A Sanjay Leela Bhansali canvas and a complete Alia Bhatt show! Based on the 2011 book ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai' written by Hussain S Zaidi with Jane Borges, Gangubai Kathiwadi documents the fascinating personality of Gangubai Kathiawadi and her tragic life.
It’s a compelling story to turn into a film. One can expect a documentary-style detailing of the life and times of Gangubai or the other extreme opposite of the spectrum fuelled by the Bhansali-esque verve and stirring visuals.
It’s the latter, with its expansive sets, resplendent color palette, movement, cinematic opulence that creates an enchanting world where pain and poetry coexist and have a lilting quality to it.
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The screenplay by Bhansali and Utkarshini Vashishtha plays out like a book with three clear chapters – Ganga, Gangu, and Gangubai. The first time we set eyes on Alia she is Ganga, childlike innocence, giggly blushing ingénue with twinkling dreams of being a movie star.
It’s gut-wrenching to then see her vacant face and searching eyes as she is pushed to a dark corner in Kamathipura and christened Gangu. The blank look slowly gets replaced with a cold steely resolve as she takes control of her life and those of the other women in the brothel.
Gangubai is boisterous, loud, a little on the nose and Alia plays her with a rare mix of innocence and jaw clenching seething anger.
Her voice changes, becoming coarser, loud, and commanding even as her face remains almost doll-like and vulnerable, an aching reminder of lost innocence and all that could still have been Ganga had the cruel world not forced her to carry the veneer of the hardened Gangubai.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali as always is unafraid to show us the world through his lens, each frame crafted to perfection. A scene where the Kamathipura girls are seated on a single long bench painting their faces even as their expressions show shards of broken promises and trust almost feels like a painting.
In another sequence when Gangu is writing a letter on behalf of one of the brothel inmates to her father everyone joins in pouring out their own pain and heartbreak into it. It’s their shared tragic life and pain that seamlessly flows as words to the imaginary letter they want to send back home. It’s as visually arresting a scene visually as it is moving emotionally.
Bhansali with the help of cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee creates and conjures many such beautiful scenes. The pace might get a little too indulgent at places, but we are drawn back in sometimes through the grandeur of the songs and at others sucked into the bewitching drama that ensues between characters.
The casting is excellent. Seema Pahwa, Chhaya Kadam, Indira Tiwari, Jim Sarbh, or the always dependable Vijay Raaz are sublime even if one wishes they were a little more fleshed out. No one makes brooding look as majestic on-screen as Ajay Devgn does so while he is a welcome addition the character feels like a more convenient tactic to help Gangu’s story move.
Alia however does full justice to her character faultless as she is playing Gangubai. Suffice to say it is one of her finest performances.