To begin, let’s recontextualise a scene from the 1993 hit Darr. Kiran Awasthi (Juhi Chawla) runs haywire trying to find the source of a voice she doesn’t recognise, singing ‘Tu haan kar ya na kar, tu hai meri Kiran’- which in itself is unrealistic. Thankfully, Shah Rukh’s character (the mysterious singer) is the film’s villain. However, the song features on several playlists titled ‘Romantic tracks from the 80s and 90s’. That should give you a basic idea of how we understand the concept of consent.
Over the years, with films like Pink, Bollywood has been taking (extremely dragged out) baby steps towards portraying consent and female sexuality sensitively. On that note, let’s talk about the films Utsav and Gangubai Kathiawadi– and how films about sex workers navigated conversations about consent.
Gangubai Kathiawadi, starring Alia Bhatt, is based on a chapter in Hussain Zaidi’s ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’. Gangubai (from Ganga and Gangu) was trafficked into sex work at a young age. While the movie follows her journey to becoming the matriarch of Kamathipura, rife with power struggles, it also brings up several points about consent.
The most prominent one is Gangubai’s relationship with Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari). The song ‘Meri Jaan’ is picturised on the duo while they woo each other and a scene in the cab shows how Gangubai leads him and he follows, a delicate tango. Not only does he look towards her for affirmation when he tries to hold her hand, he also stops advancing towards her the second she changes her lead.
Eventually, Afsaan crosses the line and Gangubai pushes him away– there is a lot to explore in this scene alone– how implied consent isn’t consent, how consent can (and is sometimes) withdrawn at any point by either partner, how Gangubai isn’t necessarily looking for a purely physical relationship, maybe it’s the trauma that follows her brutal assault by one of Karim Lala’s (Ajay Devgn) men.
The song in itself is melodious and sensual but the power dynamic is balanced between the two, both treating each other with admiration and mutual respect. Gangu’s scenes with Afsaan explore her romantic and sensual side but she isn’t sexualised. The gaze remains firmly on their relationship and interaction instead of being focused on Alia.
A parallel relationship is that of Vasantsena (Rekha) and Charudutt (Shekhar Suman) in Utsav. For a film that released in 1984, Girish Karnad’s screenplay surprisingly (and a pleasant surprise at that) places Rekha’s character Vasantsena, a madame, in the forefront.
The film makes it obvious that it is set in a time when sex work was a respected profession– at one point, the entire town waits with bated breath for Vasantsena’s chariot to pass.
Vasantsena’s relationship with Charudutt doesn’t adhere to a strict moral code– the latter is married– but the film gives Vasantsena the reins when it comes to intimacy. The first time they meet, similar to ‘Meri Jaan’, Vasantsena guides Charudutt and this is how the equation remains.
Like with Karim’s gang member (who he gets rid of to avenge Gangu) in Gangubai, Shashi Kapoor plays Samsthanak, a man who stalks Vasantsena, claiming to ‘love’ her. Samsthanak could use a lesson or two in how consent derived from coercion isn’t consent either.
Trolls on social media often use hyperbole to derail conversations surrounding consent- ‘Ab har baar form bharvana padega kya?’ Conversations like those mentioned above show that consent is all about asking and listening– and respecting your partners’ boundaries.
The majority of the depiction of sex workers in Hindi cinema has been anything but nuanced. Sex workers are either depicted as extremely sexual beings with no other depth of character or given 3-minute dance sequences, sometimes picturised in brothels and/or surrounded by men (see, Fevicol Se, Ghagra, or Jumma Chumma De De).
Utsav focuses majorly on Vasantsena’s relationship with Charudutt and his wife Aditi (Anuradha Patel) and it has its flaws– all Vasantsena and Aditi do is talk about Charudutt, the character of Vatsayana who is writing the ‘Kama Sutra’ fluctuates between voyeurism and a little creepy, and the ending ruins the entire point of the film.
Gangubai Kathiawadi takes it a step further since it focuses on Gangu’s rise and her struggle. How far is (non) fiction from reality? One can only guess. But the way the story is told shows the audience how people assume the life of sex worker is limited to her profession– either because that’s all they choose to see or they choose to ignore the harsh reality of sex workers existing in a world seeped in misogyny and gender-based violence.
The most powerful scene, in my opinion, in Gangubai Kathiawadi, is when Gangu takes all her friends to the cinema and a man catcalls and harasses her. She hits back at him and asks, “Can’t we even take one day off in peace?”
The idea of a sex worker (or any woman who doesn’t fit the tag of society’s ‘perfect woman’) propagated by cinema reduces them to just their sexuality, stripping the characters of both agency and choice. We can say that films don’t affect real life till the cows come home but the truth remains that all content affects viewers and shapes perception if not actions.