I have known the director of Gulaab Gang, Soumik Sen, for years now through my blog and have had the good fortune of meeting him at the reading of “The Mine”. When his movie came out, I knew I had to go see it but the problem with seeing anything done by a friend is that it is difficult to be totally unbiased. Also you are kind of afraid of not liking it. What do you do then? Pretend that you didn’t see it. Be brutally honest and say the truth? Since I write books and my friends read them, I am intensely conscious of the same dilemma that I put them in and always wonder how much knowing me affects their perception of the book.
Anyways, I went to see Gulaab Gang, trying to be as fair as possible, determined to tell the truth no matter how it turned out.
I loved Gulaab Gang.
Of course, I will accept my bias here, not for Soumik but for Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla.
I grew up on them. I lived QSQT and Tezaab. I will also accept my bias for old school Bollywood, sans the nauseating wannabeness of what has come to sully its good-name, a Bollywood of larger-than-life characters and conflicts, script-writers who could craft memorable lines and actors who could deliver them. Dilip Kumar. Raj Kumar. Shotgun. Amitabh. Sunny. Dharam. Prabhuji. Gulaab Gang stays true to the spirit of that masala Bollywood. And in a refreshing departure from current fashion, it is reverential to its roots rather than mocking in the way the Dabangg, Singham and that Rohit Shetty-Akshay-Kumar-Ajay-whatever-how-he-spells-his-last-name-as-now school of forty-feet-jumping trucks is, where the conventions of classic Bollywood are extravagantly exaggerated and played for comedy and nothing else.
There are some things Gulaab Gang gets bang on. First is the supporting cast. Usually in movies with two dominant characters who understandably will be given “the lines”, it usually happens that the supporting cast gets reduced to out-of-focus frame-fillers and scene-setters for the stars. Here there are very well delineated secondary characters who are given their own space. The result is a fully-fledged universe which deepens the dramatic conflict between the two stars, since now you understand what and who they are fighting for. Then of course there is the dialogbaazi, the verbal jousting between Madhuri and Juhi , which while being not as epic as Raj Kumar and Dilip Kumar in Saudagar (it will remain my favorite forever), is enjoyable nonetheless. The lines work. The delivery works even better.
Madhuri Dixit gives the performance I thought she would. The surprise however is Juhi Chawla. Used to her as the one with the goofy eyes and that slightly scatter-brained expression, here she is just marvelous in her reinvention. The word marvelous is over-used but I can assure you I used the word with deliberation. She really is. In an era where villains have become rarer than dinosaurs, and no I don’t like Prakash Raj “Pharpharpharphar” at all, and the only great evil performance I can remember in recent times is Rishi Kapoor in the Agneepath remake, Juhi Chawla makes an entry to the hall of memorable “bad men” and she chews it up and throws it out. Though one can say that the character is uni-dimensional and classic Bollywood rarely had more than cardboard characters, I did find quite a bit more to her character than just villainy. Like the heroine, she is a woman trying to rise in a male-dominated world, coming out of the shadow of being the one standing behind in the portrait of her husband to an independent individual, and her reaction to a bureaucrat calling her by her first name sans a salutation obviously because she is a woman, is most memorable. There are some other subtleties, which are worth calling out. When the Madhuri Dixit comes to meet her for the first time, Juhi Chawla sizes her up very cattily, noting her clothes and everything else, with a dismissive sneer. This rather feminine dynamic is captured well, (a man wont usually look at an antagonist’s clothes) which shows that Gulaab Gang is not just about replacing the traditional male characters with female but adding something a bit more.
Of course it’s not perfect. The ending I felt was slightly disappointing, almost rushed, and I would have preferred a more cerebral victory, with one character checkmating the other. And even more tellingly, the song-dance sequences. While one understands the diktats of commercial cinema and that of stars, and even accept that a group of women would sing and dance, the problem is when the song-dance sequences occur. In the first half-hour of Gulaab Gang, there is a scene where the gang cuts the water and electricity lines of a local administration office and board up its windows to prevent officials from leaving, the officials having cut off electricity to the villages because they want more in terms of bribes. With the gang surrounding the office, the tenseness of the standoff is totally dissipated by the dance that follows.
And I realize it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you find old-world Bollywood cheesy and tacky, (Hint: you buy nachos at the multiplex) avoid it. If you are looking for an Aamir Khan “Bumbumbole” treatment of feminism and a document on women’s emancipation, then you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a documentary on Sampat Pal Devi, then watch the documentary or catch old episodes of Big Boss.
But, if like me, you are looking for old-school Bollywood and hammer-on-anvil takkar , then Gulaab Gang is worth your time.