“Gulaab Gang”… That touch of pink

Posted on March 9, 2014


Spoilers ahead…

I walked into Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang expecting a fiery feminist drama. I walked out having watched a Tamil/Telugu mass-hero masala movie – only, with women. I’m serious.

As with the heroes in those films, we are teased with flashes of the heroine’s (Madhuri Dixit-Nene, playing Rajjo) presence before finally getting to the scene that reveals her face. We get the moment where she issues a challenge to the villain and walks away in slow motion. (It’s a villainess, really, a scheming politician named Sumitra, and played by Juhi Chawla. We get a glimpse of her feet first, which is only right given that that’s where she wants the men around her.) We get the action sequence where Rajjo defies a handful of laws of gravity and sends bad guys spinning through air. We get colourful punch dialogues, and punchy scenes like the one where a rapist taking a dip in the local lake – it’s a village named Madhavpur – is slowly surrounded by a dozen of the heroine’s henchmen (henchwomen, rather; the “gang” in the title is rather apt, for these women do what men do in gangs in the more macho movies). The heroine, inevitably, is compared to a goddess. When asked if Rajjo is right in wielding weapons, a cop says, “Durga maiya ke haath mein bhi hain.” And the villainess? She’s so unspeakably evil that she rubs her palms with hand-sanitising lotion after touching a villager’s child during a photo op. Even the characters and situations are the ones we’d find in the Tamil/Telugu masala movies. The politician’s son who specialises in rape. The spineless secretary. The heartless collector who demands exorbitant bribes to deliver the most basic services. The heroine’s trusted (and much loved) lieutenants who will meet a tragic end. A risible climax involving a machine gun attack that’s conveniently filmed by a videographer. An all-male remake featuring Vijay and Prakash Raj may not be far away.

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The film begins with the young Rajjo, who’s beaten up by her wicked witch of a stepmother for expressing a desire to study. (Her father cowers impotently in a corner.) So the girl practices writing alphabets on walls, and when the stepmother takes her to a tantrik and he places a lump of burning coal on her palm, she hurls it back at him. And then, we move to the adult Rajjo, who heads what looks like an ashram filled with women wearing pink, as they go about pounding spices and weaving baskets. The most interesting questions remain unanswered. How did the girl grow into this saviour who unleashes the most brutal forms of justice, like the protagonist of Vinay Shukla’s Godmother? When did she first wear pink? Why pink? While it’s a terrific touch that Rajjo is not given a lover to romance, why not address this aspect of her life? Has she sworn off men? And how did she meet these women, who back her up and execute her commands? The Robin Hood legends are powerful and popular because we see how he met each of his Merry Men. Imagine if there was no fight on the log bridge and we met Little John as a taken-for-granted part of the Sherwood Forest ensemble – that’s what happens in Gulaab Gang. If you’re going to make a rousing lowbrow entertainer about a woman outlaw who brings the rich and the powerful to their knees, why skimp on these juicy subplots?

In the few films we’ve had that were filled with women – Utsav, Mandi – the characters were defined in swift strokes, a quirk here, a backstory there. Yet, we sensed their camaraderie, their oneness. But here, with the possible exception of Kajri (Tannishtha Chatterjee), we know nothing about the inner lives of these women – just that they muscle their way through problems, with sickles and sticks, and then break into daintily choreographed songs and dances, with Saroj Khan’s signature steps. The “masculine” and the “feminine” – in one pink package. The musical interludes are most problematic. It’s as if we’re watching a dance-drama troupe, perfectly in sync. I wasn’t able to put my finger on why this appears odd here when the heroes of the Tamil/Telugu masala movies break into dances too, when they aren’t fighting – but it just doesn’t fit, and neither does the heroine. The women around Rajjo look rough, tough, messed-up – they’re believable as action figures. Dixit-Nene, whose star presence is acknowledged by a nod to Ek do teen…,  looks like she’s play-acting. There’s no earthiness, no fire – she’s cut from a more delicate cloth than what the film demands. And she doesn’t sell her big speeches, one of which is delivered in front of apathetic students. We’re meant to see how her words inspire them, but there’s no payoff. We cut almost immediately to an attempt on Rajjo’s life. Of course, the would-be assassins end up dead, thanks to a single sweep of Rajjo’s sickle. It’s as if she were harvesting corn.

Chawla, surprisingly, comes off better. At first, it seems too much of a stretch. (Looking at her, we can imagine what audiences must have felt on encountering the genial Henry Fonda as the icy killer in Once Upon a Time in the West.) But she gradually grows into the part, however one-dimensional Sumitra is, with a few too many repetitive scenes that have her humiliating men. There’s an interesting backstory that suggests that she may have had her husband killed, and the film’s biggest joke is this man, with his macho moustache, reduced to a garlanded portrait on the wall. As with Rajjo, we wonder what made Sumitra what she is, how she became this monster who hears about a rape and, instead of punishing the perpetrator, tries to hush up the matter with a bundle of notes – but this lack of information doesn’t cripple the character. She has a great scene where an election officer calls her by name, and her face clenches with rage. A little later, she’s back to sporting a sickly-sweet smile. It’s chilling. I didn’t think once of those Kurkure ads.

Gulaab Gang isn’t interested in exploring the validity of the means Rajjo and her gang employ to obtain justice. We get a couple of questions about whether “this is right” – they’re answered half-heartedly. And that’s fine. If all you want is to make a women-fuelled vigilante movie, who can deny you the right?

The film isn’t interested in feminist politics either. When Kajri is rescued from her suicide attempt by members of Rajjo’s gang – Kajri was kicked out of her house because the dowry she brought wasn’t big enough – she sighs, “Jee ke kaa karen hum.” The response: “Arre, apne liye jee.” This is just tokenism, for Kajri seems to do nothing but follow Rajjo’s orders. Where is the life she’s supposed to have made for herself? But again, this is fine – a masala movie can afford not to make logical sense.

But it must make emotional sense – and that’s where Gulaab Gang really fails. When Rajjo is handed a cheque for Rs. 10 lakhs, to begin work on a school for the girls in her village, she breaks down. But we feel nothing because, between the fights and the musical sequences, the school is hardly in the picture. We see the Devnagri alphabet “ra” in the place of a bindi on Rajjo’s forehead, and we hear her speak about education (and early on, we also hear her use a couple of English words, like “idea” and “okay”) – but these stray details don’t accumulate into the kind of power source that can really illuminate an issue, even within the confines of such a movie, even if it’s just a random plot point. Perhaps the most insulting thing about the film is the parade of real-life women survivors over the closing credits, with a line or two about what they went through and where they are today. (No Sampat Pal, though.) They’re the true heroines, and they deserved to be more than just the rah-rah coda for a second-rate masala movie.


Gulaab Gang = Pink Ladies, but not these Pink Ladies
* defies a handful of laws of gravity = see here
* Durga maiya ke haath mein bhi hain = the goddess Durga wields weapons too
* alphabets on walls = see here
* tantrik = black magic man; see here
* fight on the log bridge = see here
* Saroj Khan’s signature steps = see here
* Ek do teen = see here
* Henry Fonda = see here
* Kurkure ads = see here
* Jee ke kaa karen hum = What am I going to achieve by living?
* Arre, apne liye jee = Live for yourself
* 10 lakhs = see here
* Devnagri alphabet = see here
* Sampat Pal = see here

Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi