I ventured into the Bollywood gully after a long time with Gangubai Kathiawadi. The past few years haven’t been Bollywood’s best with the South Indian industry consistently overshadowing the Hindi culture of hyper realism with extremely great scripts and production approaches. But here and there, Bollywood manages to make short-lived comebacks with the likes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. Like almost all Bhansali films, this one too had its share of controversy after the trailer release. Bhansali’s biggest hits in fact feed on such disagreements from the audiences and so did the Alia Bhatt starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi.
I watched the movie because I wanted to be familiarized with the life story of the actual Gangubai Kathiawadi. As interesting a personality she seemed, Bollywood has its way with exaggeration and distorting of reality so it took me a while to be convinced to start the movie. In fact, one reason that finally made me take the plunge alongside it being an uncommon biopic is the praise that Alia Bhatt received for her performance in the movie and there was also Netflix shoving the thumbnail on my face every now and then.
I understand that’s a rather rude way to start narrating the experience of a movie that I actually liked. Gangubai Kathiawadi is a good film, one that everyone must watch. It tells the story of the marginalized community of the country that has fought the hardest for identity, rights and dignity. Gangubai Kathiawadi, formerly Ganga, was thrust into the gloomy and ruthless world of prostitution that offers neither sympathy nor any escapade to a girl who once gets in. And almost each one gets in through a close one’s betrayal or a trafficking scam; hardly ever by choice. But they end up embracing and embodying the thorn bush because the only alternative is death. Gangubai Kathiawadi, the movie, is the story of a woman who entered the world through betrayal but ended up fighting for them harder than anyone else. 4000 women like her eventually designated her as the greatest among them, as did the country during her time.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a signature style of making movies and Gangubai Kathiawadi is no exception. His regular inclination towards extravagant setups and uniquely aesthetic backdrops is fully adhered to in this movie as well; making the world of prostitution seem brutal but not dry. I guess that’s his genius – Bhansali does not shy away from presenting ruthlessness whatsoever. But while he doesn’t make them too graphic, he neither fails to wrench our guts over the barbarism displayed. He doesn’t add unnecessary elements of beauty through idealistic body images or unnatural makeup; but his films are aesthetic nonetheless. His love for grandeur sure sets his films apart; even sombre plots like prostitution obtain a status much higher than they are assigned with in real life.
Stories like Gangubai Kathiawadi must always be told. Women are subjected to unimaginable forms of brutality every day in different spheres of life and the world of prostitution might easily be the worst of it all. The women not even considered human or worthy of any empathy or dignity. Movies like this are important because not only do they familiarize the rest of us with this grave world; but they grant them the dignity they deserve as well. Gangubai Kathiawadi fought to make the lives of prostitutes better; her journey was more challenging and impossible than most activists we hear of on a daily basis. For me, despite the many ups and downs of the film, the story of the actual woman was the highlight. In its own disagreeable way, Bollywood has made an agreeable movie.