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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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Gangubai has surely talked about a topic which was previously frowned upon in media and in my opinion, they have talked about this in a very powerful way by giving Alia's character a very powerful role and showing her as her own person living with her own rules. I also agree with your opinion that they showed her as this powerful leader yet showed her character is weak in terms of love. She didn't get to get married with the person she loved just because there is this notion in our society that prostitutes can't be respectful wives or be a wife to somebody. The movie in the end somewhat agreed to it although they also showed how being a…

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Mujeeb.khan
Mujeeb.khan
Dec 10, 2022

In Gangubai, Alia Bhatt's character is shown making a passionate speech in front of a large crowd. She is campaigning for sex work to be treated with the respect as any other profession, and for children of sex workers to have equal access to school. The pre-climax moment in the film pretty much nails out what the film is all about. It reveals what this larger-than-life woman desires more than anything else. Gangubai Kathiawadi crafts its own universe, one that is filthy, aggressive, and irresponsible yet nevertheless brimming with emotions. Bhansali portrays the alleyways of Kamathipura, one of Mumbai's oldest red-light districts, in the most lavish way possible.

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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022

I also thought that the plotline involving Ajay Devgan's character, Rahim Lala, was forced an unnecessary. He becomes her "sworn brother", after he avenges her from the abuse she suffers as a prostitute at the hands of one of Rahim Lala's men. I think while the show tries to get this plotline right in order to highlight the kind of sexual violence and brutalization that prostitutes in the South Asian context specifically are subject to, it turns it into an unnecessary heroization of another male character, who is able to swoop in and "save" Gangubai. I do think, however, that the show does a good job at establishing a sisterhood between Kamli (another prostitute), and Gangubai. Not only does Kamli…

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Another thing that I found problematic was Gangubai's dialogue that sex workers should be respected because it is due to their services that men do not go after and rape young girls. This statement promotes the idea that rape is like sex, hence it is simply linked to lust. In reality, rapists do not rape simply because they want to have sex; they do it because they want to release their aggression and desire for dominance by dehumanizing someone. If, according to Gangubai, prostitution is the oldest profession, and it helps prevents rape, then why are rapes still being committed in the same areas where brothels are up and functioning? So yes, Gangubai is not exactly an ideal feminist movie…

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I totally agree with the fact of this movie not perfectly landing as a feminist movie. Their glorifying prostitution, meanwhile sex work should be one’s own choice, the women in this line were forced into it or sold by their lovers by trapping them into this. Gangubai gives great speeches on women empowerment in this sector, but she can be called out on her hypocrisy on always going to a male to find help rather than grouping with the women she lived with. Even after becoming a politician, the head of their area, she doesn’t free the women living there of prostitution, why? She had her own gains in it? What type of power is this if you can’t free…

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