Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Alia Bhatt owns the show in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ruthless world

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Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali 

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn, Seema Pahwa, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari 

Release: Theatres 

Rating: 3.5/5

Journalist and author Hussain Zaidi’s writing has the ability to visually paint a gruesome picture merely with the power of his words. It comes as no surprise then that several filmmakers have turned to Zaidi to adopt his writings for the big screen. From Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday to Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala, gangster dramas have often been loved. The latest filmmaker to join this long list is Sanjay Leela Bhansali who has adapted Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai into his very own passion project Gangubai Kathiawadi.  

Alia Bhatt plays Ganga AKA Gangu, who is stripped off her innocence and dreams, when she is brought to Mumbai by her suitor. Forced into the flesh trade, Gangu quickly absorbs the realities of her cruel new world and learns to swing it in her favour. Bhansali begins by establishing this world and the stark realities of it. We see cramped rooms, the spacious kotha but confined sleeping spaces and narrow lanes that give a bird’s eye view of the small yet teeming world of sex workers. 

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A few minutes after introducing us to this world, Bhansali and his writers begin to chronicle what will be Gangu’s rise. Not without pitfalls, the film’s first half keeps us invested in Gangu’s journey as Bhansali paints a visual imagery with his scenes. From Gangu decking up for her day’s business, lying in the hospital bed to women dressing up a dead mother, Bhansali’s imagination runs in all different directions before arriving to the make the scene more authentic than the next.   

Alia Bhatt once more delivers an exceptional performance with her flair, recklessness, authority with compassion and above all her dialect that remains consistent. Her eyes speak a thousand thoughts running inside her head in moments of helplessness or heartbreak. Shruti Mahajan’s casting is rather spot on. Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh form the base of an excellent supporting cast that also includes Gangu’s best friend Kamli played by the talented Indira Tiwari. 

Senior actor Seema Pahwa as the heartless brothel madam lives the part and shines in her moments. Ajay Devgn as Rahim Lala as usual brings his grand persona to the big screen as he rightly stands by his sister Gangubai. Last but not the least, is Shantanu Maheshwari who pleasantly surprises with his acting chops and does it with conviction.  

Gangubai Kathiwadi’s taut writing begins to lose steam midway but its gripping second half puts it right back on track. The film’s second half is stronger than pre-interval as punchier dialogues, comedy and lighthearted moments are infused into the narrative. Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha as dialogue writers definitely hit it out of the park. 

With biopics, it is known that there will always be a start, middle and an end. Gangubai Kathiawadi follows this linear storytelling and builds up for Gangu to shine and her ultimate aim – the betterment of Kamathipura women. However, the mafia queen’s story introduces multiple conflicts along the way but does not necessarily tie up all these loose ends leaving me not entirely satisfied. 

As is with any Bhansali production, the filmmaker’s grand scale, music, set design and costumes is always on point. Gangubai Kathiawadi is no different as the songs add the quintessential pinch of Bollywood drama but yet tell their own story. While the mafia queen’s land may not be entirely satisfactory, Alia Bhatt and the cast performance, Bhansali’s visuals and a sneak peek into this brutal world makes it a definite watch. If anything, Gangubai Kathiawadi has pushed me to pick up another Hussain Zaidi book  and know all about the mafia queens of Bombay. 

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