'Gangubai Kathiawadi' & The Changing Face of a Hindi Film Sex Worker

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film.

8 min read
Hindi Female

In the second half of Gangubai Kathiawadi, its titular protagonist (Alia Bhatt), who manages Kamathipura’s brothels, goes to meet the school authorities who have been protesting against her brothel and the sex-workers, to make a truce. As Amin Faizi (Jim Sarbh) introduces himself as a journalist, Gangubai doesn’t miss a beat as she smilingly says, “Me Prostitute… Gangubai.”

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film.

Alia Bhatt in a still from Gangubai Kathiawadi.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

This is one of the funniest moments of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s career, and yet also subtly does something which the celebrated filmmaker isn’t particularly known for - taking a stand on a social issue. At a time when the audience began demanding more earthy stories, Bhansali continued to create outlandish, larger-than-life universes with films like Devdas, Ram-Leela, and Bajirao Mastani, fuelled by the logic of their own. Guzaarish was the closest he came to advocating a moral stand.

However, with Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film that, while hitting all the emotional notes right, also makes a much-needed point about a subject that has been long ignored in our cinema - the destigmatisation of sex-workers.

Over the years, the concept of prostitution has found ample place in Hindi film narratives, but rarely in a way where its existence is not looked down upon. When not using a sex worker's character to highlight the moral downfall of a protagonist (a male one, needless to say), the figure has often been a symbol of depravity and exploitation in its highest form. When a sex-worker appears on screen, we know either our characters are going through dark times, or the film itself is going to be a sad, tragic tale from that point on.

In Sadak (1991) was one of the most successful films of its times, Ravi (Sanjay Dutt), a vagabond taxi driver, takes it upon himself to rescue Pooja (Pooja Bhatt), a young girl forced into prostitution by Maharani (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a transgender madame who has repeatedly manipulated Pooja into staying with her. This is the usual template under which most sex-worker portrayals have found themselves confined to. What’s wrong with that, one might wonder, especially considering how the real world of sex work is equally brimming with these elements.

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film.

Sanjay Dutt and Pooja Bhatt in Sadak.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

It’s a slippery slope frankly because eventually, films are a reflection of society, and the fact remains that due to the legal complexities around prostitution in India, it is often carried out via human trafficking, other illegal means - and mostly through coercion. However, the problem with Hindi film portrayals of sex-work is the heavy cloud of judgement it comes with, showing our mainstream filmmakers haven’t succeeded in looking at them beyond a lens of pity. A sex-worker’s sole conflict is to get rid of the exploitative demons of their life, nothing more – we have rarely seen a sex-worker who is anything beyond a victim.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is not adequately accurate to its source material 'Mafia Queens of Mumbai' (which talked about the real Gangubai’s vast net of crimes that included extortion and killing) and yet, it provides us a much-needed Messiah-like figure who stands for her girls and speaks about issues that haven’t been heard about in our mainstream cinema. Hence, I choose to see it as a larger-than-life fiction drama, instead of a flawed biography.

This film stands out as a story because it addresses the binaries of the life of prostitution. Is the actual world of prostitution is overwhelmed with exploitation? Yes. Does it make their professional any lesser valid? No. Can the sex-workers still demand a life of dignity and respect? Yes, a thousand times, yes.

It has been hard for mainstream society as well as filmmakers to imagine a world where sex-workers, despite all their adversities, could be okay with their life, with the overarching desire to show them as creatures who need to be rescued or assimilated into the mainstream in order to be ‘respectable,’ for their profession can never give them that. The projection has been that of shame and guilt which is seemingly inseparable from the profession, and the people who pursue this line of work shall always be consumed by these feelings, no matter how much the ‘good guys’ of the society try to reform them. B.R.Ishara, the agent provocateur of the 70s, made several films that challenged our ideas of sexual morality, one of which was Chetna (1970) where Seema (Rehana Sultan) moonlights as a sex worker but avoids any human connection otherwise. She meets Anil (Prem Dhawan) who initially detests her but goes on to marry her and love her with great devotion. And yet, the woman fails to overcome the guilt of being a sex worker and dies by suicide.

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film.

Rani Mukerji and Konkona Sen Sharma in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag.

The idea of sex-work being treated like any other work or profession has been an anomaly in itself, struggling to find acceptance both in movies and real life. On one hand there are films like Aaina (1977) and Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007) where women resort to sex–work when situations turn really adverse while continuing to remain ashamed of their work and occupy an inferior space, nearly begging to be granted a minuscule space in the society.

The forced illegitimacy thrust upon a prostitute’s existence is poignantly explored in Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012). While essentially a thriller, It also explores the theme of our collective hypocrisy about sex-work - by putting two deaths at the center, showing us how differently they are treated by the whole system merely because one of them is a prostitute, and hence presumably a lesser mortal.

The world of prostitution being largely shown as a hellish abnormal space from which there is no return, most of the on-screen sex-workers have yearned to have a ‘normal’ - in other words, that of a married woman. Most Hindi films of the yore felt the need to ‘reform’ the prostitutes by getting them married.

In Deewaar (1975), we are introduced to Anita (Parveen Babi) as a swaggy self-confident escort who gets in a relationship with Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan.) In one of the most brazen visuals of the 70s mainstream, we see Anita and Vijay sharing a post-coital smoke. However, the relationship doesn’t remain purely carnal, and once Vijay and she connect on an emotional level, Anita talks about her past, the red saree she has inherited from her mother, and how she has always yearned to be a bride. And yet, keeping in sync with the conservatism of those times, the prostitute is not allowed to be a bride, and Anita is bumped off by Vijay’s enemies before they set off to kill Vijay. By these standards, B.R.Chopra’s Sadhana (1958) took a far more progressive stand, culminating with the hero and his mother accepting Rajani (Vyajayanthimala) as the daughter-in-law after seeing her dedication and desire to abstain from prostitution. However, this happens only after Rajani becomes a Krishna-devotee of sorts, moving completely to another end of the spectrum, showing a clear disrespect towards her past - while the film’s hero Mohan is never questioned about his hypocrisy; he is merely allowed to have a transformation and move on.

With Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali achieves the improbable feat of making a beautiful melodramatic film.

A still from Gangubai Kathiawadi.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Gangubai as a protagonist also stands out because of her robust resistance to social boycott and a dominant assertion for her right to live dignity and respect. By and large, we have seen characters who long for a place in society, but rarely with any sense of self-assurance - the popular cinema’s love for fantasy and larger-than-life stories has somehow hardly been visible in how it approaches the stories of sex-workers, where the focus stays on showing the problems about it, but rarely the solutions.

A subtle critique arrives in a film like Chameli (2004), where the paths cross of two people belonging to different strata - Aman (Rahul Bose) gets stuck on a rainy Bombay night with Chameli (Kareena Kapoor), a sex-worker from Kamathipura who has learned to make peace with her life and hides her real stories of exploitations behind fake sob stories. And yet, Chameli’s bittersweet interactions with Aman about his disconnect from the real city act as a comment on the stigma around a sex-worker and the world she belongs to. Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983) is another fascinating film set in this universe. In the first few reels, we see Rukmani Bai (Shabana Azmi) being in complete control of her brothel as well as the various bureaucrats she is dealing with, everyone from a social worker who is hellbent on throwing them out to a local municipal head who wants the land their brothel is built upon.

Having said that, on–screen sex-workers have picked their occasional battles, like in Lakshmi (2014), where Nagesh Kukunoor tells a real story of a minor girl who is first coerced into prostitution and eventually decides to file a case and testify against the brothel-owning brothers.

Anurag Kashyap’s DevD (2009) gave a progressive spin to the prostitute figure in Chanda (Kalki Koechlin). Chanda finds herself in Paharganj working as a prostitute, but that doesn’t stop her from the idea of leading a life like any other. She joins a college to pursue her education, despite the ugly stares she meets at her college or the eventual resistance from her pimp Chunni when she begins to refuse work in order to be with Dev (Abhay Deol).

Amidst all the struggles and taboos the sex-workers have been shown to tackle, there came a film like Queen (2014) that beautifully captured the dignity of a sex-worker Roxy in Amsterdam’s red-light district who nonchalantly tells the film’s protagonist Rani (Kangana Ranaut) that if it helps her take care of her family, it doesn’t matter what job it is. It’s a rare Hindi film moment where we are not asked to offer any sympathy or outrage upon a prostitute’s choices - she is doing a job like anyone else, and that’s all there is to it.

A special mention here must be made of Shammi Kapoor’s directorial debut Manoranjan (1974). Though heavily inspired by Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce, Manoranjan is a rare Hindi film that dignifies the life of an escort Nisha (Zeenat Aman), who has zero qualms about earning her living as a sex-worker. She has no poor family to feed, no younger sister to send college to - Nisha does the work because she is aware that the problem lies with society’s double standards about sex-work, not her field of work.

It took another 48 years for popular Hindi cinema to give us a sex-worker protagonist who is not ashamed of her work, her life, and has the guts to tell the world so - in very clear words. A film like Gangubai Kathiawadi takes this important conversation forward, and we can just hope that the film’s success reflects in how our films choose to portray the oldest profession in the world.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Alia Bhatt   Sanjay Leela Bhansali   Sadak 

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