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by Ferry Bhatia
(Amritsar, Punjab, India)

The life of an Indian sex worker who lobbied for the legalization of sex work over half a century back valued a film. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi communicates us his heroine did this and more in her battle for women’s rights in a red light area as far back as the 1960s.

The film is based on the Gangubai’s life as it is documented in journalist S. Hussain Zaidi’s book with Jane Borges, Mafia Queens of Mumbai. Beyond the costumery, the showy choreography and art design so typical of a Bhansali production, this woman’s overt feminism is what sets Gangubai Kathiawadi apart from the rest of the writer-director’s filmography.

Gangubai Kathiawadi has evidently disinfected Gangubai though, perhaps in a bid to make her palatable as an activist and a leading lady for a conservative audience. Logic suggests that Bhansali is giving us a rose-tinted view of Gangu, since he does little to throw light on how exactly she sustained her business if she was actually, as the film variously says and suggests she did, allowing the women under her care to leave if they wished, she tried to keep sex workers’ daughters out of sex work, she dispensed with pimps in her brothel, and after taking on a leadership role, she opposed forced recruitments into the trade. After all these idealistic decisions, how did she continue her work, operating on the principle – as she puts it in the context of another trade – “beimaani ke kaam mein imaandaari” (honesty in dishonest work)?

It is very heartening to see Bhansali giving Bhatt the treatment that commercial Indian cinema usually reserves for male stars in men-centric extravaganzas: a grand entry, and camerawork that lends a larger-than-life aura to this woman of slight stature.

Bhatt’s almost-child-like frame and face undergo a transformation for this role that is simultaneously dramatic and confusing, impressive and insufficient, her handiwork and a result of teamwork. As the camera closes in on her in the second half, her pronounced make-up, her hairdos, her seemingly marginally expanded facial structure and her maturing demeanor make her noticeably different from the baby-faced actor we meet at the start of the film.

Her gait, her smile, her poise all grow with Gangubai nee Ganga. Yet at a point when she mentions that it has been 15 years since she arrived in Kamathipura, it comes as a shock, because whatever else has or has not transformed her glowing skin appears mysteriously untouched by advancing years. This is, of course, the last frontier for commercial Hindi filmmakers who can’t seem to bear the thought of a glamorous female star with even a borderline lined or sagging face. Luminosity is not a factor of a woman’s complexion but her personality, and Ms Bhatt’s, for one, has oodles of the latter, but try telling Bollywood that.

Setting aside the heroine’s appearance for a second, the narrative timeline gets confusing off and on also when the passage of years don’t seem to match the spacing between real-life cultural and political references.

Gangubai’s playfulness is most evident in her relationship with the innocent local tailor played sweetly by Shantanu Maheshwari, and their adorable mode of communication.

Maheshwari, another character is one of the more inspired casting choices in Gangubai Kathiawadi, along with Ajay Devgan who brings gravitas to his extended cameo as a renowned Mumbai gangster modelled on the real-life Karim Lala. Indira Tiwari as Gangu’s friend in the brothel and Jim Sarbh as a journalist are very good, but Seema Pahwa is unfairly done in by the way makeup, camera angles and lighting are employed to exaggerate her expressions.

While the film’s emotional core is steered by Bhatt’s protagonist, ever so often she has to compete with Bhansali’s weakness for excess. To be fair, Gangubai Kathiawadi never gets boringly symmetrical and aesthetic like 2010’s Guzaarish nor does the director aim for the offensive, exhausting visual perfection of Padmaavat in which he turned even a Sati scene into a fashion parade. This film does, however, feature a stream of needless – albeit attractive looking – set pieces, many of them by now a part of the Bhansali template, this time featuring hummable but unmemorable songs.

The perfection is sometimes cloying, such as when a sex worker dies and her colleagues stand around her like carefully arranged figures posing for a painting rather than flesh-and-blood beings mourning a friend’s death. These segments chip away at the film’s energy and soul.

Even Vijay Raaz playing a transgender person, Raziabai, in Kamathipura is treated more like a striking picture than a person. In recent years, there has been enough public conversation in India about the politics of casting cis men as trans characters for it to have reached Bhansali’s ears. So, it is disappointing that he chose a cisgender actor for this role (despite precedents having been set even in conservative India of casting real-life trans actors to play non-caricatured trans characters, such as Sheethal Shyam in the 2018 Malayalam film Aabhaasam and Meera Singhania in last year’s Bhima Jewellers ad. Bhansali’s casting decision is exacerbated by the way Raziabai is presented as carefully composed imagery.

The tendency to construct painterly visuals especially drags down Gangubai Kathiawadi’s second half, until a scene at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan comes along to once again fire up the by then intermittently ponderous narrative. The protagonist’s sense of humor, oratorical skills and charisma are on full display in that scene.


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