Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’: Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt Deliver a Remarkable Indian-Cinema Experience

Release Date
February 25, 2022
Directed By
Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Story By
S. Hussain Zaidi
Alia Bhatt, Shantanu Maheshwari, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari, Seema Pahwa, Ajay Devgn, Jim Sarbh, Chhaya Kadam

I am going to make myself absolutely clear: This article is by no means my views on prostitution and the trade, and is not going to even touch on the subject. Art is art, and this is simply going to look at Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s expert attempt at bringing an Indian historical story to life without falling into those stereotypical tropes. For me, Gangubai Kathiawadi is another successful addition to the part of Indian cinema that explores not-really-talked-about characters that have had an impact on Indian society.

While I have watched quite a lot of Indian cinema over the years, the productions that have really resonated with me were those films that emphasized characters in more than just an entertainment sense, and those story’s that brought about the essence of India and Indian culture. You feel like you are a part of those movies when you watch them, having experienced something or another in your lifetime. Films like Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox or Nandita Das’ Manto have each crafted stories that have brought forward Indian culture and/or significant individuals in Indian history to the forefront. A country like India has a lot of stories to offer, not just as a nation as a whole, but from its extremely diverse population. For me, Indian cinema really comes into an element of its own when it embraces India’s rich heritage and history.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali that is loosly based on the true story of Gangubai Harjivandas (also known as Gangubai Kothewali), whose life was documented in S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai. It explores the story of simple girl from Kathiawad who, after being betrayed and sold into prostitution, embraces her destiny and rises in the eyes of those around her. The film stars Alia Bhatt as the titular character, along side important roles played by Shantanu Maheshwari, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari and Seema Pahwa. Ajay Devgn has an extended cameo in the film, playing Rahim Lala (based off of real-life Karim Lala), a pivotal character in Gangubai’s life.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi and Vijay Raaz as Raziabai

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is no stranger of thinking and going outside the box when it comes to his films. If Mary Kom and Padmaavat are any indication, putting a spotlight on iconic Indian figures – especially women – is something Bhansali has done and with great success. By focusing on such characters, it provides both the Indian-film audience and the world an opportunity to reflect on a part of India that people just don’t talk about, presenting an unfamiliar story that audiences can immerse themselves in. Gangubai Kathiawadi is precisely that. It’s core story is not a subject matter that is openly researched, and Gangubai is not a character that general audiences really talk about. This film provides an opportunity to put a spotlight to disappearing history, for the mass majority anyways. That in itself creates the foundation for an engaging production, one that is executed expertly by Bhansali.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
A film still showing the set of ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

One would think a film about sex workers would, well, feature sex. That is not the case with Gangubai Kathiawadi. In fact not having those scenes and staying away from stereotypical execution methods, in my opinion, actually allows for the audience to see the other side of the characters, especially the titular character played by Alia Bhatt. People argue that this doesn’t do the trade justice and show their plight and spirit. I disagree with that. The story, and the way its executed, very successfully puts a spotlight on them and their struggles. In fact, focusing in on individual characters actually provides each character air time to show and express their characters development. For example, without giving spoilers, there was one scene where the characters were taking turns to run through and complete a powerful bit of dialogue. That scene hits you emotionally where it needs to, and those types of moments make this film successful. The cinematography is remarkable, and the attention to detail to capture 1950’s and 60’s Indian society was executed very well. Whether it was the fashion of the time, the motor vehicles used, or the dialect spoken, a lot of care has been taken in executing a realistic picture of that time period. This is very much consistent with what we have come to expect from Bhansali’s films.

Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi

Alia Bhatt. Where do I start? Her performance in this film is truly and utterly perfect. Every now and then you are going to get a character that you just have to pay attention to, and Bhatt’s portrayal of Gangubai is just that. Bhatt’s performance is surgeon-level sophisticated. You sometimes wonder how many months Bhatt stepped into the shoes of the character, because what you are given is a method-acting-level performance. When you reflect on the character prior to being sold into the trade, Bhatt captures her innocence as well as her ignorance of the world around her flawlessly. Bhansali then provides a moment-by-moment journey where you see Bhatt evolve her character and develop the thick skin that would take her forward. You see the fire in Bhatt’s eyes, the rock-solid performance of delivering gritty lines and sharp reactions to activities around her. With that said, Bhatt still provides audiences with an opportunity to understand her characters emotions, her longing for things she wanted before fate took her in a different direction. Bhatt balances her character brilliantly; showcasing the strong, powerful and unapologetic character that Gangubai is to those around her, while still having love and affection for those she cares about. Her performance is easily one of the best of the year, and probably one of my favourite character portrayals in a long while. Her talent and skillset shine in Bhansali’s film, and I think Bhansali and company made the right decision to bring her on board.

Gangubai Kathiawadi
Ajay Devgn as Rahim Lala in an extended cameo role in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

The cinematography, script and performances all come together to elevate and shine the emotions of all the characters in the production. You feel connected to their story, engaged in their feelings. When a production can make you want to care for characters, even those that are just in the background, you know the production has left its mark. Each and every cast member – from Shantanu Maheshwari’s debut role as Afsaan, to Vijay Raaz’s gritty portrayal of Raziabai, to Indira Tiwari’s thought-provoking performance as Kamli – has left a memorable performance in this production that helped elevate the story, and more so, elevate the titular character. By the end of this 154 minute film, you leave the screening knowing you had a remarkable experience. That is all that film goers really want. A remarkable experience that they can reflect back on. Their time well spent.

There are so many actors in the film I could talk about, so much about the cinematography and filming I can reflect on, but then you’d just be reading paragraph after paragraph.

I will make it simple: whether you understand Hindi or not, Gangubai Kathiawadi should be a film on your watch list. What you will get are solid performances, delivered with beautiful cinematography, and a story that will keep you hooked and engaged. It features characters you will rarely see and a story that only gets made ever so often. It’s a win-win for any cinema enthusiast.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is streaming on Netflix Canada.


Images courtesy of the film.