If there is one word that describes my experience of watching this film, it’s ‘overwhelming’. The last film of Bhansali’s that I saw in the theatre was Padmavat. I love the characteristic Bhansali grandeur, but even for a loyal fan like me, it was all getting too much. The disproportionate emphasis on clothes, exaggerated dance sequences, and larger-than-life sets were somehow taking attention away from the craft.
And just when I was ready to let go of my fascination with the director, came Gangubai Kathiawadi
The film loosely based on the life of Mumbai’s famous sex worker who went by the same first name is nothing like the oeuvre of this 59-year-old filmmaker. This film doesn’t bask in the glimmer of affluent lead characters but showcases the squalor of prostitution hubs. The opening scene is grisly, and the first few minutes disturbing. Even the scene where Alia is locked up in a dark room is so unlike Bhansali, with the plaster peeling off walls and a lone bulb lighting up its dingy interiors. It was hard to believe that it was made by the same Bhansali who is known for his colour coordinated sets, even to convey tragedy (remember Aishwarya’s running sequence in Devdas).
Just as I was trying to adjust to this broad shift in SLB’s directorial sense, the movie drops a stunning sequence with women holding candles after a power outage. Signature Bhansali shot.
Many of my friends complained that the movie is unnecessarily long but I feel that it’s the pauses, the reactions, the sighs, the heaves that make a Bhansali film what it is. There is a scene where Aalia visits her love interest at his shop and asks him to accompany her for a drive; the entire sequence is through gestures, like a game of charades, unnecessary for many but beautiful for me. I know no one talks like that in real life, but SLB’s characters do, be it Aishwarya-Salman in Aankhon ki gustakhiyan, Aishwarya-Sharukh in Devdas, or Priyanka-Ranveer in Bajirao. It’s a trope oft used by the director and I enjoy it thoroughly.
Another place where this film scores full points is the dialogues. There is the haplessness of brothel dwellers that is portrayed with sympathetic sensitivity, then there is hopelessness of love weaved through couplet like exchanges and then there are the weighty lines thrown around with such gravitas by a feisty Alia that it made me want to hoot. Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha deserve all the credit and some more for scripting lines that gave me goosebumps.
And now to the hotly debated question- was Alia the right choice for the film? Before I had seen it, I was not very sure. I felt she was young and far too inexperienced to carry the weight of such a role, but boy my opinion changed 15 minutes into the film. Alia is such a mature actor, way beyond her years. She can be dainty, she can be fiery, she can be romantic and she can vengeful, all of which she was through this film. Would Tabu or Aishwarya had been a better fit for the role? Maybe! But other than the fact that Alia doesn’t age all through the film, she has yet again outdone herself.
If you have ever liked Bhansali in the past, and in fact even if you are an ardent critic, you must give it a watch.