Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films are ought to be watched on the full screen. He doesn’t make films. He creates a spectacle. A spectacle with its share of drama, dance and of course music that is packaged and presented as a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Gangubai Kathiawadi (GK) is another film in that lineage. Having missed this film when it opened on the big screen couple of months ago, I watched it on Netflix knowing very well that it will be a compromise on the Bhansali film experience.
The film is set in Kamathipura, the in famous red light district of Bombay and is about this lady Ganga who becomes Gangubai, the mafia queen. Obviously it is a redemption tale. A tale in which the protagonist like many other girls gets sold to scheming brothel lords and after the initial phase of regret and helplessness, becomes part of the system. The difference in this story is that the protagonist Ganga takes upon herself the task of creating a better future for the victims who end up here. The story line being adapted from a book which is a real story is therefore predictable in how the character arc moves forward.
The film is set in the 70’s Mumbai. I must say that the screen play is also of the 70’s Salim – Javed type. Bhansali does a hat tip to the Salim – Javed type story telling replete with mass scenes and epic dialogues. The fact that we continue to stay engaged with the story told in that style tells a lot of the “Hindi Masala” movie syntax of yore. It is clear that the director has struggled to end the film with a meaningful climax.
There is only one protagonist in this film and that is Alia Bhatt. Alia who plays the title role of Gangubai channelizes her inner Big B with her body language and dialogue delivery in key moments of the film. With her voice modulated to give a masculine tonality, Alia does a great job in transforming herself to become Gangubai on screen. There is no doubt that this is one of her best performances till date in what is indeed a challenging role. I still felt that Alia was a miscast for this character as, in spite of all her acting display, she lacked the physical heft required for this role. She looks too young for this role and in a span of 15 years she continues to look like a petite young girl throughout the film.
Back to Bhansali’s filming style, his movies are a visual treat to the eyes. With each and every prop, set piece and characters fitted on the frame in a perfect geometric formation, you will never find one thing amiss. Every frame of his is an epitome of symmetry and colour co-ordination. But this is good for films set it palaces and rich households. Not for this film where the action takes place in the dingy crowded alleys of Central Bombay. The streets of Kamathipura are so neat and clean that you wonder if Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched back in the 70’s. The production values are very rich so much so that a public meeting that takes in the film has all the trappings of a rich Punjabi wedding of today! The styling steals the film of its nativity completely.
Apart from the visual grandeur, the other hallmark of Bhansali’s films are the songs and the background score. In Gangubai while the BGM is in sync with the meter of the film, the songs though good lacked the “Bhansali class”! The songs particularly the Navaratri one sounds repetitive and so does others.
In my opinion, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an important film maker in Hindi cinema. He is indeed one of the most sensitive film makers when it comes to portraying women characters on screen. But he chooses to trap himself in his comfort zone of grandeur, beautiful sets, immaculate cinematography, melodious songs, traditional dance sequences and the prettiest heroine face of the times. This template might be working for him but by steadfastly sticking to this, he is letting down Indian cinema.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is a watchable film for the interesting subject but my grudge remains with the film maker for making it too unreal.