Gangubai Kathiawadi Poster
Gangubai Kathiawadi is another winner from Sanjay Leela Bhansali, drawing out an impeccable performance from Alia Bhatt.

Directed by S.L. Bhansali, Gangubai Kathiawadi tells Gangubai’s story from being sold to a brothel to her fight for legalizing prostitution.

What I appreciate about Bhansali the most is his adamance to stick to his ways. How he has not lost his voice even though Indian Cinema has changed so much over the years. There’s poetry to his writing, a charm in his sets, a romanticism in his style, and how he pushes actors. Gangubai Kathiawadi does all of that but also feels more relevant as a story than his last few films. It’s still overtly dramatic and very much a ‘Bollywood’ film but it’s also completely intentional. And despite Bhansali’s extravagant magic, Gangubai feels closer to its central character, just like Devdas did, which I just adored. Gangubai proves Bhansali still has tons to give and he’s still very much at the top of his game.

Bhansali-wali acting

A huge part of Gangubai’s success is owed to Alia Bhatt. She proves, yet again, that she is one of the best actors Indian Cinema has to offer. This might just be her best performance yet. Her eyes convey staggering amounts of emotion, and her body language supports that impeccably. There are so many moments that just drew me in completely. So deep that I couldn’t even take the time to appreciate the stunning backdrops. She has great command over her language and dialect for a character that comes from underprivileged parts of Mumbai. We saw a trace of that in Gully Boy, but this time she dials it to 11. Yes, she does look a little too youthful and soft for someone playing such a rough character. But she makes up for all of that with her performance. There are multiple sequences that are either a single take or feature very long cuts, and Alia never misses a beat. I could recommend this film to anyone solely for Alia Bhatt and I assure you that you wouldn’t regret it.

Mumbai meri jaan

If that wasn’t enough, then there’s the usual Bhansali magic with his immaculate set design. I had a blast revisiting some of my favorite parts of Mumbai, recreated for the 60s. Some I’ve visited myself, some I’d only seen in photos, and some I’d never seen before. Bhansali captures the essence of the 60s Mumbai and gives it some of his flairs too. It doesn’t always work though. The lighting especially feels too ‘romantic’ and ambient at times, overly emphasizing blues and pinks. I doubt Mumbai ever looked that way, but I appreciate the effort. What doesn’t always work are the wide shots. Shots that are supposed to be immersive but give away the look of a constructed set. Some better VFX-compositing work with more realistic backdrops to these sets would’ve been great.

Ganga to Gangubai

Then there’s the story. And what a story it is. I don’t know how faithful it is to real events but from what I’ve read online, they got all the story beats right. The film takes its liberties to get there, but it does a great job at that. Watching Ganga turn into Gangubai is both heartbreaking and inspiring, proving yet again that life is only what you make of it. Regardless of what’s thrown at you. By the end, I was teared up with joy watching this absolute warrior of a character, who I regret not knowing anything about earlier. My only gripe with the story is that it gives her strength a little too soon. Yes, it’s by the end that she really accomplishes her goal, but she was already a leader in her vicinity within the first 30 minutes. I would’ve liked to see her early struggles a lot more and for her to have a more gradual arc. But that’s a minor complaint in what is otherwise a truly memorable journey.

The Verdict

Gangubai Kathiawadi is another winner from Sanjay Leela Bhansali, drawing out Alia Bhatt’s impeccable performance. Despite being a slightly rushed screenplay, it feels like a more personal story, one that deserves to be told.