REVIEW: ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ – An Epic History, An Inspiring Reality

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Gangubai Kathiawadi - But Why Tho

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a Hindi-language historical drama and biopic directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and based on a chapter in Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai about Gangubai Kathiawadi (Alia Bhatt), the Mafia Queen, president of Kamathipura, and woman who tried to legalize prostitution in India.

This gorgeous, epic film is almost too powerful a story to believe. In part, because it is understandably exaggerated. The story of a powerful and beloved brothel madame is surely sanitized and to what extent is hard to judge given how little is ultimately known about her and her life. However, regardless of what elements may be editorialized or fictitious, Gangubai Kathiawadi is simply excellent. And it all starts with Bhatt. The range she shows across the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime is superb, beginning with an almost over-the-top naivety, evolving into a powerful character equally balanced by crushing confidence and abundant heart. Every single moment, from her stern leadership to her romantic inclinations, her mourning, and her celebration, is so rich with emotion.

Rarely have I been so enthralled by every minute of such a long film, and this is thanks to its excellent structure and pacing. The movie is essentially broken into three clear acts. The first act details Gangubai’s rise from a privileged girl sold to a brothel by her boyfriend, all through an impressive framing device ending with her freeing a girl in the same situation. The second act follows Gangubai’s ascension from brothel madame to president of all of the neighborhood. Here she faces off against the current president Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) with the support of the most powerful man in the neighborhood, Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn). And in the final act, Gangubai fights for the rights and dignity of every woman in Kamathipura and every prostitute in India.

Each act has several great musical numbers, especially the middle act’s silent soiree between Gangubai and her tailor Ramnik (Shantanu Maheshwari) set to the original song Meri Jaan. The whole scene plays out without speaking a word as the two flirt with such creative levity compared to the intensity of the election around them. I especially love the second half of their meeting taking place in her extremely fancy car. It showcases her absolute power and confidence in a way women are not always empowered in romantic movie moments while still allowing her to be a full human and not just a ruthless boss by showcasing her vulnerability. It’s all sexually tense without so much as a kiss shared and that unto itself is impressive.

My only issue with this otherwise great set of scenes is that Maheshwari just simply looks like a love interest plucked out of any mid-2000s romantic comedy with his doofy long hair and lack of any substantial personality. It’s not a knock on the character or the actor necesarily, but watching the two of them together took me dramatically out of the time period every time, compared to the otherwise impeccable set design and costuming clearly denoting a mid-century aesthetic.

The camera is often set below the horizon and tilted upward to not only give gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot of Kamathipura, rich with color in every last architectural detail and brazen with full-palet clear skies. It also symbolic forces the viewer to look up at the brothels, rather than down upon them. Almost the entire movie takes place within the same few blocks, which showcases the way the sex workers of Kamathipura’s lives are so confined to this neighborhood while also making evident how fulfilling their lives become within their small community as Gangubai fights to make sure it can be.

Gangubai doesn’t make this fight alone. She’s supported foremost by the 4000 women in her care who love and trust her personally and professionally. She’s also supported by powerful men who never once try to step over her or force her hand. Those who do are quickly embarrassed and crushed in consistently comedic or creatively-shot moments. But for those who respect her autonomy and capability, they demonstrate the responsibility more men should uphold in support of the women whose spotlights they have no business dimming anyway. I actually wish that Karim in particular had just a bit more screen time, even though it would probably not be possible to add any without overshadowing Gangubai’s authority. His presence is its own kind of powerful, plus always accompanied by a great score and musical motif.

Likewise, I wish that Raziabai had more screen time as well. She is a menacing presence and the only person who strikes any amount of fear into Gangubai. I don’t know how she could have gotten more time without dragging the film’s perfect pacing out too far, but her antagonism was one of the best parts of the film. More menace or more insight into her motives would have been great. It is just a shame she was not played by a trans or non-binary actor, given the prominence of the role and the honestly odd exclamation about her gender mid-argument with Gangubai. She expounds upon being neither man nor woman in the middle of an argument where the point feels like it’s being belabored by the film’s creators rather than an actual point in the argument. The whole movie seems to make a point not to fixate on its characters’ sex and sexuality, instead emphasizing their humanity regardless of their profession. It’s a point that gets so well made so many times that this almost non-sequitur by Raziabai is jarringly out of place while drawing unnecessary attention to the unfortunate casting.

Of course, prostitution is still mostly illegal in India, and much of the world, and even where it is permitted, sex work is shamed and sex workers are left unprotected. The movie will make you believe though. Its relentless positivity in the face of everything and ceaseless drive to prove to every last person that there is no shame in sex work are completely effective and by the film’s end, I was overwrought with emotion and adoration for Gangubai. It’s a rare conclusion that opts to make the viewer believe in what can be possible rather than lament what is yet to be.

Gangubai Kathiawadi may be exaggerated and dramatized, but it is an epic and moving history of a woman and women that would otherwise be ignored and forgotten. Everything about it is just excellent from its acting to its pacing, its music and visuals to the delivery of its message. Small misgivings keep it from perfection, but it’s most certainly worthy of great praise and all two-and-a-half hours of its run time.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is playing now in theaters worldwide. Get your tickets with our affiliate link.


Gangubai Kathiawadi
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Gangubai Kathiawadi may be exaggerated and dramatized, but it is an epic and moving history of a woman and women that would otherwise be ignored and forgotten. Everything about it is just excellent from its acting to its pacing, its music and visuals to the delivery of its message. Small misgivings keep it from perfection, but it’s most certainly worthy of great praise and all two-and-a-half hours of its run time.