Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of India’s most celebrated Bollywood directors and his latest film which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival recently* is a triumph and hard to resist…
THIS is a beautifully composed film, well-acted and with an endearing story to match.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali employs all his skills as an auteur filmmaker – and one of the best globally – to make this a cinematic experience worth your hard-earned paisa.
Gangubai is the name of the lead character, superbly reprised by a hard-to-take-your-eyes-off Alia Bhatt. This performance surely puts her at the very front of a talented bunch of young female actors making their way in Bollywood presently.
Dumped and sold off by her teenage beau on the doorsteps of a house of ill repute in Kamathipura, Mumbai – the young Ganga becomes Gangu, shedding almost every vestige of her middle-class upbringing as the daughter of a barrister from Gujarat.
As many will infer from the title, Kathiawad is a region of Gujarat and her origins stay with her and mark her out as someone different – very different.
She doesn’t totally lose her sense of who she is – she might be doing something many would find distasteful, immoral and wholly objectionable (in the eyes of certain people), but she shows resilience, courage and has a code of honour and ethics that mark her out – other working girls get her to write their letters and she becomes their leader and matriarch – putting her at odds with the Madam (Seema Bhargava) and the woman who rules over all of them in their house.
Gangu – the bai means brother/sister – tough, principled (in her own sphere of operations) and smart.
A heroine then for our times – and perhaps even more so in the 1950s when this film is set.
Gangubai – the character, on which the film centres, is developed from a figure in a book, ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ by Hussain Zaidi & Jane Borges.
It doesn’t really matter whether she’s a real figure or not – the story is both a fairy tale and ‘realistic’ enough not to matter.
The film basically charts her journey from pretty 18-year-old wannabe movie star Ganga to hardened, wheeling-dealing entrepreneur/business owner who stands up for her girls and goes into politics (sort of). The scene with the Indian prime minister of the day Jawaharlal Nehru is one of many memorable scenes.
Eventually her commitment to fair treatment for her girls – both those who work for her and the children of those very same women whose right to an education is being denied because of their mothers’ work – becomes the cause of her life.
Some of the very best scenes in the movie come from this battle – which takes up the very last portion of the film.
Before that there are two/three other major battles – the first is her encounter with feared Mumbai don Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn). Beaten black and blue by one of his errant henchman, she asks not for revenge – but justice.
Lala himself is a man of principle – again within the confines of his ‘business’ operations – he turns down the idea of a liquor tie-in with the establishment Gangubai runs – because of his faith. There is a meeting of minds, but it is purely professional.
Gangu also has to defeat Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) at the ballot box – again their two encounters are masterfully constructed and Raaz is in his element.
For the most part, Gangu’s heart belongs to no one and everyone, as the saying might go…
Yet she is not adverse to romance – she spots handsome local tailor apprentice Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari) and makes him blush!
There is the car scene song – ‘Meri Jaan’ where the two sort of canoodle – but little more… Bhansali leaves it open as to whether this is a physical relationship – romantic yes, but chaste. Ah, how Indian.
Some viewers of the promotional music videos (out on Youtube – see the link below) and the trailer can see another fate for Afshan. Some of these mise-en-scènes (set scenes) are close to cinema perfection – certainly for a big budget Bollywood film.
Bhansali brings his musical gifts to these – he has a long background in the medium and composes songs for his film and has directed a ballet production – ‘Padmavati’ adapted from a 1923 piece written by Albert Roussel at the at the prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2008. His 2002 film returning to one of the classics of Indian cinema. ‘Devdas’ opened in Cannes that year and arguably started Bollywood’s journey in the West.
His most recent film ‘Padmaavat’ (2018) was mired in quite unnecessary political controversy – (see link below) but he won an Indian National Film Award for ‘best music’ and in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ the standard of the music – both the incidental, background score and the set piece music scenes are all terrific.
There are a range of singers and lyricists – among the vocalists are, Shreya Ghosal, Neeti Mohan and Janhvi Shrimankar & Shali Hada.
While for the most part the story is simple and understandable and the pace reasonably executed (perhaps it could be a tad shorter) and reaching a lovely climax, there are also scenes of mirth and merriment and all help keep the film engaging at just over two and half hours.
Bhansali (screenplay) and writers Prakash Kapadia (dialogue) and Utkarshini Vashishitha (dialogue-screenplay) have all done this film proud but the non-dialogue elements deserve higher praise perhaps – cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee and production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray deliver excellence.
Bhansali arguably is the Bollywood director – there are lots of nods to the classics along the way in this and for the Bollywood aficionado give further weight to the film’s artistic pretensions – though perhaps it is quite sensibly commercial in these challenging times.
If you don’t enjoy this, it might be fair to say Bollywood and popular Indian cinema is not for you.
Even for those, for whom Bollywood has been ‘off’ of late should find this a reason to go back to the cinema!
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
Gangubai Kathiawadi releases worldwide on Friday (February 25)
Our interview with Alia Bhatt in Berlin
Padmavat/Padmavati controversy 2017-18
Gangubai Kathiawad trailer
Saragama Music (songs from the film)