Gangubai Kathiawadi review

A Ghalib ghazal fills the rotten air of a stuffy room, Tujhe hum vali samajhte jo na bada-khwar hota.

Clumsily applied kumkum chandan bindis adorn a teenage girl’s forehead, the same hands now hurriedly dabbing a gaudy shade of red on her trembling lips.

Next, the horrified adolescent’s mouth is stuffed in cotton and her nose is violently, forcefully pierced.

As the screen zooms into her bloody face, she seems to grow up with every passing second but her cries drown out in the hustle bustle of the tawdry flesh bazaar.

This is not the first time Kamathipura’s apathy has masked its arm-twisting tactics pushing unwilling girls into prostitution.

But Gangubai Kathiawadi will make it her life’s mission to ensure it is the last.

Based on the chapter, The Matriarch of Kamathipura from S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’s non-fiction bestseller Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest extravaganza is about a woman who rose in ranks of Mumbai’s notorious red-light neighbourhood and went on to crusade for the sex worker community’s rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Though it’s just four chapters, there is abundant pluck and drama in Gangubai’s (Alia Bhatt) story, apocryphal bits et al, and Bhansali celebrates her triumph as well as the source’s made-for-movie virtues in his true trademark style.

No character is all black or white, but Bhansali (despite opting for monochrome opening and closing credits) acknowledges only the pristine.

Ever the apostle of old school, he creates a Raj Kapoor reminiscent dazzle around his white-clad heroine. Though unlike the Ganga of Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Gangubai doesn’t need a man to validate her.

She may see her own tragic past in the afore-mentioned girl’s unfortunate experiences, but Gangubai refuses to feel sorry for herself.

Instead of cutting a sorrowful picture, she spits fire and constructively uses her shrewd business sense and a skewed moral one to her advantage. The second she changes her name from Ganga to Gangubai, she voluntarily cuts off all ties from the past.

But when she does reconnect, it’s a moment of volatile vulnerability and one of the best scenes in the film.

What is refreshing to me is Bhansali’s penchant for prettiness makes room for starkness this time round.

There are frames and frames shot by ace Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee of meticulously composed streetwalkers posing against distressed walls of a disrupted chowk or ramshackle gullies lit up by rows of women holding a white candle. Even a deceptively simple shot of women surveying Gangubai when she first sets foot inside a brothel feels like a swarm of eyes scanning her to the point of claustrophobia.

Chatterjee’s gaze is as sharp capturing the ugly as it is in detailing the craft in Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray’s surreal art design. It’s like watching old posters, old songs, iconic Irani cafes, defunct theatres and everyday people inside vintage postcards come alive.

Shyam Benegal’s satirical Mandi, belonged to a similar world, but Bhansali’s worldview borders on the mythical.

Where his Gangubai is a dewy-faced, do-gooder Devi and Dev Anand fan with tulsi growing in her backyard smoking beedis, glugging alcohol, bootlegging in the prohibition era and piling herself in gold, her adversaries — all brothel madams Sheetal (Seema Pahwa), Rashmi (Chhaya Kadam) and Razia (Vijay Raaz) are ghoulish witches she must overpower to run the show.

Pahwa gamely puts on all kinds of dark makeup, almost resembling Penguin in Batman Returns.

Her gothic vibe as well as Chhaya Kadam’s is a creepy, cool touch and blends well with the movie’s brassy tone.

But none as fierce as Razia — the cutthroat transwoman standing against Gangubai in the local gharwali (kind of like the Queen of Kamathipura) elections.

And Vijay Raaz is fearsome as the ruthless source of her rival’s anxiety.

Gangubai Kathiawadi‘s crowd-pleasing zingers, full of wordplay and rhythm penned by Prakash Kapadia and Utkarshini Vashishtha, liven their witty face-offs.

As well as the ones between her and the charismatic city godfather Karim Lala (an extended cameo by Ajay Devgn back in feminist mode with a lot more restraint than Lajja).

Unlike most other things spelled out in the movie, Gangubai realising the power of sunglasses and subconsciously aping Lala is a nice touch.

When not verbally whiplashing, she is making tantalising offers. ‘Aao kabhi humare kothe par. Jawani bhi milegi. Kahani bhi milegi,’ Gangubai teases a journalist (Jim Sarbh).

It’s only when producer, director, writer, editor, composer Bhansali’s love for indulgences kicks in and Gangubai slips into neta mode over a series of self-congratulatory speeches, standing ovations, celebration rallies and an awkward meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru (a nervous looking Rahul Vora portraying Pandit Nehru like he was at a job interview), things slacken up a little.

The book didn’t have the Razia or Afsan characters.

But while Razia’s track is wicked good, Afsan (a callow Shantanu Maheshwari) as Gangubai’s toy boy love interest is staggeringly lacklustre.

One notes far more spunk and sisterhood in the brothel occupants, among whom Indira Tiwari is most conspicuous, culminating in a lovely letter of regrets collectively penned by the girls to a parent they’ll never meet.

This is Alia Bhatt’s show though, one hundred percent. Like all of Bhansali’s Gujju girls, Nandini and Leela, Gangubai is a livewire, a fountain of passionate impulses.

Alia looks like Nanda in Prem Rog, but there is Amitabh Bachchan’s swagger in her head-on attitude and Rekha’s oomph in her saucy seduction.

It’s a consciously showy performance, very theatrical of a woman coming into her own from an unlikely background at an unlikely age in an unlikely era.

Every time she says ‘Arre Raja‘, a surprising, motherly instinct escapes her.

She uses her voice and eyes like never before.

I never considered Alia much of a dancer but her feverish energy in Dholida transcends the screen.

If it feels like she is role playing Gangubai, it is because she IS role playing Gangubai.

Living an inglorious life on her own terms, refusing to let anyone see through her pain and loneliness, exhibiting effrontery and maturity as a defence mechanism, her emotions are visible in fits and bursts.

She feels in control only when she is pushing the envelope and herself out of her comfort zone.

Working on a movie so intensely can transform an actor.

Something in Alia has surely changed after Gangubai.

Her entire performance is about proving to herself and not to the world what she can do. And there can be no better artistic evolution than that.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Badhaai Do review

From ‘is gay’ to the difficulty of ‘being one’ in a terribly repressive society, Badhaai Do takes a baby step forward in queer-themed stories.

Earlier, in films like Bombay Talkies, Kapoor & Sons, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga or even Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, a character’s sexual identity and struggle formed the big reveal or premise for conflict but in Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s light-hearted take on marriages of convenience, Shardul Thakur (Rajkummar Rao) and Suman Singh (Bhumi Pednekar) confirm their homosexuality at the onset.

Only the conservative, judgemental community they live amongst cannot catch a whiff of this.

Hailing from a big, fat North Indian family (led by a crackling-as-ever Seema Pahwa) of Haldwani eager to see Shardul settle in marital bliss who is the only male cop in an all-women police station of Dehradun. It includes a noisy crèche too.

His Burt Reynolds moustache and rippling biceps bursting out of his khaki seams assert a machismo he wears like a shield to dodge suspicions.

Compared to him, Suman is far more comfortable in her skin and has developed a sense of humour about her youth-obsessed father (Nitesh Pandey) and maun vrat-undertaking mom (Loveleen Mishra).

A creepy dating app experience ensues in the two crossing paths.

Shardul straightaway sees an opportunity for jugaad.

Both are over 30, which makes them a relentless target of their families nagging them to tie the knot.

Suman’s previous unpleasant experiences — an ex who settled for a heterosexual marriage and a suitor who died two days before the wedding — has made her wary.

But when a fellow member of the LGBTQ+ community proposes the two marry and live like roomies, Suman sees the arrangement as a mutually-beneficial situation to live and let live.

Except when has the great Indian family ever stopped at that?

Just when Suman has found a soulmate in Rimjhim (Chum Darang) and Shardul is making headway with a lawyer (a rakish Gulshan Devaiah), aunts and mums butt in and decide it’s time for a baby.

Bachha woh gond hai jisse shaadi bani rehti hai,’ explains a know-it-all relative and dispatches Shardul’s slow-witted mummy (Sheeba Chaddha) to orchestrate this goal.

Chaddha, fabulous as she is, labours to pull off some of the gags that are too heavy-handed even for her.

Badhaai Do makes light of the hypocrisy its protagonists embrace to escape scrutiny while addressing the pressure that compels them to test the extent of it and realise their natural parenting instincts.

Indian law forbids a same-sex couple from adopting and Badhaai Do has something moving to say about that as well as the struggle of coming out.

Though Shardul and Suman do not share a romantic relationship, their journey from bantering partners sharing a roof to allies who know exactly how it feels, touches a chord.

It’s a shame the movie doesn’t exploit their equation more satisfyingly.

Suman and Rimjhim’s breezy meet-cute is one of the things Badhaai Do does get right.

It may not always be at the centre, but their ups and downs as a couple underscores the language of love is the same everywhere even if it’s a decidedly PG rated.

Having non-starry presences as love interests adds to the realism and freshness of the imagery.

Badhaai Do throws in the quandary of confronting a heavily patriarchal setup where the expectations of men are no different from those in heteronormative setups.

Shardul’s chauvinism is particularly jarring when one presumes his sexual choices will make him more sensitive.

As is his quack of a brother-in-law’s (Shashi Bhushan) — reeking of inappropriate humour and demeaning slurs.

What I found myself wondering though is does it make it okay for a man to hit his partner just because he is also a guy? Badhaai Do doesn’t say.

Shardul is much more complex than the rom-com tone implies, one that slumps into disappointingly farcical towards its dragged-out end.

Nevertheless, Rao is solid in what we’ve come to recognise as strictly Ayushmann Khurrana territory.

Unafraid to go in dark places and lay bare his emotionality, he succeeds more than he lets on.

Bhumi Pednekar packs a punch in equal measure.

If only Badhaai Do wasn’t busy pandering to the overdone small-town parivar‘s humour and hullaballoo and elaborating on its there’s more to being queer than being queer.

For now, it’s one baby step at a time.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Gehraiyaan review

Parents as damaging influences is a recurring motif in Shakun Batra’s movies.

Though upbringing is never the focus of the film-maker’s storytelling, his characters behave the way they do because of the choices their parents made at a formative stage.

In Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Imran Khan’s controlling, perfectionist parents nip his individuality in the bud.

In Kapoor & Sons, parents playing favourites create an atmosphere of pretence and resentment.

In Gehraiyaan, a daughter’s deep-rooted insecurities and anxieties stem from depressing memories of her parents in an unhappy relationship.

But the question playing on Batra’s mind is can one start over from scratch?

His spiffy new drama draws a full circle to that end in a moody, muddled and intensely intimate exploration of adult urban relationships.

On the sly, he also studies affluence as a catalyst that shifts its goals from aspirational and empowering to plain avarice.

What unfurls in Gehraiyaan, co-written by Ayesha DeVitre, Sumit Roy, Yash Sahai, is a dark, sexy game of existentialism and morality.

Cousins Alisha (Deepika Padukone) and Tia (Ananya Pandey) reconnect after eight long years when the latter arrives in town with her fiancé Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and invites Alisha on a yacht trip to her plush Alibag villa. Alisha’s live-in companion and an inseparable friend of the sisters since childhood, Karan (Dhairya Karwa) is part of this coterie.

The girls address each other casually — Alisha is Al, Tia is Ti — but an invisible wall of class and cooled-off family ties stands between them that neither can cross over. Not even the serene sound of waves can drown out the initial awkwardness enveloping the quartet where one couple stands in awe at the splendours of big money while another flaunts it away nonchalantly.

Sea-facing view, private pool, manicured gardens and state of art rooms, Tia’s getaway home is stuff of real estate fantasies. A nostalgic Alisha surveys it from a cautious distance, not a single emotion escapes her proud eyes.

What seems like standard character detailing are precious clues into the bigger picture Batra has in mind.

Luxury enjoys a powerful presence in Zoya Akhtar’s cinema too, but Batra’s gaze is distinctly cynical. For all the posh and gloss (gorgeously shot by Kaushal Shah), there’s a heavy price to be paid for lifestyle and big stakes when pitted against human emotions and vagaries.

While heiress Tia is all about the good life, yoga instructor Alisha is struggling over bills, seeking funders for her training app and nagging her slack partner to finish his novel.

Karan and Alisha are in an exhausted, exasperated phase of their romantic relationship. He’s quit a ‘soul sucking’ job to follow his literary dreams. She is tired of being the responsible one and taking care of all the men in her life.

On the other hand, charismatic, confident Zain’s none too pleased about Tia’s forever-on-Facetime mum’s curt reminders about her family’s role in his success from nobody to nouveau riche. All the more reckless for it, Zain is drawn towards Alisha.

She, too, needs a release more than ever. People like to be around people who make them feel valued. She agrees to fix his back. He offers to get her app in business.

Alisha’s distant behaviour towards her dad (Naseeruddin Shah) finds resonance in Zain’s strained ties with his father. It’s not all daddy issues though. Every time these two are in a room, sparks are dying to fly. Gehraiyaan has much more explosion in mind.

Alisha and Zain’s sexual energy hits the roof, burns it down no soon they decide to cross the line. Intimacy director Dar Gai doesn’t do anything off-the-wall in the love scenes. There’s nothing kinky on display if that’s what the credit communicated to a mistaken few.

What she does is get her actors to open up in ways that makes their carnal passions appear more organic than ever for a Hindi film. May this be no exception but the norm.

Adultery is one choice, but what if fate has darker challenges in mind.

Gehraiyaan takes a sublimely sinister route full of unexpected twists and turns that evoke George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun whose imprints Woody Allen’s Match Point too carried.

What distinguishes Gehraiyaan from Allen’s uncharacteristically devious thriller is the moral hesitation at play as well as an opportunity for karmic payback.

This is a brilliant attribute of Shakun Batra. He can internalise his cinematic influences and come up with something entirely his own and Gehraiyaan is his most assured effort.

I like how he uses spaces to tell his story. The yacht, the villa, the Taj suite overlooking Gateway, the beach, the bedrooms, the studio, the offices — some pawns, some privy to its inhabitants’s lives. Like the hyper, confused, chaotic tone of Zain injuring his finger in Alisha’s corridor scene is brief but deserves a place next to the famous plumber fight scene in Kapoor & Sons. I like how he uses technology to capture the nature of affection in the age of social media. But I especially love how he uses its advancement like message sync to trigger an atmosphere of threat.

When such a sound mind calls the shots, his actors are bound to shine.

Although I found the Karan character getting the short end of the stick (also for a writer, he’s awfully incurious), Dhairya Karwa’s unassuming presence works. Ananya Panday’s fragility hits hard when she starts sensing the rot in her relationship. Naseeruddin Shah doesn’t have many scenes, but his heft and one scene-stealing line — We are more than our mistakes — does the needful. Siddhant’s cocksure side isn’t surprising. What is new is how compelling he is as a man fighting tooth and nail to keep it all together. It’s a tricky part that nobody knows where he is going with till the end but the actor doesn’t let us make up our minds. And that’s commendable.

Deepika Padukone found her groove a while ago. But when a performance feels like a person, it’s artistry at an altogether different level. As Alisha, she’s raw yet polished, fierce yet soft, volatile yet suppressed, a woman willing to flex herself in every sense of the word. She embodies to perfection the Gehraiyaan in the title.

Gehraiyaan streams on Amazon Prime Video.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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