The mafia queen
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The mafia queen

Bollywood biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi presents the life of a prostitute turned social activist, but the storyline lacks meat

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The mafia queen
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi. (Photo © NETFLIX)

A 14-year-old girl is tricked into prostitution in Mumbai in the late 1950s. Despite being imprisoned, chained and subjected to torture, she keeps resisting and refuses to sell her body, causing trouble and headaches for the brothel pimps. The matter soon reaches the ears of Gangubai (Alia Bhatt), the mafia queen of Mumbai, who helps solve the problem. Reflecting on her own painful memories soon after meeting the young girl, Gangubai realises her purpose in life and decides to write her own destiny -- to fight and protect 4,000 other women trapped in the world's oldest profession.

The Hindi language drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is loosely based on the real-life Gangubai Kothewali, a former sex worker who later became a social leader and activist. Her life was documented in the book Mafia Queens Of Mumbai written by S. Hussain Zaidi. The film is a tribute to her difficult life and how she was able to become a protector of so many women. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali uses rebellious, feisty feminism, heartbreak and courage to tell a dramatic story rich in emotion and gorgeous cinematography. It's no wonder this movie has become so popular that everyone is talking about it lately. In Thailand, the film even reached number one on the Netflix chart last week. Gangubai Kathiawadi is not a biopic as many people assume. The fictionalised version gave the filmmaker more room for some melodrama and several large-scale dance sequences which appeal to all types of audiences.

Immediately, the style of the movie feels different from your standard Bollywood fare and seems to be inspired a lot by Hollywood's style of storytelling. The visuals and cinematography are definitely some of the highlights as they capture the beauty of 1950s and 60s India really well, whether it's the vibrant colours, the costumes, set designs or the streets and architecture. There are many one-shot takes during music sequences which are a delight as they bring out the feeling of watching in person. Besides the struggles and a few political elements, Gangubai Kathiawadi also focuses heavily on romance, especially between Gangubai and Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) in the third quarter of the film.

However, the stunning visuals and great performances by cast members don't always make up for a mediocre script. The overall dialogue between characters isn't that interesting and the character development is somewhat half-baked. While the first half of the film narrating Gangubai's backstory seems almost seamless, the biggest drawback of this film is that it does not have one form of storytelling that guides the screenplay.

I wish the film would have spent a little bit more time on the initial transformation because after Ganga becomes a prostitute against her will, and takes on the name of Gangu, she quickly becomes brothel-owner Gangubai. It's almost as if the transformation from this innocent, naive young girl who wanted to become a Bollywood actress to this fierce and ruthless woman who fights for her life and the lives of the women around her happens overnight. She immediately sets off to turn things around and while I think that's great as a motivation, she takes on this badass persona a bit too fast and easily. And in the last quarter of the film, you may experience the narrative getting bogged down by its slow pace.

There's a lot to like about Gangubai Kathiawadi, but there are also some things that hold it back. Movies or stories that depict important women fighting against injustice are usually interesting and this one does its fair share of committing to its message about empowerment, self-determination, and even the stigma that's attached to prostitution. Though I was expecting a little bit more detail on how she was handling her business, how she used her skills to make friends with the head of the mafia to be given the name "Mafia Queen Of Mumbai", there's not much of that in here.

Overall, Gangubai Kathiawadi is an easy to watch drama with many great scenes and wonderful performances, but it comes across as a very basic biopic that gives each segment of this person's life on its own, with barely enough connective tissue.

  • Gangubai Kathiawadi
  • Starring Alia Bhatt, Seema Bhargava, Shantanu Maheshwari
  • Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Now streaming on Netflix
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