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Gangubai Kathiawadi: Hits and Misses

The past week, I finally sat down to finally watch Gangubai Kathiawadi with a friend. Once done, I felt very conflicted about the movie. It felt as though it was made to be a feminist film, with Alia Bhatt dropping occasional one-liners about a woman's place in society, but there were moments where I questioned the intentions of the filmmakers. While they may have been feminist in their intentions, the movie had moments that clearly did not land.

Foremost, the transphobia in the film was extremely jarring. Vijay Raaz, a cisgender man, plays a Khwajasira character. The character itself is presented as a cold-hearted villain whom everyone fears and despises. There is no positive portrayal of the Khwajasira community at any point throughout the film to contest this portrayal or show that Khwajasiras can be kind or appreciated. Since the movie hails itself as a feminist influence, and Gangubai as a feminist moral compass, the audience is lauded to side with her contempt againt Vijay Raaz's character. I fear that this may only feed into the contempt that people have for the Khwajasira community at a time when we need to be seeing Khwajasira heroes, not villains, as people internalize the associations of certain roles as "good" or "bad".

There is also the issue of a cis man playing a role that could have been just as easily given to a Khwajasira actress. Already, Khwajasiras in the entertainment industry are starved for roles, much less professional, serious ones. A cis man accepting this role not only lessens the availability and opportunity to book a role for the Khwajasira community, but also reinforces the stereotype that the Khwajasira community consists of men acting as if they are women. How much of this could have been avoided by sensitive casting?

I also had issues with Alia Bhatt's character Gangubai. Based on the true story of Gangubai Khothewali, Alia Bhatt plays an ex-prostitute-turned-politician who presides over Kamathipura. Even at her worst, when she is physically beaten and starved, her hair is flawless and her makeup is visibly done up. Is this a projection of the male lens? If this movie is to empower women, then why is it pushing the narrative that women must look perfect even when going through physical torture? Furthermore, failing in its attempt to make Gangubai a character that powerfully claims her sexuality, the film turns her into a playful, active sex object. With her constantly commenting on her active sex life, other characters commenting on her sexual appeal, it's hard not to suspect that the intended audience of these scenes are heterosexual men. Of course, women reclaiming their sexual agency could have been the intention, but it's hard to argue that when Gangubai Kathiawadi sometimes perfectly plays into the male fantasy: was it necessary to have a scene where Alia Bhatt is showering with a face-full of perfectly set makeup, her lover watching her?

However, the film did wonderfully present an image of sex workers who are respected and have power. When Gangubai is made Massi of the brothel, she refuses to stop being a sex worker, claiming that being a sex worker is not a position of dishonor. She commands respect. Throughout the movie, she teaches the people around her, and subsequently the audience, to provide sex workers with respect. It's an incredibly powerful image, to see her speaking to male crime lords and politicians, holding the exact same amount of power, if not more. She has a team of women who willingly obey her word and call at the snap of her fingers. How often do we see women represented in positions like this? With her being the movie's moral compass as its main character, she demands legal rights and healthcare for the women under her care, a revolutionary movement for 1960s India.

Overall, the movie keeps flipping between a powerful feminist statement and a neoliberal redressing of sexism. It's easy to see what the movie intended to be, but it seems that not even social activism is free from the male lens. With the overarching transphobia, it's a difficult watch, and I couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

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