Gangubai Review (No Spoilers): Interesting Vignettes, No Plot

I did it! I saw a new movie, in theaters, with friends! And it was a Bhansali movie too, the WORST kind of movie.

After we watched it, one of my friends said “it felt like the whole thing was a trailer, I kept waiting for the movie to start” and another friend said “you know, it would have been a GREAT Netflix miniseries”. And that basically sums up the major issue. It was a series of things that happened, and they were all interesting things, but I was never quite clear on what the overall meaning of those things was. They were tied together by a setting and main character and a kind of general topic, which would be GREAT for a TV show. Or to tease a movie. But it’s not really enough for a whole movie with a beginning and end and stuff.

I have enjoyed movies where a bunch of stuff just sort of happens, but that’s usually down to the performances. There’s a certain kind of performer (Irrfan Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Vidya Balan, etc. etc.) where you would watch them do basically anything and not care about the larger story because they are just so FUN. Alia is not that performer and, unfortunately, she is the only consistent through line in the film.

I’m not saying Alia is bad in this movie, or bad in general. Just that she does a sort of emotional performance that doesn’t allow for the subtle amusement I can find in a Jim Sarbh or a Vijay Raaz or even an Ajay Devgan. All the people who surround her and, tragically, are not onscreen as much as I wish they were.

Oh, and there’s the Bhansali effect! He’s all big emotions and big images and very very precise and stylized performances. Works great when you’ve got a sort of clockwork story that plays out, sort of an odd way to tell a series of things that happen to a person. I guess the best way to describe this film, to people who are familiar with Indian film, is if you picture Guru but directed by Bhansali. That’s what this is, it’s a meandering biopic directed by a director who should not be doing meandering biopics.

It’s just not a good film. It’s not a bad film either. It’s a medium film. Alia gets a bit out of her comfort zone but not really, Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh and Ajay Devgan are as good as usual. Well, as good as Ajay is when he is good (versus those other times when he is bad). It’s an interesting unusual take on the familiar Tawaif story. Not totally original, the first half is essentially identical to Pakeezah/Umrao Jaan/etc. etc (innocent girl, brothel friend, evil madam, blah blah blah). Goes to an interesting different place in the second half, but it also feels like that is where Bhansali starts to lose a bit of focus on what he is doing with this story.

I guess it’s almost like an origin story for a hero and we never get to see the hero stuff? And that’s the part that possibly ties into Bhansali’s general tendencies. Lots of heroine suffering, lots of tragedy, lots and lots and LOTS of advice from men and worshipping men and blah blah blah. Not so much the bit where she is a power to be reckoned with and goes to battle against men. Just the rise to that point and then BOOM! Movie OVER!

17 thoughts on “Gangubai Review (No Spoilers): Interesting Vignettes, No Plot

  1. I just realized I never gave you guys my own “Gangubai” report, ugh!

    I do think it’s probably worth giving a chance to for people who don’t like SLB; it’s definitely off-model for him. I think having a recent-ish period setting, as well as an urban one, maybe kept art-decoration obsession sufficiently occupied that he didn’t need to make the whole visual style mannered? This movie looks less stylized even than “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” I’d say. Perhaps the color-correction has even gone in the opposite direction, with a disproportionate number of scenes seeming to take place about ten minutes after sunset ( ; And I definitely think the setting pays off in the side characters. Especially in the last three or four SLB movies, it has seemed like the main three to five people live by themselves in a desolate world until a procession or a song comes along, triggering the manifestation of backup dancers. Here quite a few of the other ladies in the kotha have actual material, and even when they are just running around in the background without lines, it feels like an actual building where human people could feasibly sleep and cook and live. I hope we see some of those actresses onscreen again.

    But the thing that just baffles me is the story. SLB usually seems to specialize in stories with a clear, simple trajectory; like, say what you will about “Padmavat,” but that’s a movie that knew exactly where its narrative was headed. Whereas this one. . . doesn’t really have a trajectory at all? Very odd. I certainly enjoyed it less and less as it continued, and was a little disbelieving that it ended where it did. I am not necessarily a devoted fan of Alia’s, but I was interested enough in watching her to carry my attention two-thirds of the way through. A weird parallel that kept coming up in my mind was actually “Lal Patthar,” in which Hema’s character pretty darn unlikeable but it’s still fascinating to see her hack open a piece of the world to stand in. Hard balance to strike, but Alia mostly pulled it off for me. (Jim Sarbh, on the other hand, I really disliked here. The fawniness of the performance made me think of his guy in “Sanju,” which a positively portrayed character should never do.) ANYWAY.

    Assorted things that made me feel I’d got my money’s worth: two of the songs were very well staged; some dialogues were legitimately snappy, while others are so overblown you can’t not laugh regardless; people’s radios played classic songs that made me smile; the sexual politics was nowhere near as skeezy as I expected (I think I only rolled my eyes three times!); and Alia spent one scene lounging around in a lungi, which of itself I value at about $6.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My friends paid for my ticket, so I definitely came out ahead!!!! Not sure how they would feel about it though, they had to pay $12 each. Probably still got their money’s worth though, the costumes and cars and things are worth it. Even if there is no PLOT!!!!

      On Thu, Mar 3, 2022 at 10:10 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • This makes sense, because the only non-superhero plot (and sometimes also superhero plot) in Hollywood movies right now is prequels/origin stories, so that’s the story structure we are getting now, apparently.

      Both of you have put me off this entirely. I could handle it being boring and aesthetically insane, or melodramatic and less aesthetically insane, but why watch a Bhansali movie if it doesn’t have either overblown melodrama or insane aesthetics?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Vijay Raaz section has visuals that are AMAZING. If you think of the film as a series of vignettes, I would recommend the Alia versus Vijay Raaz to you 100%. Spectacle, queerness, all kinds of good stuff. But probably not the rest of the movie.

        On Fri, Mar 4, 2022 at 1:14 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Hmmm. I think a very short list of people could have done it better. Mostly because it was a poorly written role. She went from innocent child to tough woman to leader of a movement without any real character building to explain it. Vidya Balan, Tabu, Meryl Streep, experienced and phenomenal actresses could have made pulled some logic out of this illogic. But otherwise, any actress would be struggling a bit.

      On Fri, Mar 4, 2022 at 11:56 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • So no one in her generation? Which is what all the backlash for her casting was about. And this wasn’t like Kalank where she was clearly miscast? I’m guessing the film needed her youthfulness for the flashbacks. I’m surprised she is getting rave reviews for her performance, even from people not impressed by the film.

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        • Yeah, just because I think it was such a poorly written role you need twice as man years working as Alia has had. Alia in 10 years could have done a better job.

          Definitely not miss cast, just a poorly written character.

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      • The thing with Gangubai and her story – as explained in Mafia Queens of Mumbai (highly recommend the book!) – is that she is supposed to be young. Many of these things happened when she was 16-30s. Alia is in a way the perfect age for it since her being young is the point.

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        • Oh, that is really good casting then! Really, my only issue is just that it was such a difficult role and also poorly written role that I think you would need to be a very experienced actress to make it work.

          On Sat, Mar 5, 2022 at 9:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Thank you for posting this! I am actually excited to watch this after reading both Margaret’s and Bharadwaj Ranjan’s review! I wonder where I’ll land.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for reading it!

        I am kinda surprised people expect “realism” from Bhansali. For me, he feels like a guy who loved stage and plays and musicals but just ended up making them in cinema form. Many of his movies are really like plays but make into movies, with the dialogues, lighting, scenery and gestures.

        Like, his movies are made for those who like to look for the symbolism, poetic dialogue and parallels in the film, not too much for characters – which is why he always chooses such good actors to elevate the movie from pretty pictures.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Alia and I don’t hate Bhansali, but I didn’t love Gangubai, and I couldn’t figure out why, but you, as always, made it clear. There didn’t feel like a point to anything. Sure, her life was interesting to watch, but when it ended, I was like “that’s it? We were leading up to this?” Alia really knocked it out of the park, but of course, I’m biased because she’s my favorite.

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    • Yes! Exactly! It just didn’t feel like it was going anywhere.

      On Mon, Mar 21, 2022 at 5:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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