Gulaab Gang (U/A)
Cast: Madhuri Dixit-Nene, Juhi Chawla, Priyanka Bose, Divya Jagdale, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Direction: Soumik Sen
The next time Bollywood biggies breathe heavy about intellectual property rights and the scourge of piracy, say Gulaab Gang.
Director Soumik Sen and producer Anubhav Sinha’s Gulaab Gang tries to squat on a moral high-ground by making women the main focus of their film and releasing it a day before Women’s Day. But it's a shaky perch.
Their film begins on a fraudulent note — it claims to be a work of fiction and brazenly states that none of its characters are based on any real-life people. We all know that’s not true. The film is based on the real-life Gulabi Gang, an Uttar Pradesh-based women’s group in pink saris whose story and struggles have been very intelligently captured by Nishtha Jain in her documentary Gulabi Gang.
The fraud, then, continues. Gulaab Gang is woman-centric in as much as the fact that its protagonist and antagonist are both women. But Sen, who has also written the film, doesn't take any creative flight from there. He just takes standard Bollywood dhishum-dhishum, revenge saga we've seen for over a 100 years, flicks away the men and plonks women in their stead: Evil person wrongs good person; good person settles scores with violence.
Yet, it’s interesting to see Bollywood-style dramatisation, how our mainstream cinema adapts from real life – what it takes, how it twists and portrays people and what it leaves out – and to gauge from this the power and appeal of Bollywood.
It's rare to hear women hoot and whistle and claim a cinema hall as their own. The first half of Gulaab Gang drew a lot of loud, animated, overwhelming approval and goading from female members of the audience. Just like Salman Khan appeals to a certain kind of male audience, Madhuri's Rajjo and her gang members appeal to a certain kind of girl. Gulaab Gang is able to tap into their latent anger, their desire to retaliate. That this is problematic, is one thing. That there’s an eager audience for it, quite another. And that Bollywood knows how to pander, is a given.
Gulaab Gang’s opening gambit – a voice-over by Anil Kapoor that introduces us to the village where the film is set, Madhavpur, and Rajjo, a stoic and stubborn little girl who wouldn’t give up her desire to study despite her step-mother’s loud ranting – are remindful of Dabaang. Mr Kapoor’s introduction gives her and her mission deific proportions.
Madhuri, then, is Chulbul Pandey and Juhi Chawla is Chedi Singh. Kinda. Their interactions are packed with chamkile-bhadkile dialogue, as they were between Salman Khan and Sonu Sood, and Madhuri gets to do full action, fly about and kick and thrash, while Juhi gets to grind her teeth in her bastion.
Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit) grows up into a sort of guru-ma in pink saris, sexy blouses and ethnic jewellery. She runs an all-women ashram where she teaches little girls, sings and dances with the older ones, and dreams of a girls’ school in her village.
Rajjo and her pink gang take on one issue, one adversary at a time, and we see what they are all about. There’s a corrupt collector, a wife-beater and a PDS shop-keeper who need to be taught a lesson. These women come charging, armed with sickles and lathis and axe. They gherao, attack, even kill.
In several scenes where the pink women are together in their “ashram” and are bantering, the director and his cinematographer play up their liveried feminine mystique for sensual impact. Gorgeous Sandhya (Priyanka Bose), mardani Mahi (Divya Jagdale) and others are highly fetishised and their interactions crispy with sexual energy.
A rape takes Rajjo to Maidumji, Sumitra Devi (Juhi Chawla), the consummate politician who takes slight especially when none is intended, and likes to draw blood. There on starts the battle between these two women – first at the ballot and then in the ashram. Both operate outside the law, one very obviously, the other not so much. And both are up for a fight to the finish.
The film’s first half is packed with action and is high-energy, most of which comes from interesting characters played by fine actors, speaking crude but crackling dialogue. The second half sags as it has just Rajjo and Sumitra Devi clashing. Very little happens. Just a match of histrionics. And for me, Juhi Chawla came up tops.
We rarely get films where actresses are given a full quiver and asked to go play. Gulaab Gang then is both a clash and a collaboration. Both Madhuri and Juhi play characters powered partly by their star-status and reputations. Madhuri has always been considered a great actress, Juhi is called cute, sweet, adorable. But in Gulaab Gang the scales tilt.
Juhi Chawla’s Sumitra Devi is a widow who is happy to use her vidhva status for favours and votes. Madhuri’s Rajjo is all grandiloquence – she speaks only in one-liners and her actions are of sort we have come to identify with godly heroes. She even comes flying armed with a trishul-like weapon.
Soumik Sen has filled in Sumitra Devi with strokes that make her a more complete, more compelling character. And Juhi Chawla, who plays a negative character perhaps for the first time in her life, has mean dialogue and delivers them with a delicious smack of her glossy lips and deadpan eyes.
Madhuri is just gorgeous and oozes sensuality.
Visually the film is seductive – pink saris in sepia dehaat — but its message is scary. While I had severe problems with its glorification of vigilante justice, there were a few moments when I was both thrilled and moved. I am ashamed.