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Gulaab Gang is a thought-provoking, masala movie

March 13, 2014 17:37 IST

Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab GangHindi cinema seems readier than society to focus on women. It is not just rape one is talking about, though an act of rape and its consequent injustice unfolds in most narratives. Suddenly women are central not just as problematic but as possibility, as agency, as alternative, feels Shiv Visvanathan.

Sometimes an ordinary masala movie can touch your life. Like Gulaab Gang.

The film feeds on myth and metaphor to create a different kind of space, and raise important issues.

It is located in two forms of reality. A Gulaab Gang, a vigilante group of women, exists in Uttar Pradesh but with a seedier reputation.

The film puts together two veteran stars who have never acted together -- Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit. It is a comeback vehicle but more than that, it becomes a tale of how older stars, who have been away from Bollywood craft a re-entry.

Is middle age the equivalent of death, or does it add a different charm and curiosity to the tale?

The story begins with what I call Indian realism.

It is anchored on both fact and archetype.

The scene is any village, rustic in its anonymity. A little girl is being scolded by her mother for wanting to study, wanting to go to school. A school is not just a modest building with a tiled roof. It is a wishlist for survival and freedom.

Later in the movie, Madhuri tells of a group of parents, who conduct a hartal (protest) outside a school demanding that it does not shut down for the summer vacation. She explains it is not vacations one would miss, but that one square meal a day, no matter how modest.

It got a child through the day and the parents were not haunted by the prospect of a meal-less day. A school, like a hospital, is a sign that the politics, the world outside knows there is a village.

In the movie, Madhuri as Rajjo runs a school where children master language and older women learn the art of combat as a confidence-building measure. The Gulaab Gang weaves saris for local consumption, and stays as a community. Women who have been harassed, raped, and violated constitute its core. A legendary community with a legendary leader committed to teaching men that women are not discards to be taken for granted.

Enter electoral democracy playing spoil sport.

Electoral democracy is that fascinating combination of a good and evil that sustains Bollywood plot. Elections are good and liberating, while politicians are power hungry and evil, subverting democracy for their own interests.

The irony in the story is that the scheming villain is a woman, whose smile hides a manipulative ambition, a stunning ruthlessness.

The irony is important because it is not that archetypal battle of male and female but two strong women battling it out.

Here, it is the centrality of woman as agents in the narrative that is impressive. From Ishqiya to Aaja Nachle to Gulaab Gang and Queen, Hindi cinema seems readier than society to focus on women. It is not just rape one is talking about, though an act of rape and its consequent injustice unfolds in most narratives. Suddenly women are central not just as problematic but as possibility, as agency, as alternative.

Gulaab Gang adds to the discourse as an imagination.

Composted out of history and everyday politics, it shows that women have to fight for their rights for the society to change. The electoral battle that issues shows the deep vulnerabilities of this battling. Human rights as a battle of desire and freedom, has many scars and even more casualties.

A prim parliamentarian might object to the vigilantist message of the movie. Vigilantism is crowd fury, the mob as agency replacing institutional life and rule of law.

The movie suggests the definition might be simplistic. It asks what can a people do when law and politics are willing servants of the corrupt?

Does one stare silently because the wheat godowns are shut?

What do a group of citizens do when pleas and applications fend little response? A Robin Hood knows his style is not his first option. He would have lived a decent uneventful life if permitted.

Vigilantism is the desperation of the vulnerable not just the lawlessness of the corrupt. Violence against the corrupt almost becomes a pedagogic act because the law is deaf and the police are hand-in-glove with the politician.

Yet, what is called vigilantism could be a desperate act of self-defence.

How does a community defend itself when law and politics are hypothecated to the corrupt?

Beyond its sociology and its quick answers, the Gulaab Gang is a masala movie, made more enjoyable because the critics have panned it.

I saw it in a theatre with 10 other people, who consumed it indifferently with their popcorn and momos. Coke is the digestive for all cinematic products.

I felt my sentimental heart go out to the women in the movie.

The men, except as villains, are unemployed and incidental.

Madhuri and Juhi create dominant jugalbandi, each impressing in their own way. One saw shades of a new Juhi as villain and ripples of the old Madhuri in the dance and battle scenes.

If Aaja Nachle did not work, this undoubtedly will.

The centrality of women as cinematic heroines disappears by 30. They are seen as redundant, even obsolescent.

Beyond that, there is action, bits of good dialogue, stereotypes, and a plot that moves quickly enough for a happy time pass on a Saturday with Gulaab Gang.

Shiv Visvanathan