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Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi Is Beyond A Masterpiece



Alia bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi

Gangubai Kathiawadi

Music and  directed  by  Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Rating: *****

A very young very  pained  girl face is being painted,  prepared  for something not very pleasant. She is grimacing and  to add to her pain  a firm hand holds her face ,stuffs her mouth with a  cloth and pierces her nose with something as  sharp  as the  dialogues  of this  film. As she bleeds the blood mingles with her cheap makeup.

 This opening sequence is  like  a piercing scream in the dark that  sets the  mood  for a  film that defies analysis. How  do we   describe what   Sanjay Leela Bhansali has done with his Gangubai? And where are the words  to reify  the  illimitable pain that  Alia Bhatt’s eyes convey? She smiles, she laughs,  she  dances, she  bullies  her  enemies and  berates her  friends…But her eyes remain ceaselessly  swathed in sorrow.

I have  never  witnessed  a performance  more heroic than Alia Bhatt’s , at least not in Indian cinema.  She is in almost every frame   of this masterpiece,  lording order  the lewd lads who infest the  strikingly designed  length and  breadth of  the redlight area  in  the  1950s.So  before much ado, hats  off to  Ms Bhatt for being  what she is. Also  hats off to  cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, art director Pallab Chanda  and  production designers Subrata Chakraborty and  Amit Ray  for bringing alive the redlight area  of Mumbai in  the 1950s without the  flamboyance  associated with  the brothel culture in Indian cinema.

The camera  loves  Gangubai. It won’t let her  be . Such  is  Gangubai’s persuasive  trigger-happy charms  that she  even makes the dreaded  ganglord Karim Lala(Ajay Devgan, as strong and  magnetic as only he can be) putty in her hands.

 Yes, there is something  about Gangubai. She  is  feisty and fearless. And  like that  legendary woman in politics who was famously described as the only man in her  cabinet, Gangubai makes the men around her look like puppets on a string.  Most of the the  male species in this  crowded  but  never chaotic world of  super-energized sex workers are in awe of  Gangubai, though all of them may  not show their heroine-worshipping  impulses as  openly as the  likeable  Jim Sarbh does as  an Urdu  journalist.

Director Bhansali is  clearly  in awe  of his protagonist. He celebrates her life like  no other  heroine in Hindi cinema. In Alia, Bhansali has a dependable ally.Giving what  is  unarguably the best performance by  a female actor in a Sanjay Bhansali film , Alia   tears  through Gangubai’s skin to touch her spirit. I don’t know how  much like Alia  Gangubai  really was. But I am sure  if the real Gangubai met her onscreen  avatar she  would want to be  like   her.

Alia’s Gangubai is brash and  beautiful,heartbreaking  and devastating.An exceptional  never-seen-before  performance by Alia  Bhatt guides us  not too gently  into the  other  vital  qualities  of  this unquestionable  masterpiece. There is almost nothing that can be faulted in the symphony   of  nihilism  that  Bhansali  and his  co-writers(Utkarshini Vashishtha and Prakash Kapadia) have played  out at the  highest pitch possible, without  getting shrill .

This is the magic of Sanjay Bhansali:  he  touches the highest notes  and yet remains lucid and articulate.Every episode in  Gangubai is exquisitely crafted  and  punctuated  by an  exclamation mark. Every  emotion is  italicized. The  revved-up energy  of  the storytelling never compromises the  protagonist’s inherent  gumption and  a sense of selfworth that makes  her  a natural-born leader  among the sex workers  of Kamathipura.

It is  hard to gauge  how much of Bhansali’s   original  concept  of Gangubai’s gumption Alia  has  actually excavated  and executed  from  the  brilliantly-written  screenplay. What we see  and hear are  astounding in their  luminosity.At  the tale-end  Alia’s Gangu  meets Jawaharlal Nehru, pleads  for prostitution  to be legalized ,throws Sahir Ludhianvi’s Pyaasa line ,‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai?’  at the  discernibly smitten  PM, and gets rewarded  with the  legendary  rose  from his lapel.

Gangubai’s tryst with destiny is a gorgeous metaphor on  the  ‘Fallen Woman’, a favourite  prototype  of  Hindi cinema since Guru Dutt’s  Pyaasa. Except that  Gangubai refuses to  fall. Her ‘Fallen  Woman’ stands tall , wins a municipal election and emerges a trueblue  hero in her locality. It is not  what most  ‘Fallen Women’ get in life. But a beautiful notion to  fall for.  As Ghalib (whom Gangu, is seen reading)  said Humko  maloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin  dil ko  kush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khayaal achcha  hai.

Not all sex workers are Gangubai. But then not every  filmmaker is Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In his tenth film he continues  to be by far the  finest contemporary filmmaker  of  the country. This time the  colour palette is  completely  different. The orange in Devdas, the blue  in Saawariya , the yellow in Ram Leela , the  ebony in Bajirao Mastani  here make way   for a  curiously   compelling   colourlessness  .

It is  the colour of   despair. In Bhansali’s hands, the poetry  of poverty is never ironical. These bustling spirited women in Gangubai’s kotha are  visualized in shades  of  grey and  sandy-yellow, the  palette  of vivaciousness that Shyam Benegal and Shakti Samanta earlier used in their  brothel sagas Mandi and Amar Prem. But none  could see  the  texture of  suffering in  such a dazzling  light.

Bhansali’s magic has never been  more  opera-like  .But it’s not the opulent  opera  of Devdas or the  stagey  opera  of  Saawariya. The opera  in  Gangubai Kathiawadi is  staged in the  thick of   a  crowded  redlight area  in  the 1950s. Here is where  Gangubai meets her match, a  young callow tailor’s apprentice Afsaan(Shantanu Maheshwari, charming) who  gives Gangubai the kind of  male attention she had only dreamt  of. Their  brief romance , replete  with a  bathing scene that will steal  your heart,  accompanied  by some exquisite songs(composed by  Bhansali) create  the  kind of dreamy diaspora  in the  kingdom of grime that is  just  so so so magnificent. So  Sanjay Leela  Bhansali. And  yet so unlike  him this time.

This is a  film that  will be talked about for  a very  long  time.It’s  a  work of  many  splendours. It is also  proof, again, that there is no one  like Bhansali. Or Alia Bhatt.

The film’s closing  line, ‘Gangubai came to  Bombay to be  a heroine. She became  a movie,’reverberates  far beyond the last frame. Yes ,the  real Gangubai couldn’t have dreamt of a better homage.

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