Readers Write In #462: Gangubai Kathiawadi – Impotent Pomposity

Posted on May 4, 2022

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By Karthik Iyer

Vijay Raaz’s character, Raziabai, symbolizes Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. Dolled up, impotent pomposity. Raaz has no real use in the movie, just like the movie has little use in our changing cinematic landscape. His character could have been mentioned in the passing as a personality that exists but is never shown; just like Gangubai, a movie like so many movies made before that an inference could’ve sufficed. The character’s and the movie’s existence seems unnecessary. But since both exist, one must accept the reality and see what works and what does not.

It was in a Koffee with Karan episode that Shah Rukh Khan advised Alia Bhatt to learn nazakat that is necessary for Hindi films. That’s where I think the phenomenal SRK goes wrong. It was necessary in a different time and space. But today, those cinematic hegemonies have been challenged; for good, in the opinion of this writer. Today that nazakat is artificial.

But in a world built on artificiality, it works. The Gangubai from the movie is played with absolute aplomb by Alia Bhatt. Adorned with peculiar mannerisms, physical gestures, nuskas and nakhras, Bhatt is a cinema in herself. A cinema, though, that did not work for me; that actually applies to the whole movie. Her hard work becomes visible because in the moments that she is supposed to shine, a false note is hit, to no fault of her. Take for example the scenes where Gangubai’s vulnerability and pain is expressed. A conversation occurring between a prostitute and her mother. If I were to handpick that scene and showcase it as a tribute to Bhatt’s acting prowess, it would work. But in the movie, it feels false.

Primary reason behind that is Bhatt fills these scenes with depth, which the movie at large lacks. The movie is running from one plot point to another. The built-up to these charged scenes is absent. They are shown to us in the form of a cricket match highlights. It works for people who adore T-20. But to us who enjoy Test matches, there is no rasa.

The dialogues require dialog-baazi. A form of performance that relies on rhetoric, on being self-assured in its brilliance. Showy. Flashy. But Bhatt, I feel, is not that kind of an actor. She is like Irrfan Khan. Effortless, quiet, immersive. The movies she has acted in have proved her mettle as an actor who’s really good at a kind of acting that is pejoratively or celebratorily called ‘European’. The nazakat that SRK speaks of does not suit her. She’s different and I love her for it.

Thus, it is sad to see that a character like Gangubai could’ve gotten a stronger representation by the same actress but in a different script and by a different director. Thus, that scene of a prostitute calling her mother feels false because Alia considers it a Test match, but we expect her to swing her bat at everything for a six but that’s what she’s doing throughout the movie.

The story, finally, is neither about the character nor about the theme. It is about a director being indulgent; whose indulgences have never worked for this writer because they seem shallow. The much-applauded sets are unremarkable. The kotha is restricted to a common area and a room.  I have seen these buildings, these old chawls of Bombay. They are serpentine mazes coiling an underbelly of a city. An embrace in which innocent lives, like Ganga’s, get choked. The streets, the buildings have no colour. They are fading edifices of an era of Mumbai that was bustling with extraordinary change. But the space has little identity. It has restricted colour. All the walls are grey, all the prostitutes are dark clouds to ensure that Gangubai, the moon, is visible. But we call the moon beautiful because it does not force us to look at it. We just do.

Fundamentally, Gangubai Kathiawadi underplays the daily struggles of a prostitute and overplays the highlights. Everything is dressed, draped, designed, decorated, and directed to ensure that those highlights shine; details can be ignored. But a story like this exists in those details, of those struggles. The pain of a prostitute can’t be understood or empathized with in highlights. It can only be surmised. That’s what Gangubai goes for and succeeds at achieving. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for me. I guess this one’s on me for expecting a different movie.

People keep saying that Gangubai Kathiawadi is like an old-school Bollywood movie. They mean it as a good thing. That’s what scares me. Whenever there is change, there is always a strong pull towards taking things back to as they were; what we are also seeing politically and culturally at large. That’s not constructive. I hope people see that.