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“Gangubai”: An Ode to Independent Filmmaking

A case study of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new crime drama

Written by: Meher Akshay Bundellu


The film begins with “Yeh na thi humari kismat” (“This was not our fate”), a late-60s ghazal — a form of poetry with intricate rhyme scheme and grammatically complete couplets. The opening shots aesthetically depict the loud makeup of the sex workers in India, their body language, their distinctive way of dressing, their stereotypical two-braids hairstyle and their bold way of speaking, against the backdrop of soft white and warm yellow light and the emblematic old homes with worn-out paint. This first scene itself says that the director has tapped into the soul of the story with an impeccable sense of storytelling.

Every independent filmmaker can learn from the principles which made “Gangubai” a thundering success

“Gangubai Kathiawadi” is based on the short story featured in the book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai”, which depicts stories of 13 impactful women of the time. The movie, directed by the well-known filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is particularly noteworthy because it was adapted from a mere 38 pages. In writing and directing “Gangubai,” Bhansali first understood the key events depicted in the book. Then, he studied the community of sex workers in India to contextualize and fill in the story. The film performed well at the box office and won critical acclaim.

… Bhansali has used the communal trauma of sex workers in India to make Gangubai’s story stronger.

So why is “Gangubai” a significant case study for independent filmmakers? The answer is that “Gangubai” was made on a small budget. Bhansali tapped into his creativity to express pain using film elements such as phenomenal cinematography, background music, plot, and acting. All these factors in turn keep the audiences hooked.


Every independent filmmaker can learn from the principles which made “Gangubai” a thundering success:


1. Introducing elements of pain

Bhansali made use of the fundamental human psychology of pain builds character. Filmmakers all over the world know this and implement it in their projects. The best way for the audience to like a character and give their undivided attention to the storyline is when they feel the character’s pain. In real life, Gangubai was a force to reckon with for the sex workers of Kamthipura (a Mumbai neighborhood), who all looked up to her in times of need.


Throughout the movie, Bhansali has used the communal trauma of sex workers in India to make Gangubai’s story stronger. The sex workers face problems including multiple chronic health issues, sacrificing love and marriage, craving fatherly love and affection, and being unable to open a bank account and lead a independent life or to get their children admitted in school, which are all shown with an aesthetic that captivates the audience. For example, one of the most beautifully shot scenes is when Kamli (Gangubai’s best friend and fellow sex worker) dies from complications following the birth of her daughter. Usually, a dead body is laid on the floor for final rites. But in this movie, Kamli’s body sits on a chair and all her fellow sex workers surround her, getting her ready. One braids her long lustrous hair, while the other applies makeup. All narrate their first few interactions with Kamli while holding back tears. Gangubai is right in front of them, holding Kamli’s daughter. This new concept for final-rites scenes in Indian film gave the movie a fresh take.


Another example of this principle was when one of the sex workers asks Gangubai to write a letter to her father. The pain of not having spoken to their fathers is visible in everybody’s eyes. While no one knew what to write, one of the girls begins expressing her heart to her father, and another follows and completes the sentence. Soon, all of them share the pain in their hearts to their fathers and complete each other’s sentences, realizing that they share a common pain. This scene strikes a chord in the hearts of the audience with a definite authentic appeal.


2. Combining important storylines with the day-to-day activities of the age

Bhansali has made use of this principle in almost all his films. When he made the magnum opus “Devdas,” we could see this in the scene where Paro (the female lead) is having a heart-to-heart conversation with her sister-in-law Manorama about her marriage while bundling thread. While Manorama provides the loose thread, Paro bundles them up in her hands. When Paro’s mom tells her that Devdas’s mother had called her over to discuss their marriage, her mother is spinning a plate on top of a rolling pin, while at the same time walking in a circle around Paro. Combinations like these bring out authenticity and make the storytelling more believable.


For “Gangubai,” Bhansali has made use of this principle in the police raid scene. Gangubai is about to take a hot water facial steam, so she covers her face with a cloth while her assistant Birju massages her legs. She is positioned in the middle of the screen while her fellow sex workers do chores. Suddenly the police enter and raid her brothel. While all hell breaks loose and everyone is running for their lives, Gangubai is unshaken by the mayhem. The police turn the place upside-down while the sex workers try to run away, screaming for help. Gangubai still continues her facial steam. It is only when the inspector declares to everyone that he will arrest Gangubai that she pulls herself out of the facial cover. With a fresh and glowing face, she shows the inspector a bundle of notes underneath her mattress, indicating that he should take the money as a bribe to not bother her again (which he accepts). The beautifully-shot scene intertwines Gangubai’s dominance and power with day-to-day activities of the age.


3. Drawing out powerful acting

Another element worth mentioning is the director’s ability to draw out powerful acting from the lead actor, Alia Bhatt. In the scene when Gangubai yells “Mere hak ke paise de!” (“Give me the money that I rightfully deserve”) to the man who physically abused her, the audience can see the fire in her belly and the agony in her heart of getting even with her abuser.


Later, when Gangubai is at her doorstep returning from a date late at night, she is confronted by the antagonist’s men who tell her, “Aukaat me reh” (indirectly telling her that her status is nothing). The authentic outburst of anger from Bhatt is extraordinary. She goes from a girl drunk on love to a powerful woman ready to defend her pride in a split second, kicking and slapping the men. She hollers at them for their audacity to demean her in her own neighborhood.


In another power-packed scene, Gangubai makes a phone call to her mother and realizes that her father died. While she tries to process the gut-wrenching news, the telephone operator keeps reminding her of the 30 seconds remaining in her call. Gangubai shifts from a vulnerable and broken emotional state to a fierce ball of fire, when she yells at the telephone operator for not giving her enough time to process the news of her father’s demise. This scene depicts that sex workers are not given enough space and time to heal from traumas and setbacks. Alia Bhatt has perfectly depicted these emotional transitions, making them real and convincing.


For most independent filmmakers, the goal is to make an impactful movie which connects with the audience on a small budget with a small team. “Gangubai” ticks all the boxes, and for that reason is a must-watch case study for those who want to learn and grow as passionate storytellers.


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