Rape. Domestic violence. Dowry deaths. These are some of the main problems facing women in many cities and villages of India today. Even educated women fall victim to these crimes and are often blamed for them (victim-blaming) because of the patriarchal nature of (Indian) society.
Enter Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit). A woman who started an ashram/shelter for other women who have experienced these issues (rape, violence, etc.) or want to become more educated and fight for a cause. As someone who was abused by her step-mother at a young age, Rajjo is a true leader, one who is passionate about educating and empowering young girls. As a foil to Rajjo, we have Sumitra Devi (Juhi Chawla), a corrupt and vicious politician who only cares about politics, her ego, and her reputation. A widow who allegedly murdered her husband for insurance, Sumitra Devi is a powerful and witty woman who will go to any lengths to secure her power as a leader.
This entire film was filled with images and metaphors about gender roles and the status of women in Indian society. Looking from a more Hindu devotional standpoint, the connection between Rajjo and Kali is inherent and clearly emphasized by the director (Soumik Sen) in posters of Gulaab Gang (see image below), as well as in specific fight sequences where Rajjo emerges from behind a car, wielding an axe in her hand in order to attack her opponent. Another motif in the film presents itself through the following dialogue, which is repeated by Rajjo multiple times:
“Paani milega? Gala sookha hai…” (Can I have some water? My throat is parched).
Considering the overall message and purpose behind creating this film, this dialogue is a metaphor for Rajjo’s soul being parched for justice for the girls in her village. This further expresses her desire to provide them with equal opportunities and (most importantly) education.
The acting by Madhuri, Juhi, and Huma Qureshi, who played a resort-to-violence, loyal fighter in Rajjo’s gang, was absolutely phenomenal, and each actor became completely immersed in her role. In addition to Madhuri and Huma, the other actresses who played leading roles in the gang must be applauded for (allegedly) doing their own stunt scenes in the film. With regards to the portrayal of the women in Rajjo’s ashram, they were depicted not only as strong and aggressive, but also as women who wish to express themselves through song, dance, and normal “girl talk”. In this sense, Soumik Sen did a fine job contrasting the women’s aggression and violence (when solving problems) with their innate humanness in other scenes. The humanness and femininity were also reflected through Saroj Khan’s raw and rural choreography, which accurately depicted the dancing styles of village women. Needless to say, Madhuri carried off the realistic choreography very well by mixing its rural essence with her grace and poise as a dancer.
Despite the empowering representations of women in the movie, one of the negative aspects of the characterization and scripting is that there was not one kind, good-hearted male in the entire plot (aside from the village chief, whose role was not very prominent). In other words, all the men in the film were portrayed as rapists, potential rapists, or corrupt politicians and policemen. That being said, it must be taken into account that Soumik Sen probably made this choice to purposefully highlight the negativity of the situation of women in this village. In the process, however, the portrayal of women seemed to epitomize or represent many of the false stereotypes that people have about feminists (i.e. man-hating, bra-burning, violent, aggressive women). Although Sen depicted Rajjo and her gang as women with a purpose – to gain empowerment for all and to build a school for girls – he may have gone a bit too far by indirectly employing reverse sexism against men. This also presents a rather bleak view of society; nevertheless, it’s understandable that Sen wanted to present one of the worst possible situations and juxtapose it with Rajjo saving the day to make her seem as empowering as possible (so much so that she begins to attain a godly or divine status, particularly with the Kali imagery surrounding her character already).
Another issue with the film concerns the way in which it was directed and possibly marketed. Even though it was a very female empowering film, unfortunately only women who are already empowered (i.e. feminists and other individuals who are already aware of and agree with the message of the film) will watch it. The film does not cater to the “mass audiences” because it was quite “hatke” (unique) in its presentation and marketing. Plus, the team had to face quite a few issues regarding censorship of the movie, certain theaters in India not releasing it, etc. Those who need to understand and absorb the message may not have seen the movie. If they did, then hopefully they did get the message, which is that society needs to change its mindsets and views about perceptions of and ways to behave with and treat women. Empower women and you’ll empower a whole nation.
Final Verdict: If you’re a feminist, see this movie. If you’re not a feminist, definitely see this movie. Truly eye-opening indeed!
Note: This film is NOT based on Sampat Pal’s real Gulaabi Gang and is not recommended for children due to the excessive amount of violence, smoking, and alcohol shown.