Hindi Reviews

Gangubai Kathiawadi Review: Alia Bhatt Outshines Everyone, Including Bhansali

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya explores the lives of sex workers, even if only partially. There, too, Bhansali treats the women with respect, but he also pities them and turns them into caricatures who exclusively dress in shiny clothes and wait for some ‘pari‘ to come and rescue them. In Gangubai Kathiawadi, he creates a better world for these women. The red-light area still casts the same blue light on them. But, the women here aren’t paper dolls covered in glitter.  


It’s funny to talk of realism in a Bhansali film, but as far as his style goes,Gangubai might be the most realistic of his endeavours. The grandness we expect from the set design and art department is not completely absent, but it is barely there. Other than a beautiful white tent covering Gangubai’s speech in Azaad Stadium or Rahim Lala’s house dressing itself up for Eid, everything feels uncharacteristically real. Instead of grandiosity, here Bhansali uses his sets — production design by Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray, and art direction by Pallab Chanda — to convey meaning. Framed pictures of Dev Anand (Gangu’s favourite) and Nargis talk to us of escapism. And the way the balcony frames the women as if they are moving pictures on sale, speaks of the quality of their lives. 

That is another striking thing about this film, its emotional minimalism. The subject provides many opportunities for melodrama, but the writers — Bhansali, Prakash Kapadia, and Utkarshini Vashishtha — do their best not to give in. Take the scene where Gangu helps a friend with writing a letter. The economy and poignancy with which it conveys their collective loss, without turning them into a homogenous unit, is remarkable. Or the scene between Gangu and Afsaan in the car, greatly helped by the song Meri Jaan, where so much is conveyed by two actors in a static, relatively-close frame. 

Speaking of which, the film belongs to Alia Bhatt and her alone. Gangubai is everything. She is the comedian, making us laugh with her relentless style and self-assurance. The tapori, with her cigarette flicking and shiny black car. The heroine, teaching a boy besotted by her what it means when she smiles. The poet, who can stump the country’s Prime Minister. The romantic, who can come up with thousand names and thousand shades for the colour white. The hero, sacrificing everything for the wellness of her people. The Garba dancer, who exorcises her demons by pirouetting around until she can’t see straight. Gangubai is the grandness that’s missing elsewhere.

Instead of visual glory and world-building, Bhansali focuses on Gangubai’s character and Alia delivers a perfect performance. Bhansali chooses not to give screen-time to the ugliness that is innate to the world the film is set in. Sometimes, he hides it in darkness. One can view this as simplification or sanitisation, but I admired his choice. And to compensate, he brings in Alia. The first time she is captured, she is left alone in the dark, but her toe-curling wail communicates her angst. Even if we don’t see any bad thing happen to her on camera, we see the emotional strain it leaves behind on her face, in the next scene.

Also, a petite woman like Alia slowly growing in power and image, doing things that aren’t expected of such a small woman adds more to the experience than casting a seemingly big-boned woman. 

Having said that, there are few times the film leads you to expect something bigger, only to leave loose threads hanging. Like Rajiabhai (Vijay Raaz) with her threats of violence and Rashmibhai (Chhaya Kadam) with her frustrations. Even Ajay Devgn‘s Lala is relegated to the sidelines, but he is perfect as Gangubai’s support and strength.


A few seconds before the film was about to dissolve into a red screen, marking its end, my reviewer’s brain started to think of a log-line to summarise the film. ‘A girl who came to Mumbai to become a heroine ends up becoming the hero’ would work, I thought. As if reading my thoughts, the voiceover says something along the lines of, “She came to become a heroine, but became the whole movie.” That’s better, I thought, because that’s true of both Gangubai and the woman who played her, Alia Bhatt.


This Gangubai Kathiawadi review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.