Gangubai Kathiawadi is based on one chapter from the book ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ by Hussain Zaidi. And this film is set out to prove Alia Bhatt as the Queen of Bollywood, by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
I am not a SLB fan as such, but I do enjoy the occasional indulgence into his universe of grandeur, poetry and art. An old-school theater experience that demands patience and taste.
The film takes us through the journey of a young and dreamy Ganga to a scarred, fierce, and still ambitious Gangu Bai, from Kathiawad to Kamathipura.
Bollywood has produced plenty of stories around life of courtesans either as an entire feature film or in sub plots. Most of them paint a similar picture, with caricature-ish representation of the women, the pimps, the eunuchs, etc.
Even SLB despite despite his unmatched sense of style and cinema, keeps the basics same, but adds a layer of his craft by designing each frame to his own pleasure. How these women are made to sit in a line on a bench with an arty wall and an off-center frame on it, how Gangubai poses in front of the brothel door for the first time, how the by lanes of Kamathipura are viewed through top angle shots, cinema posters in the background, all of these are art montages and not really a gripping narrative. There is a scene in which the power goes off and all the women of the red-light area stand with candles in their hand at the doors to keep the business running. This scene has no other significance than the visual gratification which the director wants to offer. As for the story, that moves rather slowly in the background of costumes, music and lyrical dialogues.
Tying all these loose ends together and keeping us glued through the slow pace, is the acting prowess of Alia Bhatt. It is rare for an SLB film to rely on one actor alone, but Alia Bhatt is in focus in every single frame. Dancing, crying, howling, laughing, with dialogues or in silence, she is a live acting class as Gangubai. To be honest, she doesn’t even get much help from costumes or makeup to look as scarred as her character would have been. But her eyes convey all the pain and angst while she continues to look pristine in her small frame, white sarees and red Bindi. There are scenes which feel stretched or unnecessary, but even in those moments Alia Bhatt doesn’t let you blink with boredom.
There are veterans in supporting parts like Ajay Devgn, Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa and Jim Sarbh. But they get only hurried moments to make their presence felt.
The music is contextual but forgettable, the cinematography is top-notch, the dialogues are heavy but very filmy at times.
This film feels like a selective, slow and tinted view of Gangubai’s life. It has its moments of glory and monologues worth a revisit, but all that is mostly due to Alia Bhatt. The narration and direction are underwhelming without her.
Going with 2.5/5.