- In a conversation, Vashishtha explains how she was personally interested in writing the script of the film, a story of the underdog belonging to the invisible strata of society.
“Gangubai Kathiawadi” focuses on the infamous prostitute 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 an abominable one to an honorable 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, titled “Mafia Queens of Mumbai” (2011). Matriarch gives us a glimpse of the 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 she 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.
The strength of this woman is she does not give up and give in to her fate but, in the words of the director Bhansali, she confronts the world and says, “No, I have a voice, I have my rights.” One night, in this new business world, her client Seth asks her name. She replies, “Gangu.” What was she thinking? Her past was so sacred! Gangubai reluctantly started working as a prostitute. In a short time, she became the head of the brothel and took up the cause of the women. She was deeply concerned about gaining 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.
What is Special About Gangubai?
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 opening line, “I am a gharwali (a brothel madam), not a ghar todnewali (homewrecker). You look at our title as a stigma on womanhood, but this stigma has saved the virtue, integrity, and morality of thousands of women” and has helped check domestic violence.
“Men from your localities come here, but why are we immoral, but not them?” asks Gangubai in her speech at Azad Maidan. “We are victims, yet we are being punished. We have the right to education, health, and dignified life,” she argues.
To emphasize the critical roles of sex workers, she implored the audience saying, “you might think that we enjoy doing what we do. It is not easy for us. Most of us are forced to do this because we have families to look after. It shames me to learn that society looks down upon its protectors.” She compares the sex workers with the soldiers of the country: “Like the jawans who fight endlessly on the battlefield so that the citizens remain unharmed; we prostitutes, too, are fighting our own battles every day”.
Gangubai created milestones for prostitutes 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 of grandeur like “Devdas” (2002), “Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela” (2013), and “Bajirao Mastani” (2015), and “Padmaavat” (2018), all of them rank among the highest-grossing Indian films of all time. Bhansali has made women-focused films before. Film Critic Anupama Chopra says, “Think of Rani Mukerji as Gulab in “Saawariya” who says with a smile, ‘Jeene ke liye kuch na kuch toh karna hi padta hai.’ Or Chandramukhi in “Devdas.” In both films, the women as prostitutes are very thoughtful, sensitive, and intelligent but reconcile with their destiny and suffer.
A Conversation with Utkarshini Vashishtha
The beauty and strength of the film lie in the script by Bhansali and his Los Angeles-based co-writer Utkarshini Vashishtha.
Vashishtha is ecstatic about the success of the film. She is very thankful to Bhansali for allowing her to work with him on this feminist script. He uses Leela, his mother’s name, as part of his full name as an appreciation for his mother and grandmother. Bhansali is very conscious of his mother and grandmother’s sacrifices. He grew up in Mumbai, one lane away from Kamathipura, and held that world close to his heart. He uses the movie theater, café, the lanes with the movie posters, and his everyday experience of walking to his school through the lanes of Kamathipura. 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. Vashishtha says Bhansali gives his 180% to the making of this film.
Vashishtha has been personally interested in writing the script of Gangubai, a story of the underdog belonging to the invisible strata of society. In this film, however, the sex worker is the hero. Vashishtha 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 as the model to define womanhood.
For Vashishtha, the script was personally uplifting. She says women have this fantastic well of strength. She speaks from personal experience – she was raised by a single mother. At the age of 21, her mother, a victim of domestic violence, was pregnant with Vashishtha when she left her husband. As a schoolteacher, she raised her daughter, and all her life Vashishtha never has seen her crying. Vashishtha was raised by her grandmother, mother, and aunt in Meerut and then moved to Noida when her mother ran a school there. 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, the prostitutes bring their experiences of criminalization, rape, assault, intimate partner abuse, abortion, mental illness, drug use, and 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 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. 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.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.