Music and directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali
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.