When we sat down to watch Gangubai Kathiawadi, we weren’t sure what the movie would entail. A mainstream ‘feminist’ Bollywood movie, and a Sanjayleela Bhansali production at that — was it going to live up to the acclaim that we had heard?
Ganugbai, starring Alia Bhatt as the titular character, follows the life of Gangubai Kathiawadi who is deceived and trafficked to a brothel in Kamathipura as a young girl, where she later rises to power and prominence. The movie is loosely based on a chapter from S. Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai that documents the real-life story of Gangubai Harijivandas, popularly known as Gangubau Kothewali.
The movie opens with a rather traumatizing sequence of a young girl being decorated and embellished. And this remains a theme throughout: a glamorization of sorts of the various forms of trauma these women, cis and trans, face after being forced into the sex trade. The dramatization of this trauma is the major shock factor of the movie. The movie constantly insists on this dramatization and glamorization of the very real plight of communities in Kamathipura, and as feminists, you can not feel anything but uncomfortable at the ease with which this portrayal finds its way onto the big screen. Could this story be told without an unabashed portrayal of triggering sequences of sexual violence and assault? What would happen if it were — would audiences feel as strongly, perhaps empathetic toward Gangubai as they do now? For a movie that insists on the validity of sex work as work, it fails to sufficiently engage with the idea of agency; most, if not all women of Kamathipura, are presented as victims of trafficking and deception with little to no agency of their own. Sex work as a site of constant coercion and no agency remains one of the tropes, without further clarification.
This conceptualization of sex workers as victims, first and foremost, is the basis for the emotional attachment audiences feel to the characters on screen. And while we are not arguing that sex workers do not face some of the more grotesque forms of patriarchal violence and the brunt of neglect by state and society alike, it is still important to look at the extent to which the trope of a tragic backstory is needed to “humanize” sex workers on screen.
The movie does bring to light a range of issues faced by sex workers, such as violence and unsafe working conditions, failure of the state to offer them support and protection, and systemic discrimination against their children among others. In India’s social climate where sex work, despite being widely practiced and remaining one of the largest commercial industries
, is heavily antagonized and stigmatized, this movie is bound to serve as a conversation starter about the topic. As a popular production and especially with Bhatt, one of the country’s most popular actresses, taking up the lead role as a sex worker, it can perhaps help influence the audience to at least engage with the content. Will Gangubai serve as a normalizing force to these otherwise taboo conversations?
The movie’s clear insistence on affirming sex work as valid work, on sex workers’ rights, and on engaging with notions of ‘honor’, is a powerful achievement for it makes this kind of discourse at least somewhat legible within the mainstream. Yet, many of the other, harder-to-discuss topics concerning sex workers remain neglected — from discussions of sexual health to the forced poverty and deprivation facing sex workers in red-light districts, to reflecting on the power dynamics of pimps and their patrons, the movie fails to bring more complex issues to light. While it does attempt to complicate the binary between sex work and forced prostitution, other than a few traumatic sequences that clearly say that the women of Gangubai’s kotha do not choose to be there, the movie moves ahead.
While it does a good job of highlighting all the ways the people of Kamathipura fight for their agency and voice — as opposed to portraying them as passive and powerless victims it can, at times, go too far in romanticizing their experiences. With dialogues that center around concepts of pride and empowerment without simultaneously highlighting the trauma, violence and despair that underlie their experiences, it far too simplistically assumes a binary between either coercion or empowerment that sex workers experience in their work. In doing so, it erases the nuances of these women reclaiming their identities while being afflicted within them. Bhansali productions are always glamorous, and to glamourize and make digestible this particular story, much of the nuance and complexity of the main character and the kind of context she lives in go amiss.
The movie also fails to accurately represent the sex worker demographic in India as well as the broader South Asian region. Despite transgender individuals comprising a large percentage of sex workers in India
, the movie largely limits itself to the representation of cis-passing women. By extension, it does not delve into many of the unique lived experiences of trans women in the industry. Transwomen often face disproportionately harsher realities than their cis counterparts — they suffer from higher degrees of mistreatment and violence, face higher rates of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) and are conferred far less protection from the legal system
. More disappointingly, the only visible trans presence in the movie is Razia Bai, Gangu’s powerful rival in Kamathipura. Razia Bai, while admittedly commendable, strong-willed and glamorous, is portrayed as a villainous character who thrives by maintaining the exploitative status-quo in Kamathipura and subjecting the women to unethical working conditions. An already marginalized character and constituency is further vilified with this portrayal. Even worse, the role is played by Vijay Raaz, a cis-gendered man.
The movie, generally, makes it a point to not be empathetic to those who oppose the titular character in any way; from the madam of the brothel Gangubai is trafficked into to Razia Bai, a truly feminist movie would have strived to humanize all of the characters that took up space on the screen. In the end, the movie is and remains a Bhansali production, where the light is on the main lead with no grace and space for the supporting characters.
All that aside, Gangubai is a truly captivating character, and Bhatt does justice in her portrayal of her — she is clever, empathetic, conflicted, ambitious, sarcastic, sometimes vain and always a bit whiny and has a penchant for hard-hitting, candid, teary public speeches. Bhatt takes you along the rollercoaster; you feel the highs at all of Gangu’s wins, in all her moments of joy, and you feel the lows at her despair at being betrayed, her loneliness as she climbs to the top. You cheer her on as the rest of the women of her kotha do, and later, just as the audiences to her speeches do. And all the men in Gangu’s life are mostly replaceable, she’s self-sufficient and while her unsuccessful quests for love leave her heartbroken, as the audience, we were truly grateful for the lack of time and space allotted to male presence on screen.
The solidarity between the women at the kotha, barring the villainous portrayal of the ever-evil madam, is another thing to commend. The women come together to fight for a better future for themselves, and even though the movie does not necessarily portray it as such, are the village behind Gangu as she razes through the patriarchy and greed of the world they live in. They hold her up at all the moments she needs them to, show her tough love when she is going astray, and stand by her in her joy and her grief, too.
It is also highly problematic that the movie was made without any input from real-life sex workers. Although it is a common practice for Bollywood biographical film (or biopic) directors and actors to work closely with real-life subjects for greater accuracy, Gangubai remained an exception. In fact, Alia Bhatt responded to rumors
of her having met real-life sex workers by denying the claim and instead stated to have “read and watched documentaries based on sex workers’ life to understand their situations” — as if that would even come close to revealing the nuances of their lived realities. For a movie that is all about granting voice to sex workers on screen, it takes away their voice in reality — marginalizing the very people it centers around on screen.
Huma Umar is Managing Editor. Arya Gautam is a contributing writer. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.