Why Bhansali’s adaptation doesn’t match up to the book

The grandeur in Gangubai Kathiawadi outweighs the emotional gravitas of Ganga Harjeevandas Kathiawar
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi

Gangu, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, is fair, passionate, and witty. Everything about her aims to elicit the audience's respect and awe; the impression that the director aims to make is of a self-respecting woman who owns a profession she was forced into. It seemed to me from the very beginning of the film that Gangu's obstacles were not as deep and insurmountable as they are in her real life; Sanjay Leela Bhansali's lens adds opulence at the expense of strife. The grandeur outweighs the emotional gravitas of Ganga Harjeevandas Kathiawar. During the promotions and even at the time of the project's announcement, the fact that this film is an adaptation of S Hussain Zaidi's novel Mafia Queens of Mumbai had been stressed. In fact, Babuji Shah, Gangubai's adopted son, had sought an injunction against the film. Slowly, as you take in the film, you get the disappointment.  

The big question is, why is the on-screen persona shown to be devoid of the many flaws that come through in the book? For one, wasn’t she accused of underworld connections and ordering murders? The Gangubai that you see in the film is a pale comparison, a person of shallow depths. For instance, in a powerful scene, Gangubai Kathiawadi’s intro shows a young girl being forced into prostitution. She is decorated like an object that has to intrigue and entice onlookers, and this scene is straight out of the book. However, that is as far as the film goes. The emotional spectrum depicted in just the first few pages of her chapter in the book is strangely absent from not just that scene, but the entire film, and despite Alia Bhatt's stunning performance, Gangubai Kathiawadi, the film, doesn’t truly feel as powerful.

Books, of course, always have more depth and detail, but the problem with this adaptation is how it glosses over some important subplots too. For instance, Ramnik and Ganga spent a few days together in Mumbai, a young couple in love, and she gets abandoned by him, and this betrayal, this transition in emotion with cause, does not come through as it should.

Why did Gangu decide not to return to Kathiawad? She is worried about her family's reaction to being forced into prostitution. She is worried about her sisters' future, and she doesn't want to return home only to ruin their future. In the book, Gangu even contemplates going home for a moment. That makes her… human. In the film, however, she just accepts her fate.

In fact, Gangu reclaiming the identity of being a sex worker, and her ideas on how her profession must be decriminalised, come far too soon. At what point did Gangu choose to own sex work as her vocation? In the film, she finds ways to climb the rungs of a world ruled by the influential affluent. This climb must have required determination, grit, and guts. She must have done things that are not exactly ethical, or legal, things that she may not be proud of. However, the film goes only to the extent of touching on the illegal sale of alcohol spearheaded by her. The portrayal of Gangu's grit gets a motherly makeover in the film. In an attempt to ensure empathy from audiences, Gangu's flaws are treated like blemishes that must be concealed.

All this is not to say that Bhansali’s film has no merit. A lot of it particularly rests in the technical aspects, especially in the cinematography. Two scenes in particular—not featured in the book—stand out. First is the loss of a friend Gangu suffers after she becomes a force to reckon with in Kamathipura. The second is when the women in the pinjra sit down to write a letter to one of their fathers. The experience brings to fore the fact that all their journeys at some point begin to look alike.

The Bhansali film has the entire neighbourhood of Kamathipura celebrate her in the climax of the film, but the truth of reality is that there’s not much known about her final days. Bhansali’s love for opulence is well-known, and in Gangubai Kathiawadi, he extends this interest to the central character, brushing the scars and ugliness under flourishes of cinematography and costume design.

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