Gulaab Gang review: Juhi Chawla, from crush to crushing disappointment

Suprateek Chatterjee

Mar 08, 2014 15:18:34 IST

There are two confessions I must make right at the start. The first is that I am yet to watch Nishtha Jain’s much-acclaimed documentary, Gulabi Gang, which profiles renegade leader Sampat Pal and her band of pink-sari-clad women. The second is that Juhi Chawla was, as far as I can remember, my first celebrity crush.

The first isn’t as important because it doesn’t really affect my views on Soumik Sen’s directorial debut. After all, Gulaab Gang aspires to be a completely different animal: a typically escapist action flick in the vein of films made by Prakash Jha and Abhinav Kashyap. The second one, however, is a problem for me, personally. I am now forced to admit that my once-favourite actress has devolved into the single worst thing in a movie.

Director Soumik Sen has obviously taken great glee in casting Madhuri Dixit, who plays Rajjo Devi, against Chawla’s Sumitra Devi, a crooked politician who is the primary antagonist. Much has been written about both actresses, both of whom were at the top of their games in the early ‘90s, finally sharing screen space together.

In the ‘90s, after capturing hearts with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Chawla was India’s sweetheart. She made her mark in Aziz Mirza’s fluffy rom-coms Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) and Yes Boss (1997); and, of course, as K-k-k-Kiran in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993). In the noughties, she got married to industrialist Jay Mehta and stepped away from Bollywood, making acclaimed occasional appearances in non-mainstream films such as Teen Deewarein, My Brother…Nikhil and I Am. Unlike other Bollywood actresses from her era who had all but disappeared (such as Dixit and Sridevi, who have only recently made comebacks), Chawla appeared in a film a year, but either as special appearances or playing supporting characters. A wise move, given the double standards of the industry.

 Gulaab Gang review: Juhi Chawla, from crush to crushing disappointment

Juhi Chawla in the film. Screengrab from trailer.

In Gulaab Gang, she plays her first lead role in a commercial film since Mirza’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) and it also marks the first time she has played and out-and-out negative role. However, while the idea may have seemed great on paper – of appearing in a masala film that has two strong female leads doing all the brawny things male leads do – this is a career move that has misfired spectacularly for Chawla, in my opinion.

Gulaab Gang starts off quite well, with a well-executed, animated sequence for the opening credits setting the tone for the film. It’s evident that Sen is not aiming for realism here – this is like a film adaptation of an imaginary graphic novel. Which is why it’s easy to forgive and even enjoy the first half hour, which introduces Dixit and her band of women (prominent amongst them are Divya Jagdale and Priyanka Bose, who turn in competent performances). It’s over-the-top and cheesy, but you can’t help enjoying the spin Sen has put on the traditional masala film. After the countless films we’ve all watched, where men make all the plans and women are reduced to sex objects or damsels-in-distress, it’s refreshing to watch a bunch of grown men get their just desserts without a Khan/Kapoor/Kumar having to take their shirt off and beat up the baddies. The ladies are doing just fine, thank you. In fact, Gulaab Gang tries so hard to pass the Bechdel Test that it overcompensates – there isn’t one male character in this film who isn’t cowardly, weak, corrupt or a rapist. As a male feminist, I’m not sure how to feel about this.

Then Chawla arrives at the half-hour mark, to break my heart and not do Gulaab Gang any favours while she's at it. From the moment Chawla comes on screen, the film starts to mistake shrillness for intensity and pompousness for gravitas. Put simply, it becomes a caricature of itself.

There are many actors who have been able to pull off roles no one would’ve expected them to, but Gulaab Gang, I’m sorry to say, has been no example of this for Chawla. As Sumitra Devi, Chawla’s idea of appearing menacing is to continuously arch her eyebrows and smile sardonically, like she's a mixture of Aamir Khan and Jack Nicholson. Occasionally, when her character does or witnesses something terrible, she does this weird lip-bite smile sort of thing as though aroused, reminding one of Famke Janssen from Goldeneye. She is not in her comfort zone and, unfortunately, it shows.

I would like the casting director to share some of the blame for this. Granted that the Madhuri Dixit-Juhi Chawla combination makes for an irresistible pairing, but there is something about her that just doesn’t suit this role. Perhaps it’s her voice, which has always been a little reedy. Or maybe it’s her smile, which doesn’t lend itself too well to sardonic lip-bite smiles.

By the time the end rolls around, the film has descended into chaos and is impossible to take seriously. Sincere efforts from the entire cast can’t save this well-intentioned venture from its own mediocrity. Meanwhile, I’m going to pretend that Juhi Chawla never did this film so as to keep the sanctity of my childhood crush intact.

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Updated Date: Mar 08, 2014 15:18:34 IST