Review: Gangubai Kathiawadi

Hussain Zaidi’s 2011 book Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of women from the ganglands tells the stories of 13 women who were a part of the criminal underworld in Mumbai.

One of the sections tells the story of  Gangubai Kothewali, a woman sold into prostitution who became a madam, ran her own brothel, and became a social activist for sex workers, orphans, and other people that lived in Kamathipura, a historic red light district in Mumbai/Bombay. 

The 2022 movie Gangubai Kathiawadi, currently streaming on Netflix, is an adaptation of the Gangubai Kothewali section of the book.

Gangubai Kathiawadi was made for a mass audience with the idea of being entertaining at the forefront. So while it is a crime/biopic about a subject that dealt with many hardships and fought many battles on many fronts, it’s also sanitized and sentimental. It moves along at a nice pace, skipping along the various known parts of her life according to the book, never really digging too deep or allowing some of the harsh realities to fully sink in. In broad strokes Gangubai’s story was made for the epic biopic treatment and that’s exactly what we get. Because here’s the thing, the movie is entertaining as hell. 

You get pulled into its lush world and Alia Bhatt’s strong performance carries you through it. She shows us the many facets of Gangubai’s personality as she navigates the realities of daily living, balancing the lives of the many people who are under care, and fights for greater social progress. There’s a moment where she calls home after 17 years. She only has 2 minutes to try and say everything that is on her mind and in her heart. All the things she’s been feeling and kept locked up. Her mother isn’t happy to hear from her, she finds out her father has died, and the operator keeps interrupting with a countdown of how long is left in the call. Multiple emotions come erupting out, many simultaneously, all playing out on Bhatt’s face and in her voice. It’s a heartbreaking moment. 

The set design in Gangubai Kathiawadi is vivid and lush. It has the feel and grandeur of a classic movie. Much of the movie takes place on and around the main thoroughfare of the red-light district. It’s a massive set piece (augmented with some cgi) that bustles with life as most scenes are packed with people and action and movement. Clearly this was a movie made to be seen on a big screen. Here’s a couple of behind the scenes screen grabs from the construction of the set (taken from here:

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a rousing, entertaining, spectacle that shines an even bigger light on a fascinating historical figure fighting battles still being waged today with a powerhouse central performance. It mostly moves past the grittier aspects of the story and gives us a flat out entertaining story.

Current streaming information can be found here

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