The controversy and subsequent litigation over whether Gulaab Gang has anything to do with the grassroots activist group Gulabi Gang set up by Sampat Pal from Bundelkhand might just be the best thing that happened to the movie. The publicity generated by the courtroom drama adds some spice to Gulaab Gang, which features Madhuri Dixit-Nene as a flying feminist with an impressive collection of handloom saris and Ikat blouses that survive the rough and tumble of her Dabbang-style stunts.
Serious issues facing women in rural India—domestic violence, the lack of educational opportunities, rape—get the fairy-tale treatment in Soumik Sen’s debut feature, in which Dixit-Nene’s Rajjo takes on Juhi Chawla’s nasty politician Sumitra, who has an inexplicable interest in exploiting a rump of a village named Madhopur. Rajjo runs a sanctuary in this village for abandoned and distressed women that is part Durga Vahini and part Shaolin Temple. Hidden beneath her angelic wings and obscured by her halo is a pink cape that allows her to perform some truly magnificent acts of dexterity, including spinning like a top off the side of a truck and leaping through the air to cut hapless extras to size. Rajjo and her equally well-trained posse are the first and last resort for every injustice taking place in Madhopur, and their chief solution is to reach for their sticks—another idea stolen from the real-life Gulabi Gang—and beat some sense into their adversaries. Further proof of this movie’s addled attitude towards female empowerment is found in the scene in which the Gulaab Gang’s members force a villainous character to wear a sari, thereby confirming that there is no greater insult to a man than to be compared to a woman.
For all its feminist fakery, Gulaab Gang’s villains are women. First off is Rajjo’s evil step-mother, plucked straight out of a ‘50s movie. The bigger threat is posed by Chawla’s all-powerful politician Sumitra, modelled on Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Sheila Dixit, and every other woman who has ever dared to storm the male bastion of Indian politics. Sumitra’s villainy is straight out of a Telugu mass movie and Chawla bites into the role with relish, piling on the tics and mannerisms, mangling her accent, biting her lip every other second and nervously reaching for her clove box whilst ordering murder, thuggery and all manner of crimes listed in the Indian Penal Code. It’s a performance as broad as the aforementioned truck, but at least Chawla injects some life into the proceedings. She shapes her soft features into a malevolent mask and channels her Kurkure cuteness towards appropriate dastardliness.
Dixit-Nene, in comparison, is unable to fight through the nobility in which her character is forced to drown. The effort of having to play an action heroine in the second phase of her career and twist her tongue around a dodgy Uttar Pradeshi accent play out on her still glamourous face. Her militant comrades, including Divya Jagdale’s tomboy and Priyanka Bose’s closeted karate kid, and Tannishta Chatterjee’s battered wife, are far more sporting about their uni-dimensional characters. They sail through the air, strut about in their attractive costumes, and break into a Saroj Khan choreographed dance after every successful bashing. Of all the tributes to Sampat Pal’s debatable feminist politics, this one is the narrowest, and the silliest.
Gulaab Gang released in theatres on Friday