Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been known to craft grand worlds for his films, some of which take inspiration from real-world events and transport the viewer to a highly detailed world of their own. With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali applies the same sensibilities to a story set firmly in the real world, in recent history. While there are no grand sets or costumes as seen in Padmaavat or Bajirao Mastani, that doesn’t stop the film from achieving similar heights in its presentation and storytelling.
Gangubai tells the story of the eponymous Mafia queen, played by Alia Bhatt, as she rose through the world of prostitution in the 1960’s Kamathipura, a small neighbourhood in Mumbai. Facing various challenges, Gangubai went on to advocate for women’s rights within her world, standing up for sex workers with political rallies and more.
Alia Bhatt has quickly risen through the ranks in the industry and established herself as a versatile actor, taking challenging roles that many may not have imagined her to take. With films like Highway, Udta Punjab and Raazi, Bhatt has once again done justice to the role of Gangubai in what may be one of her most vulnerable roles yet. Despite that though, I still only saw the actor and rarely found her losing herself in the character she’s meant to be portraying, especially in the latter stage of Gangu’s life where she’s supposed to have a rougher demeanour. It reminded me that while our industry has talented actors, they rarely blend into the roles they’re supposed to be playing thanks to a lack of commitment on behalf of various departments, be it makeup or else.
While Alia is the star of the show here, some special mention needs to be given to Ajay Devgn’s guest appearance as Rahim Lala, whose limited screen presence is used wonderfully, giving guidance to a young Gangu in her early years. Going into the film blind, I was surprised to see the rest of the cast being rounded out by Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh, with a feature debut by Shantanu Maheshwari in a rather subdued, but charming role. Raaz only appears sporadically, first as a foil to Gangu’s plans for uniting the entirety of the neighbourhood, but the resolution of that conflict is so fast that it only feels like padding at the end. The rest of the cast is given an adequate amount to do, with Seema Pahwa stealing each scene she’s in with an authoritative, clearly antagonistic yet momentarily complicated grace.
Given the direction from Bhansali, I wasn’t surprised in the least to see almost every frame being treated with the same care and attention as those with a “bigger scale”, which usually comprises of song sequences. Aside from the usual attention to detail in costumes and sets, Bhansali also lets the camera flow freely with the music, a stark contrast with most of the film’s first half which focuses on the claustrophobia that Ganga feels.
The neighbourhood of Kamathipura may be small, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from crafting a believable world within its streets over the course of 154 minutes. There’s not much in the way of nostalgia for 1960s Mumbai, with the film focused primarily on presenting its story for a more universal audience. While the film is full of powerful moments, there are also some that can seem to be a tad bit pandering, with scenes falling short of Gangu directly looking at the camera while delivering her speeches. But that’s just me nitpicking, as the majority of the film is executed well. While I get that documenting the life and works of the eponymous Gangu is a daunting task, the film does seem to run longer than it needs to, with the weight of its runtime falling hard on viewers at the mid-point which can seem a little directionless.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is exactly what you’d expect — even with a “smaller” film on scale, Bhansali shall deliver on everything as grand as possible.