The biggest turn-up for a red carpet at its 72nd edition belonged to Berlinale Special Gala premiere Gangubai Kathiawadi. Over a hundred fans braved the cold evening air on the last festival day to catch a glimpse of British-Indian leading lady Alia Bhatt.
Kathiawadi’s story starts out like every other woman’s in India’s red-light district Kamathipura. Taking advantage of her dream of becoming a Bollywood actress, Ganga’s scheming boyfriend lures her away from home, to Mumbai. But instead of the promised film casting, she is brought to a brothel and sold to its madam. After her first night with a client, she sheds her sacred birth name and henceforth goes by Gangu. But no matter how many stones life throws at her, the resilient woman refuses to bow down. Understanding business far better than the matron running the establishment, Gangu soon forms an alliance with mobster Rahim Lala (played by Hindi megastar Ajay Devgn) – the first step of her evolution to becoming the mighty Gangubai, who will rule over the neighbourhood.
Based on investigative journalist S Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai, the Indian production is an unconventional biopic about a sex worker’s advancement in the mob and her fight against social injustice. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali speckles tightly packed action with moments of tranquil contemplation. The most powerful image of Ganga breaking into the line of work she would never have chosen for herself is a scene in which she leans slack against the brothel’s wall. Her body is pliable, like putty, as it is formed into position by her fellow workers.
Undoubtedly with the best of intentions at heart, Gangubai Kathiawadi tackles symptoms of female oppression, but never engages with the cause. The sex workers have to fight for a bare minimum of respect – in particular, they ask that their children may receive an education so as not to be forced to follow in their mother’s footsteps – but the cruel abductions that lead to these women’s involuntary existence are of no consequence. Never textually addressed, the continued sexual assaults inherent to a person’s forced prostitution are adversely trivialised as flirtatious musical numbers take precedence.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is released in UK cinemas on 25th February 2022.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2022 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Gangubai Kathiawadi here: