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Gangubai Kathiawadi: Oh Brothel, Where Art Though?

Posted by November 23rd, 2022 No Comments »

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2002)
Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Starring Alia Bhatt, Vijay Raaz, Indira Tiwari and Seema Pahwa

I am ignorant about most foreign cinema. Sure, I have my favorite international directors: Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Amenábar, Bong Joon Ho, Pedro Almodóvar, Yorgos Lanthimos, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier are favorites who’ve had success here in the US. But cinema from India? It’s new to me.

So where do I start? Are all Indian films considered Bollywood? Are there other styles or genres emerging from the country? I have so many questions.

Rather than seek answers online or through friends, I decided the best way to immerse myself in Indian cinema was to go see an Indian film that wowed me with its trailer a couple months ago, Gangubai Kathiawadi, a biopic about Gangubai Harjivandas, a woman who, well, didn’t take shit from anyone.

Luckily, I remembered little about the film from the trailer other than the vibrant colors and sweeping music. I had no idea that I was about to get a master class in storytelling from director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Weaving time and stretching moments, the story unfolds messiah-esque. We never know how much time we’ll spend on each phase of the title character’s life as she ascends from rags to riches. Films like City of God (2002) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) come to mind, the kind where the protagonist can do no wrong because you feel how much they’ve suffered to get where they are.

Gangubai Kathiawadi gets even more intriguing when Harjivandas, who earned the moniker “the Queen of Mumbai,” takes her strong resolve and street smarts to local government. Lead actress Alia Bhatt, who plays the character during most of the phases of her life that are shown on screen, is stunning. Each version of her character is rich with life experience that previous incarnations could not prepare for. The supporting cast is great too, my favorite being Ajay Devgn as Rahim Lala, a big brother character who empowers our hero to make changes to a society even if he didn’t have the courage to try.

I was expecting more singing and dancing but, like I said, I am ignorant in regards to most foreign cinema. Looking back, the short supply of song and dance made each number even more impactful as I left the theater. The style, color and audacity of the performances left me awestruck.

So, it looks like I have a new obsession: Indian cinema. I will continue my exploration with other films directed by Bhansali, starting with Padmaavat (2018), and see what happens from there. Feeling ill equipped to discuss – or even worse spoil – this film, I will cut my review short and assure you  that next time I review a film from India I will have more perspective to draw from.  

If other first-time adventures into foreign cinema like Old Boy (2003) from South Korea, Breaking the Waves (1996) from Denmark and Dogtooth (2009) from Greece are all A’s, then this, my first adventure with cinema from India, is also an A.

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