Each piece of artwork and production design in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie creates a distinct vibe. Audiences have learned to expect that distinctive look—dripping with fine detail and making full use of Indian cloth, artwork, color, and texture—regardless of the place or the plot. Through the artwork and settings of Gangubai Kathiawadi, we gain insight into Bhansali’s unique, formative experiences with space and building.
Bombay was very different in the 1960s when India first gained independence. The cultural scene in the city of dreams flourished as India became recognized as the region’s golden goose for South Asia. Zooming in, one can see the 150-year-old colonial dwelling complex that spans 39 acres in the center of this turmoil, where Gangubai breathed her death. Bhansali’s biographical crime drama brings back the traditions of the past.
Notably, Gangubai Kathiawadi’s most recent work looks almost like watching a picture come to life. However, it goes a step further since this is undoubtedly his most intimate piece of art to date. The film is a biographical crime drama about Ganga Harjeevandas, often known as Gangubai, that is set in 1950s and 1960s Mumbai (played by Alia Bhatt).
We follow the ascent and fall of a young woman who was sold into prostitution and who finally rises to become not just the brothel’s madam but also a vocal advocate for the rights and welfare of sex workers—a cause that was at the time taboo and unheard of in polite society. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands inspired the narrative. The ladies operated in Mumbai’s renowned red light district, Kamathipura.In the heart of south-central Mumbai, Kamathipura is a cluster of dirty lanes.
The aesthetics and design of the entire film were a “vision transformed into reality,” inspired by Bhansali’s childhood recollections, as opposed to the spectacle itself, which was inspired by historical events. In an interview with Architectural Digest, Bhansali recalled his youth and how the street lane was lined with six theater structures he knew as the “Playhouse”. Later, it became known as “Peela House”. Every visual component on the screen is a memory loop from Bhansali’s history, presented in his impeccable style. The attention was drawn to images of three movie theaters, where movie posters were deftly changed to depict Bombay’s evolving history. The whole set has been carefully and intricately created.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a director, asserts that “the devil is in the details”. The architecture of the time illustrated a straightforward design with intricate detailing and environmentally friendly materials. This philosophy and design are replicated in the movie’s set. The framework for the murals and paintings, which is not prefabricated, is dominated by wooden structures and joints. The courtyards and open areas were designed with great care, as is seen in the movie.
The brothels are tucked away amongst stores, cafés, and a movie theater. Women throng windows and doors, urging passersby. The interiors are subtly attractive. Fraying pin-ups on the walls that comment on the gap between reality and imagination are typical aspects of brothel architecture. Under abused beds, trunks peek out, reminding us about adventures that may never be taken. Anything that will hold them is covered with a string of clothes, including undergarments. Both the painted faces and the lighting are frightening.
One example was the distinctive hand-painted movie poster art that started to emerge around Indian cinema in the 1920s and the Art Deco design elements he absorbed from those structures. The imagery of seductive cleavages, seductive red lips, garish colors, obvious brush strokes, and nearly 3D-style writing made this tacky, over-the-top method of drawing audiences to the movies instantly recognizable.
The movie makes extensive use of intentional imagery. When Alia Bhatt ultimately accepts her fate and adopts the “mannerisms” to attract clients, it is one of the most well-known sequences in the film. This scene is also connected to Bhansali’s memories of a café where he used to see the females waiting, smoking, and standing about while listening to music from a typical Hindi movie. He has framed such crucial sequences in this café, a vital part of the film’s set. The entire movie consists of visual flashbacks of Bhansali’s early years.
He acknowledges that he frequently conjured up alternate realities that might figuratively push out the walls of their cramped house into something bigger and more significant—every film set he has ever built exhibits this. The thought of beauty amid peril also fascinates him greatly. The production design team for this movie gave these preoccupations literal expression. Especially in the detailing of the brothel walls—peeling, faded, broken—as well as all the elements and distressed textures in the rooms, including artifacts, textiles, and use of props like utensils that would have been used in his own home at the time.
In terms of approach and design, the creator acknowledges that he has chosen a romanticized portrayal of a rough neighborhood and a gloomy and sometimes terrifying period in his early years. He uses his craft to offer his viewers an artistic interpretation rather than the repressive truth. In the process, he experiences his catharsis moment that, in some ways, contributes to putting the world his five-year-old self formerly lived in to the right.
Nast, C., 2022. Inside the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi: A close-up of the lanes. [online] Architectural Digest India. Available at: <https://www.architecturaldigest.in/gallery/inside-the-sets-of-sanjay-leela-bhansalis-gangubai-kathiawadi-a-close-up-of-the-lanes/> [Accessed 29 July 2022].
SY Blog. 2022. Gangubai Kathiawadi: Bhansali’s Take on 90’s Bombay and Architecture. [online] Available at: <https://www.squareyards.com/blog/gangubai-kathiawadi-bhansalis-take-on-90s-bombay-and-architecture> [Accessed 29 July 2022].
Nast, C., 2022. How the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi recreate the 1950s’ and ‘60s’ Bombay. [online] Architectural Digest India. Available at: <https://www.architecturaldigest.in/story/how-the-sets-of-sanjay-leela-bhansalis-gangubai-kathiawadi-recreate-1950s-and-60s-bombay/> [Accessed 29 July 2022].