Gulabi Gang Documentary Review Essay

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 DivyaJagdale 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

NEW DELHI — As the leader of the Gulabi Gang, a crusading women’s group in rural northern India, Sampat Pal is not one to back down from a fight, even if it means taking on a Bollywood star.

What has Ms. Pal, 51, angry these days is the movie “Gulaab Gang,” one of the major releases that herald the return of Madhuri Dixit, whose stardom was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It will open in Indian theaters on Friday, a day before International Women’s Day and two weeks after the Indian release of “Gulabi Gang,” a documentary about Ms. Pal’s women’s group.

Ms. Pal contends that the Bollywood movie has used her life story without giving her credit or compensation.

“I challenge Madhuri Dixit to show this movie on March 7 without my permission,” Ms. Pal bellowed during a phone interview.

The strong words directed by the real-time heroine at the reel-time heroine highlight the confusion surrounding these two similarly titled movies about groups of pink-clad, feisty women.

Ms. Pal is well known for, in 2006, starting the Gulabi Gang, also known as the Pink Gang for the color of their saris (in Hindi, gulabi means pink), to fight for women’s rights in patriarchal western Uttar Pradesh. For a lifetime fee of 300 rupees, or $5, members are given a pink sari blouse and a lathi, or stick, that is a symbol of the fear the group says it can drive into men’s hearts.

The group, which now has over 200,000 members, has been the subject of two documentaries: “Pink Saris,” directed by Kim Longinotto and released in 2010, and now “Gulabi Gang,” directed by Nishtha Jain. The latter chronicles Ms. Pal and her gang’s journey as they try to help women in Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh with the problems they face on a daily basis, be they ramifications from inadequate dowries or corrupt officials.

“Gulabi Gang,” which hit the festival circuit in 2012, began a limited theatrical release in India on Feb. 21, showing on 15 screens in metropolitan areas like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata for a week. It is still running in Mumbai, Kochi and Bangalore as Ms. Jain tries to get enough funds to put the documentary back on screens in the week following International Women’s Day.

Meanwhile, some moviegoers have been buying tickets for “Gulabi Gang” thinking they would see Ms. Dixit. In a Facebook post, Ms. Jain cited a letter from one viewer in Kochi, who described the audience’s confusion when Ms. Dixit and other stars did not appear on screen.

The director of the Bollywood movie, Soumik Sen, insisted that “Gulaab Gang” had nothing to do with the Gulabi Gang, either the real women’s group or the documentary.

“I draw my inspiration from another Bollywood flick, ‘Mirch Masala,’ ” he told India Ink. “My movie is about a rural woman, Rajjo, trying to fight her way into setting up a school in her village. It is about education and how women in rural India have to fight for it.”

He accused the producers of the documentary of riding on the coattails of his movie, the first he has directed, and Ms. Dixit’s fame. “So how do you create a buzz around a documentary?” he said. “It is the buzz created by Madhuri that is seeing the talk around the documentary. They timed the release such so that it preceded my movie.”

Ms. Jain confirmed that the release of her film before the Bollywood movie was indeed a conscious decision, but not for the reason that Mr. Sen cited.

“The only dates we got were two weeks before the ‘Gulaab Gang’ release, and I definitely wanted to go before them,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what the movie ‘Gulaab Gang’ would be about or what impression it would give of the real Gulabi Gang. In India, people do not differentiate between fiction and reality, and most people would have believed that the fiction film is about the real gang.”

She also said this incident was typical of “Bollywood’s sense of entitlement to steal, copy and misrepresent.”

“What is extremely shocking is the impunity with which they have taken the name Gulaab Gang, which is very similar to Gulabi Gang,” said Ms. Jain. “Recently, Madhuri Dixit said that their film is larger than life and has nothing to do with the real Gulabi Gang. The makers also said that Gulabi Gang is not the only women’s group in India. Then how come they use the name, that too without permission from Sampat and not bothering to meet her?”

Ms. Pal said she would fight to block the release of the Bollywood movie. “Tell that producer Anubhav Sinha that if he wants his movie to come to theaters on International Women’s Day, he needs to visit me personally,” she said. “He needs to give me a document with all the rules laid out clearly. I will give written permission.” (Two phone calls seeking comment from Mr. Sinha went unanswered.)

She was incensed by the idea that the film appeared to be profiting from her story. “The film will make tens of millions of rupees and he wants to give no credit to me?” Ms. Pal said. “I want a share of the profit. How can they just say that the film is not about me or inspired by my movement and work? The color pink is symbolic to our work.”

Mr. Sen said that he merely wanted to pay a tribute to all women, including Ms. Pal, with his movie. “It is a movie about the women who have strived to achieve what they have,” he said.

When asked why he chose the name “Gulaab Gang” for his movie, Mr. Sen, the director, quoted the lyrics of the Aerosmith song “Pink” — “Pink, it’s like red but not quite” – perhaps not realizing that while the song is a paean to a woman’s ability to hold sway over a man, it’s hardly an anthem for the women’s movement.

If Ms. Pal isn’t convinced by his arguments, he didn’t seem too worried. “If Sampat Pal does anything to stop the movie, there is always a legal system in this country and we will see what happens,” he said.


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