Gulaab Gang (Pink Gang): Film Review

A pair of Indian '80s screen divas deliver the action in feminist potboiler.

Just in time for International Women’s Day, a real-life women’s rights activist is given a fictionalized musical Bollywood treatment.

Sampat Pal Devi, India’s real-life feminist activist known for her hot pink saris, unsuccessfully sued to prevent the Mar. 7 release of Gulaab Gang (Pink Gang), saying the filmmakers did not get her approval. But not to worry — this highly dramatized account keeps its story clearly within the realm of fiction, and writer-director Soumik Sen has nothing to apologize for.

By putting a potboiler spin on his version of her story, and by casting two of India’s best-loved 1980s divas, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, as ruthless political rivals, Sen has whipped up a moving film graced with energy and passion.

Now, it remains to be seen if Cate Blanchett was right in suggesting there’s a lucrative market in woman-centric films like this one. Gulaab Gang certainly deserves a warm reception, and sentimental overseas Indian audiences should revel in the chance to spend three hours in the company of two of India’s most graceful, charismatic actresses of a certain age as they battle memorably onscreen. But Sen's unconventional approach may put off traditional Bollywood audiences.

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Rajjo (Dixit) rules over a tiny but egalitarian sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, amid a rural setting marked by caste discrimination, dowry demands and female illiteracy. Her followers don homespun hot pink saris and carry lathis (sticks) when they mete out justice to deserving cads, from greedy local politicians to brutish husbands.

When a rising politician known as Madam (Chawla) decides to exploit Rajjo’s influence to further her own ambitions, the two women become bitter, and even violent, rivals.

Sen can be forgiven for allowing Dixit a bit of glamour amid the dust, though he’s more demanding of Chawla, who grabs onto the role of Madam, imbuing her with a swagger even as she speaks in a soft, girlish voice (Chawla has a role opposite Helen Mirren and Om Puri in Lasse Hallstrom’s upcoming The Hundred-Foot Journey).

It’s tremendous fun watching Dixit and Chawla in their roles; just as much fun are the performances by Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane), Priyanka Bose and Divya Jagdale as Rajjo’s enthusiastic supporters. Sen has also composed music for the film, and even sung its rousing closing song, “Tere Jai Ho.”

Sampat Pal Devi has been profiled in two documentaries: Kim Longinotto’s 2010 Pink Saris and Nishtha Jain’s award-winning 2012 film Gulabi Gang. This is no arty festival film — where Gulaab Gang succeeds is in its total embrace of the Bollywood style, with all its music and deliberate artifice. The characters here sing and dance, and the ones who die go out in a blaze of bright red fake blood. It wouldn’t be as exciting any other way.

Opened: Mar. 7, 2014

Production company: Benaras Media Works

Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Priyanka Bose, Divya Jagdale,

Director: Soumik Sen

Screenwriters: Soumik Sen, Amitosh Nagpal

Producer: Anubhav Sinha

Executive producer: Rhea Naidu

Director of photography: Alphonse Roy

Costume designer: Eka Lakhani

Music: Soumik Sen, John E. Stewart

Sound designer: Resul Pukootty

Production designer: Subrata Chakraborty, Amit Roy

Choreographer: Saroj Khan

Editor: Cheragh Todiwala

Unrated, 139 minutes

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