I’ve been very slow to respond to the lulls between COVID spikes over the past couple years, waiting too long to poke my head out my turtle shell before the next variant sends me back inside. As a result, I wasn’t fully ready to dive into the social deep end of Mardi Gras this past month, even though the gorgeous vibes and weather were making me terribly jealous of everyone out there celebrating early glimpses of a “post-COVID” life. I’m gradually easing myself back into the world outside my living room, though, by which I mean I’ve returned to movie theaters for the first time since the lull between Delta & Omicron. I generally appreciate the ways the theatrical environment enhances the joys of movie-watching for me, not least of all in how it forces me to ignore my phone for two-hour blocks – a near-impossible feat at home. However, as I’ve returned to cinemas, I’ve found that the types of movies I’ve been watching on the big screen haven’t really changed. If you ask most audiences, the only three movies of note to be released in the past year have featured Batmen, Spider-men, or Ghostbusters, and everything else has been either disposable or nonexistent. I’m not feeling especially drawn to those big-name IPs as I’ve returned to the theater, though, whether that’s a safety precaution in avoiding indoor crowds or if I’m just out of practice in seeking out anything that’s not a low-budget indie that will soon be streaming anyway. I’ve finally started leaving the house again, but I’m leaving it to watch the exact kinds of movies I was already watching on my couch.
The major exception to this loss of big-budget appetite is that I am ravenous for Indian blockbusters now that I’m back at the megaplex. I enjoyed watching both Tamil-language actioners I caught at home last year—Karnan (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Bacuaru) & Master (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Dangerous Minds)—but I can’t say I loved them quite as much as I would have on the big screen, rattled by their booming sound & gargantuan visuals for their full three-hour runtimes. So, the biggest change to my movie-going diet since I started leaving the house again is that I’m watching mainstream Indian cinema again, which I’m finding way more thoroughly entertaining (and way less conversationally exhausting) than its Hollywood equivalent. While almost everyone I know was checking in with The Batman on its opening weekend, I sat down in a near-empty theater to gaze at another superhero of sorts: the fearless sex-worker advocate Gangubai. The Bollywood drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is a formulaic, loose-with-the-facts biopic of its titular Indian political activist, depicted as rising to power from a victim of forced prostitution to a Mafia Queen to a populist hero of women’s rights. As is tradition with most big-budget Indian productions, it delivers everything you could possibly want out of a movie, all at once: music, dance, laughs, danger, romance, tragedy, and shameless feel-goodery. It’s also the rare Bollywood counterprogramming that’s actually shorter than the mainstream American blockbuster that’s currently crowding theater marquees. Gangubai Kathiawadi is a half-hour shorter than The Batman and offers a much more impressive range of emotions & entertainment value.
For at least the first forty minutes of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I was worried I made a huge mistake in choosing which Indian crowdpleaser to return to theaters for. The red-light Kamathipura district of Mumbai that the movie dwells in makes for a grim atmosphere. Gangubai immediately looks cool & powerful at the start of the film, but she’s introduced in conversation with a child who’s being forced to start life as a prostitute after being sold to a brothel by her abusive, adult husband. Asked to show the kid the ropes, Gangubai recounts her own story of being sold to a brothel by a boyfriend who promised her a career as a Bollywood actress. Even with the rape & other violence mostly obscured offscreen, this early human-trafficking portion of the story is almost too dark to stomach, but that only makes the movie more satisfying once it starts hitting its feel-good biopic beats in the second hour. Gangubai rescues the child from repeating that plight instead of condemning her to it, then recounts how she rose through the ranks in her own brothel to become the most powerful political voice in Kamathipura. She essentially unionizes her fellow sex workers so they can set the terms of their employment, first as a low-level crime boss then later as a legitimate politician. As she rose to power, I was hugely won over by the movie’s emotional stings & sex-work politics in a way that really surprised me, even if it took nearly an hour of squirming to get there. By the time Gangubai shuts down all business in Kamathipura for a night so that her fellow sex workers can dance & celebrate instead of working for the first time in their lives, I cried. Later, when she advocates in a radio broadcast speech that these women should be able to “Live with dignity” despite moralistic, hypocritical objections to their profession, I cried even harder. It’s wonderful, hard-hitting schmaltz.
I am far from an expert in any of India’s varied, sprawling film industries, but I have finally seen enough of these movies to recognize a few of its main recurring players. Gangubai is played by Alia Bhatt, who played the take-no-shit, tough-as-nails girlfriend in the “Bollywood 8-Mile” drama Gully Boy. I was amazed by her fierce defiance in that performance, which she amplifies here to the point where she’s practically a sex-worker superhero. Gangubai slaps anyone who disrespects her. She openly drinks & smokes despite men’s moral objections. She practically has a kink for making men sit on the floor to admire from below, which at one point manifests in forcing a young admirer to take her tailoring measurements in total awe of her body. When she walks down the streets of Kamathipura, she immediately gathers a crowd of starstruck on-lookers, an effect that’s amplified by crunchy guitar riffs announcing her presence – like Gal Godot in Wonder Woman gear. Just about the only thing she doesn’t do is lip-sync during her own musical numbers. I have little context for how standard that is in modern Bollywood productions, but here it has an MTV-era music video effect, where she gets to strike powerful poses without worrying about emoting to the romantic lyrics. Like an 80s action hero, Gangubai is presented as the coolest, most righteous person who ever lived, and Bhatt is incredibly adept at performing that badass self-assurance. Between this film & Gully Boy, I’d even go as far as calling myself a fan, at least to the point where I’m looking forward to seeing her pop up as an “extended cameo appearance” in the upcoming S.S. Rajamouli film RRR.
Not everyone was impressed with the real-life Gangubai Kothewali’s portrayal in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Her surviving family sued Bhatt, the film’s producers, and the authors of its source material for defamation, claiming that Kothewali was a social worker who was never employed by the brothels she serviced. There are also news articles dismissing that controversy as a marketing ploy initiated by the producers themselves, so who knows. All I can say for sure is that I don’t hold based-on-a-true-story Hollywood pictures accountable for being factually inaccurate, so I’m not sure how much that matters here. The film was adapted from one thirty-page chapter in a much larger historical book about the Kamathipura red-light district called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, so it left itself a lot of room to build whatever story it wanted out of broad-strokes aspects of the real Gangubai’s life. It went with the most formulaic, crowd-pleasing approach possible, typified by eye-pleasing symmetrical tableaus of vintage Mumbai street life and a romantic depiction of workers hooking by candlelight during a city-wide power outage. It’s a big, beautiful mainstream heart-warmer with a shockingly grim opening and shockingly sharp political edge. I’m more typically drawn to over-the-top Kollywood action thrillers than this sincere Bollywood drama, but I was fully satisfied by the movie-magic charms of Gangubai Kathiawadi in a way that I rarely am by American movies on its budgetary scale. It was a satisfying return to a specific flavor of theatrical experience I’ve greatly missed over the past couple years.