Int’l Critics Line: Alia Bhatt In ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

Gangubai Kathiawadi Bhansali Productions

“Save your over-acting for the movies,” Ganga’s boyfriend Ramnik (Varun Kapoor) advises her, as she gasps with exaggerated joy at the train ticket to Mumbai — home of Bollywood, the world’s biggest film industry — he holds up to her in Gangubai Kathiawadi. It’s a knowingly self-aware joke. Popular as they are, Bollywood films are often lampooned for their frequently coarse acting, along with their melodramatic subjects, corny romance, absurd pantomime villains and the fact that even the most tragic scene may turn on a dime into a massive dance number. Unless you grew up with them, the Bollywood approach to giving bang for every buck can be hard to swallow.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic tale of Gangubai, the true story of a girl from an affluent family sold into prostitution who became a so-called “mafia queen” of Mumbai, ticks all those boxes. The brothel madams are maniacally evil, beating their girls and punishing rebels by abandoning them to the most sadistic clients. Their street of shame is so obviously a studio set that its artificiality seems to be a selling point. The local crime boss Karim Lala (Ajay Devgn) is ruthless but — surprise! — turns out to have a heart of gold when it comes to fallen women. And of course, in the midst of her fight for these women’s rights, Gangu finds but must be denied true love: the rules of melodrama dictate that she may never know ordinary happiness. To top it off, the whole shebang goes on for two and a half hours. That’s Bollywood for you.

But here’s the thing: every minute of those two and a half hours is ravishingly entertaining. The songs, written by the director, bounce along energetically; the camera does much the same thing, zooming and zig-zagging in a powerhouse effort to maintain a rollercoaster pace. The remarkably beautiful star Alia Bhatt, who plays Gangu, is also a sensational dancer, leading the obligatory chorus numbers with the grace, speed and vigor of a racing filly. And while it is true that there is nothing subtle about her performance, she plays the heroine with terrific swagger and as much complexity as the form allows.

Gangu professes high ideals, but she is also vain, cranky, arrogant and rarely seen without a split of vodka to hand; she is no saint. That said, we are always on her side. We wallow in her despair when she finds herself betrayed; we support her on as she sheds her middle-class name — Ganga — and manners to become Gangu, the vulgar but fiercely intelligent advocate for the 4000 women who work in Mumbai’s red-light district, Kamathipura. By the time she finds herself addressing a conference on women’s rights, cheered by the assembled dignitaries, we are cheering too. And if you shed a few tears at her commanding speech — she was a barrister’s daughter, after all — there is another musical number around the corner to give you time to wipe them away before anyone notices.

Bollywood has never just been froth. This is a superior example, but many filmmakers have used its festive approach to tackle taboos and illuminate social ills for a mass audience. Gangu — “bai” is an honorific meaning “lady” — really existed; the story told here is certainly pumped up, but it is essentially true. Born in 1939 in the Gujurat town of Kathiawar, she was sold at 17 by her husband of just a few days. It is true that she became a celebrity madam in the 1960s. And she really did rescue and send home many girls who had been sold as she was, although she was also much more ruthless in real life than she is here. Bhansali wants to send his audience home happy, after all. That’s what Bollywood is all about.

Even so, there is plenty of food for discussion about the contempt, violence and discrimination suffered by sex workers, then and now. Working outside the law, the Kamithapura prostitutes who turn to Gangu for support have no rights; they can’t even open bank accounts. The nearby school refuses to teach their children. The same school has also gone to court to try to force the closure of the entire red-light district, which would leave these thousands of women homeless. There is no question where the film stands in all of this: it’s for all the ladies in the house. There’s got to be a song in there somewhere, right?

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