Gangubai Kathiawadi is a work of passion. Photo: Universal Communications

Converting a non-fictional and rather clinical real story into a passionate film is no small feat. It takes monumental skill and even more ardor to convert this human drama into a celluloid masterpiece (Okay, okay, we’re digital now, but the term still remains appropriate for big-screen entertainment !).

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has shown this exemplary passion in his films with their blend of grandeur and gifted and substantial storytelling, Khamoshi—The Musical 26 years ago for Padmaavat in 2018, even in the missed moments Saawariya. Its propensity for larger-than-life storytelling of classic dimensions remains – even incrementally enhanced – even after decades of crafting various genres.

The fabulous sets and production design of an era in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district (Subrata Chakraborty, Amit Ray & Pallab Chanda), the opulence of the costumes (Sheetal Sharma) and make-up (Preetisheel Singh), the the skilled computer graphics (Hitesh Patel) and choreography (superlative work by Kruti Mahesh) and lavish routine background score (Sanchit Balhara & Ankit Balhara) all point to a captain of the ship who is determined to extract the best from his team, knowing that without it he will not be able to excel in this cinematic journey!

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Sudeep Chaterjee’s cinematography embraces the right nuances for the right times, imbuing deep feelings in scenes from start to finish. For Gangubai Kathiawadi is a take-home product: it’s only after you leave the cinema and think about the content and its presentation that the film really hits the mark. And this, despite our admiration watching the different aspects of the film and registering them consciously and unconsciously.

Multi-tasking Bhansali: in addition to producing, (skillfully) editing and co-writing his latest work of passion, he directs fabulously and makes it graphically different from other movies (mainstream or otherwise) that focus on sex workers . With his co-writers, he scripts and shoots a saga where the underlying tragedies of girls’ lives – most of them seduced by the world’s oldest profession – are an infinitely moving contrast to their outward ways. apparently carefree. The pain of the initial deception, the horrors of both the initiation into lovingly giving one’s body to a stranger and encounters with sadistic bullies as clients, the illnesses and resulting pregnancies and children, their desire to close up shop for special days – Bhansali brings everything to light in a subtle, almost effortless way. And that makes the impact even bigger!

It’s only in the music department that Bhansali is strangely wrong – again after the average score of Padmaavat and the total disappointment that his Malaal was musically. jab sayyan is the only saving grace here, but carries too much of a already seen of songs from his early films. shikayat is well worded, but all that lingers after hearing the songs in context is the pristine musical arrangements songs. Where, oh where, is the brilliant mind that created the successively better melodies of Guzaarish (2010) and Goliyon Ki RasLeela—RamLeela (2013) at Bajirao Mastani (2015) ? Is he too succumbing to market forces that have been hostile to good music for over a decade now?

The film is almost episodic in its narration: we have a daughter, Madhu, deceived into the flesh trade, with her protests and the inevitable retribution; Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) summoned by her brothel owner to make him “understand”; Gangubai telling him his own tale; her rise in the brothel where she is; a fleeting relationship with the tailor’s innocent son (Shantanu Maheshwari) and his acquaintance and connection to a “brother” in don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn).

Then comes the clash with Razia (Vijay Raaz) for power; Gangubai’s selfless struggle to improve the lot of girls and their children and his ultimate victories against a society that does not shy away from sexually exploiting women but then adopts an elevated moralizing stance. In the middle of it all is Gangubai’s last and very poignant conversation with his mother on the phone, and his resulting outburst.

Bhansali avoids sinking and keeps all events palatable, and I loved the realistic final scene with the obnoxious Razia, Gangubai’s fiery speech in Azad Maidan, his interactions with journalist Amin Faizi, his numerous and especially last interactions with Kamli (Indira Tiwari), Gangubai’s bath sequence with Afshan, the restaurant sequence with Rahim Lala and two others, his first confrontation with Sheela (Seema Pahwa), his landlady, and so many other moments. And yet, this endless series of episodes weave together seamlessly into a fascinating whole.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is the tour de force of the movie. She’s incredible in her range and intonation, and her character is written with a stubborn consistency. Ajay Devgn is perfect and his casting as Rahim Lala is a brilliant inspiration. Vijay Raaz as Raziya steals every scene he’s in, and Jim Sarbh is a delight for his brief appearance. Shantanu Maheshwari is endearing, and Seema Pahwa makes her character, surprisingly, both menacing and pitiful. Indira Tiwari is superb as Kamli, and the others do the trick.

This one is another must-have for avid movie buffs.

Rating: ****

SLB Films & Pen India present Gangubai Kathiawadi Produced by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali & Jayantilal Gada Directed and Edited by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Written by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Written by: S. Hussain Zaidi & Jane Borges, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Utkarshini Vashishtha & Prakash Kapadia Music: Sanjay Leela Bhansali With: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn (Sp. App.), Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa, Jim Sarbh, Indira Tiwari, Shantanu Maheshwari, Baldev Trehan, Varun Kapoor, Rahul Vohra, Sp.App. : Huma Qureshi & others

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