhatt is in almost every single frame of the film and in each of these frames she stands strong like a rock. She’s powerful, intimidating, electrifying. Bhatt is a roaring lioness in Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi.

In a very crucial scene, Gangubai is buying sarees. She asks the young tailor/seller which of the sarees should she buy. He says it makes no difference because they’re all white. “Kaunsa safed? Dhue (smoke) wala, ya barf (snow) wala, ya doodh (milk) wala, ya jharne (waterfall) wala, ya badal (clouds) wala?” she asks. We see white as just white, but they’re all different, unique for Gangu. Each shade is a nuanced reflection of something natural, even swans. When you look closely at Bhatt’s performance, you see in it, each single shade of the whites she describes. Gangubai Kathiawadi is an Alia Bhatt show, and no one can take that away from her.

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