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The strength of this woman is that she does not give up and give in to her fate. In the words of the director Bhansali, she confronts the world and says, “No, I have a voice, I have my rights.”
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest film Gangubai Kathiawadi focuses on the noted sex worker Gangubai played by Alia Bhatt, who lived in the 14th red-light district of Kamathipura, Mumbai, in the 1950s. She valiantly tried to change society’s attitude towards prostitution – from sex workers being considered subhuman to giving sex work the place of a profession.
The story is an adaptation of Hussain Zaidi’s The Matriarch of Kamathipura one of the eight stories of daring women who ruled Mumbai, from his book titled Mafia Queens of Mumbai (2011). Matriarch gives us a glimpse of sex worker Gangubai as a powerful woman — the mother to the community, and a political leader in the patriarchal society.
Gangubai was born Ganga Harjeevandas Kathiawadi in an educated professional family in Gujarat. They had some connection to the princely family in the state. Ganga’s father and brothers encouraged her to study, but she had her heart set on working in Hindi films. She had heard about the film world in Mumbai and had a big crush on actor Dev Anand.
When Ganga was 16, she met Ramnik Lal, 28, a new accountant for her father. She fell in love and was enticed by him to experience Mumbai after a secret marriage. She eloped with him to Mumbai; after a few blissful days of newly married life, her husband sold her to a brothel in Kamathipura for ₹500.
In the beginning, she could not believe her strange fate and resisted giving in to the shackles of the brothel, but she realized that she had no other choice as she was trapped in the sordid business. How could she have gone back home? She had already ‘shamed’ them by eloping and landing in the red-light district.
One night, in this new business world, her client Seth asks her name. She replies, “Gangu.” So Ganga became Gangubai.
Gangubai reluctantly started working as a sex worker. In a short time, she became the head of the brothel and took up the cause of the women. She was deeply concerned about getting respect for the sex workers and their well-being. She made friends with the underworld don Karim Lala played by Ajay Devgan, who became her rakhi brother. Eventually, she earned a reputation as a shrewd businesswoman, a brothel madam, and a community leader elected as ‘bade gharwali’ (in charge of the whole red-light district).
During this time, Gangubai was working on various issues of orphans, deserted women, children out of wedlock, and the well-being of women in prostitution. Based on her own experience, Gangubai counseled and sent back many young women who had fled their homes for working in films and landed in prostitution.
Gangubai’s story unfolds as she becomes the matriarch to a group of sex workers who nurture and protect her and with whom she shares daily doses of cruelty, pain, and humiliation but also of solidarity and joy. She became a mother icon in the brothels around the country.
Instead of looking at prostitutes as victims, she openly advocated the need for prostitution as a legal profession. Her speech at a women’s meeting in Azad Maidan in support of the girl child and empowerment of women sent waves all over the country. The swelling audience was stunned to hear her speech. “I am a gharwali (a brothel madam), not a ghar todnewali (homewrecker)…. Men from your localities come here, but why are we immoral, but not them?” asks Gangubai in her speech. “We are victims, yet we are being punished. We have the right to education, health, and dignified life,” she argues.
Gangubai created milestones for sex workers locally and nationally. She vehemently opposed the relocation of the sex workers colony in Kamthipura to give protection to a convent girls’ school in the neighborhood. She presented this case to the then Prime Minister Nehru and proposed to legalize prostitution. Nehru was stunned. Consequently, the brothel was not relocated. Gangubai came out as the winner.
The film is directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, known for films shot on a grand scale, and has made many women-focused films. He grew up in Mumbai, one lane away from Kamathipura, and held that world close to his heart. These are streets lined with old-world movie theaters and colorful hoardings; we see a hoarding advertising Jahazi Lootera, produced by Bhansali’s father, Navin Bhansali. The bright lights of these old-time theaters, with names like Alfred and Roshan Talkies, remind us of post-British Mumbai, with the cinema halls, cafes, and theater houses full of nostalgia.
In the script, Bhansali uses the movie theater, the café, the lanes with the movie posters, and his everyday experience of walking to his school through the lanes of Kamathipura.
Los Angeles based Utkarshini Vashishtha co-wrote the script of the film with Bhansali, a story of the underdog belonging to the invisible strata of society. In this film, however, the sex worker is the hero. She says that she especially enjoyed writing the script for Gangubai’s speech at the Azad Maidan. The country had just become independent, still dealing with the Victorian notion of a good woman — chaste, pure, and happily married. Prostitution was considered immoral; even the British suffragists engaging in anti-prostitution work ‘on behalf of women’ in colonized India made the case that British women’s enfranchisement would ‘purify the impersonal nation-state.’ India followed the British model in defining womanhood.
Vashishtha, who was raised by a single mother, along with her grandmother and aunt, swears by the strength of these women. At the age of 21, her mother, a victim of domestic violence, was pregnant with Vashishtha when she left her husband, and worked as a schoolteacher in Meerut to provide for themselves, and then moved to Noida where she ran her own school. Being brought up by strong women, she could relate to Gangubai.
Gangubai’s story as a sex worker resonated with the 2018 book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, written by two sex workers, Molly Smith and Juno Mac.
In this rare book, they bring their experiences of criminalization, rape, assault, intimate partner abuse, abortion, mental illness, drug use, and the violence they experience in their organizing and writing. The authors say, “We bring the knowledge we have developed through our deep immersion in sex worker organizing spaces — spaces of mutual aid, spaces working towards collective liberation.”
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, there are over 20 million sex workers in India. Prostitution is legal in the country, but organized activities such as solicitation, brothels, and trafficking are illegal. Despite the restrictions present, prostitution law enforcement is scarce and unregulated. In their book, Smith and Mac write that “In 1997, 4,000 sex workers made history with the first national conference of sex workers in India, organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). In 2001, their number rose to 25,000 who came to Kolkata to make their demands known, with signs proclaiming: We want bread. We also want roses.
In 2016, the Times of India reported that Kabita Roy, an activist with India’s sex worker trade union, was murdered in the Union’s office in Kolkata. An estimated 16 million of the 20 million commercial prostitutes are victims of human trafficking, there are over 200,000 brothels in the country, and the sex industry in India is valued at $8.2 billion. Prostitutes themselves receive little to no legal protection and suffer from significant health crises such as HIV/AIDS and, more recently, Covid-19.
In some circles, the film is criticized as insensitive to women’s desires and consent, especially in one scene. In one scene, A very romantic song Meri Jaan depicts a scene in which Gangubai (played by Alia Bhatt) romances her lover, Afshan (played by Shantanu Maheshwari), in the backseat of a car. She starts teasing him and pushing him away whenever he comes too close to her. When he is aroused, he grabs her and imposes himself on her. Gangubai resists, and when he does not stop, she slaps him. He realizes his mistake and hides his face in shame. She softens, holds his hand, hugs him, and places his hand on her head and the song ends with him affectionately stroking her hair. For many women, it is problematic to see a man being so aggressive. The film may be giving a wrong message about a woman’s consent to sex.
When I asked Vashishtha about this scene, she said, “Gangubai wants to be loved more than desired. The man did not touch her with affection.” I agree. Bollywood films are still in the grip of patriarchy, and women’s consent in sex is still a novel phenomenon. But times are changing.
I realize Bollywood is picking up stories of women, especially the subaltern ones, and letting them speak. It is time that we listen to these women.
First published here.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...
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