Gulab Gang: (Apparently) Not Based on a True Story

Watch if: you’re a fan of either Juhi Chawla or Madhuri Dixit; it’s 100% their show
Don’t watch if: you can’t face rape and/or domestic abuse storylines today
Best song: I’m a sucker for Madhuri’s dance numbers, so I’m going with Rang Se Hui (embedded below, without subs unfortunately)
Soundtrack overall: Pretty good, but probably nothing that you’re going to be playing on repeat for days.

Judging by the box office numbers, Gulab Gang was quite the flop. How this happened was difficult for me to understand the first time I watched it, and near-impossible on this second viewing. It’s one of Juhi Chawla’s all-time best performances and manages to be a film almost entirely about women without ever reducing itself to being all about gender.

Gulab Gang is a group of female vigilantes who have banded together to protect themselves and each other from various forms of violence. For legal reasons, they are officially not based on the real-life Gulabi Gang, but it’s pretty difficult to miss the similarities. They wear pink saris; they fight against domestic abuse and corruption; they carry dandas and they’re not afraid to use them.

The story opens with Kajri, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee, being thrown out of her home for lack of dowry. Considering suicide, she is persuaded against it by members of the Gulab Gang who persuade her to join them instead. She is introduced to their leader, Rajjo, a complex character portrayed beautifully by Madhuri Dixit. Rajjo is ruthless in the fight against bent politicians and cruel husbands, but her true goal is not violent revenge; over and over again we see that she is at heart a sweet idealist. Her great overarching goals is to build a school for girls, and her dream has been thwarted many times. Unsurprisingly, she is also a brilliant dancer!

The people doing most of the thwarting are useless, money-grubbing politicians; a familiar set of bad guys. The worst of the lot is Sumitra, a scheming woman who seems positively psychopathic at times. I’ve hear it said that people doubted Juhi Chawla could pull off this kind of character; they needn’t have worried. In fact, the contrast between her sweet face and the sheer nastiness of the character make it all the more unnerving. She humiliates even her most loyal staff and will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve her election goals. She is just as single-minded as Rajjo and when the two meet, it’s loathing at first sight. The dark mist of hatred between them leaks off the screen.

Their leadership styles are strikingly different: Sumitra bullies and blackmails, while Rajjo has raised a squad of women as determined and impossible to bully as herself. All of the members of Gulab Gang can fight, and they exact some brutal vengeance on people who thoroughly deserve it. My favourite scene has them emerging from a lake like water monsters to take down an unsuspecting scumbag. Some of their stunts are a tiny bit improbable, but nothing we haven’t been letting heroes get away with forever.

The decision to make the worst of the worst characters a woman benefits the plot, allowing it to draw in issues such as corruption, class and caste differences on top of misogyny. It is a little too ambitious on that front; at times I lost track of what was going on, especially among the scurrying minions of Sumitra. Some scenes seemed constructed to add a triple underline to her badness, which was hardly necessary.

It’s a must-watch for Juhi fans and a pretty good bet for Madhuri fans. If you enjoy this and you haven’t seen them, you should go straight onto Anjaam for the perfect Madhuri in vengeance mode, and Parched, to see Tannishtha Chatterjee really get a chance to shine.

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