In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, a great director and a great actress redeem and liven up a not-so-great screenplay

Posted on March 3, 2022

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Spoilers ahead…

Before I begin writing about Gangubai Kathiawadi, I have to write about my feelings about the genre. Most biopics are about “noble people who suffered a lot and did great things”, and these are the most difficult people to dramatise on screen. In real life, they may be inspirational (there are many such people that are my role models, who I think of and get mental adrenaline shots from whenever I am feeling low) – but on screen, with their lives compressed to just the highlights, they become boring. Because the narrative arc of most biopics remains the same, rarely rising above the same set of highlights. They start at rock bottom. They try, try, try. They defeat sceptics and enemies. They succeed. Rinse. Repeat. What makes it worse is that most filmmakers treat these lives as sacred, not human. So we never get their flaws, their terrible eccentricities, their things-that-make-them-human.

Every film needs a strong filmmaker, but it’s especially so for the biopic. Because if I wanted to know about the “real” Gangubai Kathiawadi, I could Wiki her up or read the Hussain Zaidi book this film is based on. What I want on screen is the Gangubai Kathiawadi as seen through the eyes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the greatest filmmakers (and frame-makers) of our time. I want to see this “fictional” Gangubai that lives in his head, and I want to see what this director’s wonderfully purplish imagination does with her life.

And I must say I have mixed feelings about the end result. Gangubai Kathiawadi is certainly lively and entertaining (more about that later), but the on-screen  Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) – as a character – ends up being one of those generic “noble people who suffered a lot and did great things”. She ends up being a biopic cliche. She gets an intriguing “intro scene”, filled with voiceover lines like: Pyaar ko gaali deti hai par uski gaali mein bhi pyaar hai. And she wears white, which could be either a symbol of her purity of heart, or a widow’s attire signifying that her dreams of a family life are dead. (Maybe it’s a bit of both.) And I was thrilled by a typically Bhansali-esqe touch. Gangubai is summoned by a brothel-runner to tame a young girl who won’t cooperate. The touch is in how Gangubai thrusts her umbrella into the brothel-runner’s hands. The gesture says: Shut the fuck up and let me do my job.

But once she meets the young girl, we cut to that most overused of devices, the flashback, from when Gangubai was as young as this girl. (The screenplay is by Bhansali and Utkarshini Vashishtha.) Seema Pahwa was the brothel-runner she was sold to back then, and you only have to recall Rani Mukerji in Saawariya to see the difference in writing: Rani Mukerji played an extraordinary (and entirely Bhansali-esque) character, while Seema Pahwa plays a generic “madam”. Later, Vijay Raaz appears as a political competitor, and you only have to recall Tanvi Azmi in Bajirao Mastani, who plotted and planned: Tanvi Azmi came off like a female Chanakya , while Vijay Raaz comes off like a token “trans-woman” and a paper tiger, all roar and no bite. At one point, Gangubai calls her mother after 12 years, and you only have to recall the call Hrithik Roshan had with his ex in Guzaarish: that scene played out effortlessly, like a painting come to life, while here, the scene feels “manufactured”. The tears in Gangubai’s eyes don’t become our tears.

And yet, the film keeps you watching. You can call the screenplay “episodic” (if you want to be charitable), or you could call it choppy, especially in the way the secondary cast is written. But when you see a sex worker’s corpse being decorated by a whole bunch of her colleagues, when you see the clouds of powder erupting from Gangubai’s face as she dresses up in order to solicit men, when you see a letter being written with incidents from all the sex workers in the room, when you see the camera descend onto a young girl’s face as her nose is (symbolically) being pierced, or when you see Gangubai’s dance-like gesture to her sometime lover (Shantanu Maheshwari) where she asks him to show the cards he’s drawn, or each time they talk in gesture-ese, you know that you are in the hands of a master. Every director choreographs his/her actors, but Bhansali makes directing itself look like choreography – like in the stunning, stunning scene where Gangubai is “taught” how to solicit men with an outstreched hand. It’s direction as dance.

I wish the love angle had been explored more. It’s classic Bhansali territory – and I wanted the man to feel what Ram was feeling when he lost Leela in Goliyon ki Rasleela. But even what Bhansali gives us (the matching moves in Jab saiyaan where each person bends over the other for a reason you do not anticipate, or the fact that she is able to get close to him only after covering his face or turning his face away), is more poetry than what any other Hindi filmmaker is capable of. In a wonderful qawwali, the lyricist AM Turaz writes: Kisi ki yaad mein shaamein guzaarne ke liye / Kaleja chahiye khud ko maarne ke liye. That’s Gangubai’s life at that very moment. Imagine these lines come to life. I missed that. I missed Gangubai’s inner life.

But Bhansali finds a unique way to address at least part of this problem. For the first time in his career, the dialogues (written by Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha) come with a 70s masala-film flavour – and they are fantastic. These are not the lines from Black or Saawariya or Devdas, which were very much set in Bhansali’s own “khwabon ki duniya“, his dream world. These are lines from the Salim-Javed universe. When Gangubai parts with her lover she snaps at him: Zindagi bhar mera rakhel banke kya karega tu? Ajay Devgn has a brilliant scene where he humiliates a man who wants Kamathipura gone. And I felt: Maybe this should have been the movie. Maybe Ajay should have had more than a guest appearance. Maybe the parts with the journalist (Jim Sarbh) should have been the movie: How Gangubai, the Badass,  Saved Kamathipura. (What we get is How Gangubai, the Angel,  Saved Kamathipura.)

I have another suggestion: How Alia, the Awesome, Saved This Movie. Watching the teasers, I had my doubts, but Alia blew each one away like puffs of smoke from her bidi. From her exaggerated excitement when she thinks she may get to star opposite Dev Anand to her deal-making with the Ajay Devgn character to her stone-face when her friend dies, she reinvents herself as an actress – not just as any actress, but as a “Bhansali actress”. She joins the small group of actors (Ranveer Singh, Rani Mukerji) that was able to put their own spin on this director’s Gothic-nautanki approach to “acting”, which is as much performance as performance art. 

Like every self-respecting masala movie, there are echoes, parallels . The first time Gangubai is on a train, she is a young Gujarati girl with the purest of names: Ganga. She is heading to Bombay to become a heroine. The second time we see her on a train, she is Gangubai. She has become a heroine: not in the films, but of Kamathipura. And this time, she is travelling to Delhi, to see the Prime Minister. The first time she dances the garba, at home, she is innocence and fun personified. The second time we see the dance in Kamathipura, it’s as though she has been possessed by a demon. The post-interval portion of the film is practically a series of echoes, scene after scene of very noble-minded, applause-worthy speeches. The journalist applauds. The people applaud. Jawaharlal Nehru (mentally) applauds. In the theatre, the audience applauds. I left the theatre wondering whether this adulation, this worship, this love was for Gangubai or for Alia. 

Copyright ©2022 Baradwaj Rangan.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi