Gangubai Review (SPOILERS): Let’s Watch Alia Swear a Lot!

Welp, time for the spoilers review! Which won’t give you a heck of a lot more than the no spoilers review, because there isn’t really much of a beginning or an end to this story, it all is just sort of a goes along without a point.

Whole plot in one paragraph

We start with a young girl being prepared for her first client at a brothel. And then a few days later she is still screaming and complaining so they call Gangubai to come talk to her. Alia arrives and tells the girl her story. She was the educated daughter of a barrister who ran off with her boyfriend to be a movie star and ended up sold into a brothel. At first she complained, but then she went out on the street and had her first client. And determined she would be reborn as the best prostitute ever. Within a few years she was tough enough even to scare the Madam, who arranged for her to have a dangerous client that tried to kill her. Alia learned the client worked for the gangster Ajay Devgan and went to Ajay to demand justice. Ajay was impressed and helped her destroy the gangster and took her as a sister. When the Madam died, Alia naturally took over as the new Madam. Now she is a power in the neighborhood and running in the local election for “president” of the neighborhood. The flashback ends and we move on to Alia navigating the election. At the same time she meets the cute new tailor’s assistant. They flirt and fall in love. But Alia ends up using him, getting a daughter of her brothel married off to him with much fanfare and thereby impressing the neighborhood and winning the election. And then a new challenge, the local school is suing to get them evicted because they are immoral. Alia starts fighting the school and gains support from the reporter Jim Sarbh. He gets her to give a speech to a public improvement group where she defends the right of sex workers to exist. Jim ends up helping her to get an audience with Nehru himself and gaining Nehru’s support to save the neighborhood. And then she comes home and has a parade and that’s the end.

The first two thirds of this movie aren’t that groundbreaking. Young girl tricked into prostitution, meets the Madam, has her first client, falls in love, gets heartbroken because Love Is Not For Such as She. It’s every Tawaif movie ever. Just with more swearing.

It’s not really a good fit for the last third where Alia is tough and strong and sure of herself and fighting for her neighborhood. Bhansali keeps trying to Bhansali the story and bring up her still being in love with the boy who first tricked her, or her heartbreak of marrying off the boy she loves to someone else. Sure, tough sex worker activists also fall in love. But shouldn’t their story be more about tough sex worker activism and not about being all droopy and drippy over a boy?

The sex worker activism part is handled pretty well. It’s a tricky topic. Because on the one hand, human trafficking is horrible. But on the other hand, sex workers need to be protected from violence and exploitation. Where is the line between “rescuing” from human trafficking and “protecting your right to earn a living”? This movie doesn’t have a clear answer, but honestly, no one else has a clear answer either.

There are a few glaring flaws to me. First, we never see a woman choosing this life. Say, an abused wife or abused daughter who runs away to the city and chooses sex work because it is better from where she came from. Of course we don’t see that, it’s a Bhansali movie! Fathers and husbands are never blamed for anything! Speaking of, we also have a touching scene of the sex workers writing a joint letter to their fathers asking for forgiveness and expressing love. So sweet. But, what about FATHERS WHO SOLD THEIR DAUGHTERS OFF!!! Or, fathers who were abusive, who were rapists, who caused them to go into sex work. Doesn’t exist, not in Bhansali world.

Remember Chandramukhi’s backstory in Dev D? Her family sold her into a horrible abusive marriage as a teenager in order to cover up a scandal, she ran away and became a sex worker by choice while finishing college on her own with no family support. It’s not a good choice ever, but sometimes it’s better than other choices, like being raped and beaten by your husband every night and day with no hope of escape.

Second, Alia’s big speech about the rights of sex workers ends with a message of “we are saving the other women from putting up with rape and blah blah blah”. So, wait a second, first we are accepting that all men have deviant desires that will be unpleasant for female partners. And second, we are accepting that no wives or “respectable” women ever have to put up with those desires. And of course third, that no proper woman ever enjoys sex, only the prostitutes. Not really a sisterhood of womanhood, much more a “virgin-vamp” line there.

Maybe that’s why it’s such a meandering film? Because Bhansali never really grappled with what his point was, with where he wanted to take it? I mean, sex workers are still treated like trash in modern India, their children still have a limited future, and just to underline this INDIA IS THE LARGEST SOURCE OF SEX TRAFFICKING IN THE WORLD. So, why are we watching this movie about this woman in the past when today, every 8 minutes, a child is sold into sex slavery in India? Not saying we shouldn’t be watching that movie, but, Bhansali really needed to answer that question for himself before he started writing and filming.

And really, Bhansali should have grappled with that as a moral imperative. I saw this movie with two women who grew up in Bombay, they actually knew the neighborhood shown because they used to ride the train past it. And on the way home I was mentioning how I was disappointed that the film didn’t show how this was still happening modern day and how parents sold their own children. And both women responded that yes, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, children are kidnapped. But parents don’t sell them. And it doesn’t happen in India. But, IT DOES!!! It happens in India literally more than anywhere else on earth. And most of the time, it’s the families and parents that sell the kids. Why am I even watching this movie if it’s not going to address the reality of the present day?

So, in the end, it’s another Bhansali fantasy. A fantasy world where only foolish girls who fall in love end up as prostitutes. Where prostitution by force is something that ended back in the 60s. Where prostitutes just want to fall in love and go home to their parents.

UGH! I HATE BHANSALI!!!

8 thoughts on “Gangubai Review (SPOILERS): Let’s Watch Alia Swear a Lot!

  1. Thank you for this review! And the ‘no spoilers’ one. They completely explain my ‘meh’ feeling after the film. Not only because it never surprises, never cuts deep, it’s all on some meandering, totally predictable, super symmetrical, boring aesthetic level. But through your analysis I realise what is actually wrong with this film and what makes it ultimately horrible: it denies the real and present-day underlying problems in (Indian) society and the role men play in this. And stupidly romanticises the plight of women sold or forced into prostitution, and as you point out, denies them agency and choice.

    I have to say I did enjoy Alia in this role, for me she carried the film. Maybe Raazi and Udta Punjaab were better films for her. But I have a feeling she shines despite Bhansali, who managed to turn perfectly wonderful actors like Jim Sarbh and Vijay Raaz into one dimensional cardboard characters.

    Anyway, thanks! Looking forward to next year and Pathaan.

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    • Agree totally, Bhansali needs strong actors to rise above his sort of stage set attitude towards actors. Alia does as good as she could, but it’s a HARD role to handle! With the way it is written and directed.

      On Sun, Mar 6, 2022 at 3:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. And that’s why I don’t want to watch this movie – Bhansali at worst romanticising prostitution, or at best mansplaining the poor plight of prostitutes in a beautiful movie that hides the ugliness of the business.

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    • I don’t think he romanticizes it quite, except for refusing to do a flashforward that reveals it is just as ugly today as it was then. Definitely on the mansplaining though! Ajay Devgan and Jim Sarbh between them teach Alia everything she has to know about stuff.

      On Mon, Mar 7, 2022 at 2:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I watched this last night (now that it’s finally streamable) and am going to buck the trend by saying I absolutely loved it. Caveat; speaking about it only as a personal viewing experience here and completely ignoring the very big problems with its lack of social responsibility on the topic.

    Alia was fantastic. I was dubious going in but wow, I retract my doubts. The big cast of background/unnamed surrounding characters were awesome, with all the life and sense of so many varied untold stories they brushed across the screen with.

    Plotwise I had less than no expectations (I could go on a good long rant about my problems with any other Bhansali plot lol), but then it surprised me and I loved it. I’m a sucker for stories where someone gets screwed over by society but refuses it the power to shame them for it, and fiercely defends whatever agency they have, and Gangubai had that in spades. Plus her incredible empathy, and willingness to put a greater good before own wants, urgh, feels. Oh, and Ajay/the reporter; they didn’t feel at all mansplainey to me. More like, she saw them as powerful potential resources and utilised them very efficiently.

    The sets/look of everything were less excessive and sparkly than I was hoping for, but I guess I have to grudgingly admit that they suited the story and were perfect.

    So, personal opinion where the film exists only in a bubble with me and myself; it’s brilliant, empowering, and Gangubai is a hero I admire and respect immensely, and I’m definitely going to watch it again.

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  4. Ok, see, I really liked it but I don’t disagree with anything you said? Maybe I just compartmentalize really well. I was also shocked by the rape comment because it completely devalues the women she’s supposed to love and support by positing them as a line of defense between sex-crazed men and decent women which as you point out is wrong in a number of ways. Also, I wish we had found out what was wrong with Razia Bai as the president aside from that fact that she’s Vijay Raaz in a sari. It just plays into the Evil Hijra thing.

    Bhansali just can’t do social issues! I feel that way about Guzaarish which, as I’ve undoubtedly mentioned before, I haaaaaaate. He just focuses too much on the beautiful Goa scenery and the long flowing skirts and the magic show and the whole euthanasia thing is this throw-away plot point which is not at all explored and which I can’t find a use for. Just have Hrithik fall in love with Aishwarya and live life to the fullest and then die! Same thing here, as you’ve said–he just doesn’t engage with this huge big topic.

    I wish he’d just stick to a beautiful, unrealistic romance with beautiful costumes and actors and scenery and music that I can get swept away by for an hour or two before I have to grade more papers and fold my laundry. I will even forgive the ubiquitous Mughal e Azam references, which, how much of an egotist do you have to be?

    All of that being said, I’m a sucker for criminals with hearts of gold, and I did enjoy watching it.

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    • Well, I am giving myself a pat on the back for reviewing! That’s the idea, accurately describing the film so that you agree with the description if not with the conclusions.

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