When international media outlets report of new horrors inflicted upon Indian women on a seemingly daily basis, there’s a need for inspiring films to provide relief. Gulaab Gang‘s tale of female empowerment has its heart in the right place but isn’t introspective enough to leave a lasting mark.
Inspired by the real-life Gulaabi Gang of activists in Uttar Pradesh, Gulaab Gang follows the exploits of a fictional gang of female vigilantes, lead by Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit). A sequence at the start of the film — inexplicably voiced-over by a man instead of a woman — explains that Rajjo turned to activism when she was denied an education as a girl. This is as much insight into any of the characters as the movie provides.
In addition to admonishing abusive husbands, the dozens of members of the Gulaab Gang fix problems in the village when corrupt bureaucrats or out-numbered policemen won’t. Landlord cut off your electricity? Boss won’t pay your wages? The Gulaab Gang will fix it!
The gang is also responsible for educating the youth of the village. Rajjo repeatedly states that she wants to build a school for the village, but doesn’t her compound already serve that purpose? It’s never made clear why a new school building is important enough that it can be used to blackmail Rajjo.
The movie fails to identify some of the key characters. Rajjo has two young lieutenants, and one of them — a woman with a nose ring played by Priyanka Bose — is never named, as far as I could tell. The other, Mahi (Divya Jagdale), is only named in the last thirty minutes of the film.
The last thirty minutes are relentlessly depressing for Rajjo and her crew. Rajjo’s arch-nemesis — a politician named Sumitra Devi (Juhi Chawla, whose smugness evokes Manoj Bajpayee in similar roles) — goes beyond trying to discredit Rajjo to advocating for the murder of the whole gang.
Gulaab Gang builds such an air of hopelessness in its final act that the resolution feels abrupt and inadequate. A dance number before the climactic battle doesn’t help.
Where the movie excels is in building a case that women can carry action movies. The fight sequences are more realistic than most Bollywood rural action flicks — no one flies twenty feet into the air after taking a punch — but are just as satisfying.
The best moment in the Soumik Sen-directed film involves a chilling act of violence committed by the gang against a rapist who’s gone for a swim. As they carry the man into his father’s house and deposit him on a couch, Mahi says with an exhausted air, “We had a hard time getting him out of the water.” The camera cuts to a floor-level shot of empty pant-legs dangling as a gang member sets a pair of sandals beneath them, where feet should be.
The problem with the violence in Gulaab Gang is that its implications are never fully explored. A reporter asks Rajjo why her gang often resorts to violence — admittedly as a second option after peaceful means fail — and Rajjo responds in essence, “Because it works.” There’s no reason why women can’t be as violent as men, but an examination of how the gang sees their actions as different would have been interesting.
Another tendency that deserves more attention is the gang’s habit — Sumitra Devi is even worse about this — of humiliating men, even when they can meet their goals without doing so. When in a position of power, the women are just as apt to target their opponent’s gender-specific weaknesses as the men are in the same position.
Gulaab Gang‘s story needed more nuance to be truly considered a game changer. Still, it’s nice to see a Bollywood action film that doesn’t center around the heroics of a one-man army for a change.