Gangubai Kathiawadi: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sexless ode to sex workers’ workers their struggle and spirit

In the many interviews that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali gave in the run-up to his latest movie Gangubai Kathiawadi, he invariably ended up repeating the same stories. He’d tell women about not having paint on the walls of his childhood home, a life experience that inspired him to create the most extravagantly vibrant sets for his films. He’d talk about his star, Alia Bhatt, and how he hasn’t met anybody as talented as her. But one story stood out. Bhansali said that as a child growing up in the Bhuleshwar area of ​​Mumbai, he was always within walking distance of the city’s red light district, Kamathipura.

And that’s where the episodically structured Gangubai Kathiawadi, which dramatises the life of the brothel madame-turned-activist, is set. Now available to stream on Netflix after a successful theatrical run, the film often resembles a child’s view of a very harsh world. Bhansali’s sensibilities have always been old-fashioned, regardless of the challenging subject matter that he sometimes picks up. And very quickly, it is evident that his hyper-stylised and overly sanitized filmmaking isn’t ideal for the uncompromising nature of the story he is attempting to tell here.

For a while, especially in the first of the film’s five acts, when Gangu is sold into prostitution by her lover, I was rather impressed by the director’s seemingly deliberate decision to avoid any scenes involving sex. All of it happens without Gangu’s consent, after all. And so, it was wise of Bhansali to withhold these scenes from us. Showing us even a second of her abuse—we see her beg for help before, and her broken body after—would have amounted to exploitation. And hasn’t Gangu experienced enough of that already, without a self-important filmmaker adding to it?

But my admiration for Bhansali’s restraint—I become more aware of my gullibility as I re-read the previous sentence—was short-lived. Restraint is the last thing one would associate with somebody who also made Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. And some minutes later, after Gangu assumes a more formidable position within the hierarchies of brothel life, Bhatt unleashes a swear word so hardcore that for a moment, I thought I was in the Delhi Metro. Directed as it might have been at an unsavoury man—one of many who crosses Gangu’s path—it was still a swear word. And having presumed that Gangubai Kathiawadi was aimed at general audiences—perhaps in a bid to cast as wide a net as possible—I can’t say that I was expecting it.

The film was rated U/A by the Central Board of Film Certification; it was given a 15 certificate by the British Board of Film Certification; and Netflix has said that it is suitable for anybody over the age of 16. These are all fair assessments. But it still doesn’t explain why Bhansali could be so gratuitous with swearing and graphic violence—a man gets beaten to a bloody pulp in this movie—and yet so prudish about sex.

Had this mentality been restricted to scenes of sexual violence, it would have been okay. But bafflingly, Bhansali displays the same timidity when Gangu experiences true romance. Midway through the film, when she has established herself as a powerful figure in Kamathipura, she is introduced to a tailor’s assistant named Afsaan, played by a very innocent-looking Shantanu Maheshwari. And it’s love at first sight; In fact, it’s Gangu who initiates the romance by making some very forward remarks at him, as she guides his hands over her body while he takes her measurements.

Their love story almost unfolds wordlessly—there is also an elaborate song sequence shot in a single take that people seem to have enjoyed—and eventually, they just can’t contain themselves anymore. Afsaan visits Gangu to drop off her freshly stitched new blouse, and to his surprise, runs into her while she’s bathing. Gangu is, of course, almost fully clothed. The sexual tension now unbearable for both characters, they blurt, “Mujhe tumse pyaar hai,” at each other, and with a powerful stride, Afsaan moves in for a… hug.

“A hug?” I remember thinking to myself, shocked at how the climax of a plot thread this meticulous could have been so underwhelming. But a hug is all we see. There is no question of the filmmaker having averted his eyes here; Bhansali doesn’t even imply, in old-school Bollywood fashion, that anything else happened between the two. We’re actually meant to believe that Afsaan simply went back home after the ‘jadoo ki jhappi’.

It’s almost as if Bhansali is afraid of showing sex on screen, Bollywood-ised or not. But he isn’t afraid to push your imagination in some truly wild directions a little later, when Jim Sarbh’s journalist character enters the picture. Sarbh plays Fezi, the man who encourages Gangu to leverage her influence and run for political office, for the future of her people. And as a gesture of gratitude, she instructs a gaggle of her subordinates to show Fezi a good time. Bhansali’s camera lingers on the scene as the women surround Fezi, running their hands all over him.

This begs several questions. In the transactional world of these characters, does this mean that the women will be paid for their services? If so, who’ll pay them; Gangu or Fezi? If not, is this supposed to be a favour? Did the women have the option to say no? And most importantly, did the virginal Fezi just participate in an off-screen orgy? We’ll never know, because Bhansali, as usual, cuts away.

This constant uncertainty, this second-guessing, it does a disservice to the character that Bhansali is trying to honor. By not showing us, proudly, that Gangu was capable of real love, despite being brutalised for so many years, he’s disrespecting her spirit. Nobody in their right mind would’ve expected Bhansali to capture the griminess of the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels or the empathy of Mayank Austen Soofi’s non-fiction book Nobody Can Love You More, but the superficiality of this film is bothersome.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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