Gangubai Kathiawadi: from the feminist lens of Katharine Bartlett

The film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ is able to display how the law has excluded women’s and other marginalised groups’ viewpoints based on knowledge garnered from their experiences.

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BASED on author and journalist Hussain S. Zaidi’s 2011 book, ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’, Gangubai Kathiawadi is a visually seductive manifestation. Director S.L. Bhansali mounts lead actress Alia Bhatt on a scale so imposing that she feels almost intergalactic – not of this land and earth. Set in the red-light district of Kamathipura in the 1950s and 60s, Gangubai opens up on a violent and lurid note.

After being sold to a brothel, a 14-year-old girl is decked up for business, but she will not give up. Nose-pin pierced in her nose and lipstick slapped on her face cannot make any impact on her. Even Gangubai, with the swagger of a veteran sex worker intermingled with her flashback into Ganga, cannot talk some sense into the 14-year girl.

The focal thrust of this essay is set on the socio-historic issues of prostitution as reflected in Gangubai Kathiawadi, apart from the ‘usual’ legal issues. With the help of ‘positionality’ by American legal academic Katharine Bartlett at every stage of the film, the film is able to expose how the law has excluded perspectives of women/other excluded groups, based on knowledge derived from experiences. However, the issue of ‘white solipsism’ remains unaddressed in the film.

In the film, ‘intersectional feminism’ in terms of academic Nivedita Menon has been advanced to acknowledge how women from marginalised communities encounter oppression on manifold fronts – profession, gender, social and financial status, health, education, among other reasons.

From prostitute to Madam of Kamathipura

As per Bartlett, ‘positionality’ builds on the concept of knowledge based on experience. It acknowledges the existence of empirical values, truth, and knowledge. For instance, the woman will be able to understand how power works, how it is masked by the ‘objective’ rules, the need to change it from the woman’s perspective of exclusion.

The film gives a much-needed glimpse into the life of a sex worker. However, it goes without saying that the later trajectory of a film revolves around the matriarch of Kamathipura instead of expanding upon the perspectives of the 4,000 sex workers. In between acquiring a Bentley and taking swipes at her rivals, a short cute romance is portrayed between a young tailor, Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari), and Gangubai. Both go on dates only for Gangubai to have clarity about the sort of touch that she craves- the one that gives, doesn’t want.

In the film, Bhatt employs some masculine gestures but stashes the character and its power acutely feminine since it is stomached out of that experience. When Gangubai is out and about, she keeps her head ensconced with a short saree pallu. Still, her legs are sprawled out, even in polite company, communicating that her regard for the world outside Kamathipura is kerbed and has a short vehemence.

Moreover, in the film, ‘intersectional feminism’ in terms of academic Nivedita Menon has been advanced to acknowledge how women from marginalised communities encounter oppression on manifold fronts – profession, gender, social and financial status, health, education, among other reasons. When Gangu delivered her speech in Azad Maidan pressing for rights and dignity for sex workers, she was, in her own style, sponsoring intersectional feminism. This is why what Gangu did is so heroic. She said, “Yes, I am a sex worker, and you better respect me for it”. This is not to say that she was glorifying the trade itself. After all, she fought for the right to education of the kids of Kamathipura so they do not have to work their mothers had to.

Also read: Flipside of new human trafficking bill

The idea of consent, choice, and agency

One of the central myths about sex work is that you cannot rape a sex worker because a sex worker has consented to sex with anyone and everyone. Gangubai Kathiawadi brings several points about consent, prominently when the relationship of Afsaan and Gangubai is portrayed. The song ‘Meri Jaan’ is captured on the duo while they entice each other, and a scene in the cab parades how Gangubai leads him, and he follows a subtle tongo. He not only gazes towards her for avowal when he endeavours to hold her but also sojourns progressing towards her the second she vicissitudes her lead. Ultimately, Afsaan cross over the line, and Gangubai shoves him away.

Even though Gangubai Kathiawadi is a feminist movie, the film miscues the politics of sexual health, the politics of pimps, and the material resource distribution, which formulates the imperative conversations in the politics of a red-light area.

There is a lot to reconnoitre in this scene alone: how implied consent is not consent, how consent can be revoked at any point by either of the partners, how Gangubai is not necessarily looking for a purely physical relationship. Maybe the trauma follows her brutal assault by Karim Lala’s man.

The majority of the depiction of sex workers in Hindi cinema has not been nuanced. Sex workers are depicted as highly sexual beings given three-minute dance sequences, many times portrayed at brothels surrounded by men.

The idea of a sex worker proliferated by cinema slashes them to just their sexuality, husking both their choice and agency. In my opinion, the most commanding scene is when Gangu takes all her friends to the cinema and a man badgers and catcalls her. She hits back at him and asks, “Can’t we even take one day off in peace?”

However, the poor living conditions and the symbol of poverty cannot be reflected in merely showing multiple women sleeping in one room. Even though Gangubai Kathiawadi is a feminist movie, the film miscues the politics of sexual health, the politics of pimps, and the material resource distribution, which formulates the imperative conversations in the politics of a red-light area. Also, it goes without saying that a cisgender man (Vijay Raaz) portraying the role of Raziabai, a transgender woman continues to be in line with Bollywood’s transphobic casting choices for trans roles.

Also read: NIA to Deal With Trafficking: Activists Cry Foul

Sex work is no-work

Bartlett argues that the positional stance accepts the idea of “the existence of empirical values, truth, and knowledge, and also the positional stance accepts their consistency”, yet these commitments are provisional and subject to further critical revision and evaluation, sustaining “a concept of knowledge based upon experience”. It seems to argue that knowledge emerges within social contexts and in multiple forms, and it is crucial to extend one’s perspective to amplify knowledge. She also wants to hold on to experience-based grounds for truth assertions. Here, those in the legislature/government have not positioned themselves in the shoes of the sufferers (that is, sex workers) while enacting the legislation. What it ended up doing is a conflation between sex work and trafficking.

When beheld from the feminist perspective, the Law Commission Report sheds light on the way women in prostitution are constructed subjects of the law by the Commission. Even in Gangubai Kathiawadi, it is exhibited how sex workers are compelled to pay vasuli to cops to get rid of their heckling and pestering. In its 64th Report, the Law Commission deliberates upon “prostitution” as a “social evil”, and put forth recommendations for amendments in The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Woman and Girls Act, 1956. It remarked that all legal exertions at stopping prostitution have invariably been bungled, and hence prostitution endures to be stood as a necessary evil.

In legal texts, the term ‘prostitution’, in contrast to sex work, impliedly connotes that all women in prostitution are forced into it, or ‘trafficked’ for sexual exploitation. However, in contrast, the use of the term sex work reflects an understanding that the women are viewed as rights-bearing agents who can talk about their work conditions and move towards negotiating the stigma attached to their work by affirming themselves as such. Sex workers in India have unionised, and through their voices at the margins, they continue to argue against the conflation of sex work and ‘trafficking’. Feminist, lawyer and social worker Lotika Sarkar, in her 1988 study on the 64th Law Commission Report, notes that the state entirely ignored the recommendations of the 64th Report and the new legislation, renamed as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, in addressing the ‘prevention’ approach, ignores the ‘suppression’ approach.

Bartlett argues that the positional stance accepts the idea of “the existence of empirical values, truth, and knowledge, and also the positional stance accepts their consistency”, yet these commitments are provisional and subject to further critical revision and evaluation, sustaining “a concept of knowledge based upon experience”. It seems to argue that knowledge emerges within social contexts and in multiple forms, and it is crucial to extend one’s perspective to amplify knowledge. She also wants to hold on to experience-based grounds for truth assertions.

It is to be noted that in the recommended definition, the woman is deemed as an individual riveting in an act out of her free will, which is evidently not in consonance with the “social evil” recognising that the 64th Report emphasises when it expresses “being a threat to the family as an institution, and a means of exploitation of females, prostitution is a social evil which leads to social injustice”. It is fascinating how the 64th Report builds its understanding of ‘prostitutes’ somewhat incongruously as women who are victims ensnared in a social iniquity where sex is brought and sold outside the indorsed social confines of marriage but also as promiscuous agents selling sex.

Also read: Why must we recognise sex work as ‘work’?

The problem of ‘white solipsism’

As Bartlett has argued in ‘Feminist Legal Methods’, the efforts to provide the ‘woman’s point of view’ also risk contributing to their own marginalization as using the label ‘feminist’ has resulted in an inclination among feminists to “assume a definition of ‘woman’ or a standard for ‘women’s experiences that is exclusionary, fixed, and homogenising”, addressing “only oppressive practices that operate against white, privileged women”. Even though Gangubai Kathiawadi endeavoured to provide the woman’s point of view, it ended up homogenising the sex workers’ experiences.

There is a scene in the film where the brothel women come to a young Gangu with a white saree, saying that she will not sleep with any customer. The white signifies chastity, purity, and virginity, implying that their work is unclean, dirty, and impure. In one fell swoop, Bhansali ended up undoing decades of work done socially and culturally to make sex work respectable, that ironically the real Gangubai fought hard and longed for.

It is no accident that both actresses playing the characters in Chameli (2003) and Dev. D (2009), Kareena Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin respectively, are fair and white, heightening the contrast between their work and their perceived beauty. Bhansali entangled us in the same paradox of the vamp/virgin when Gangubai is played by the mixed-race beauty Bhatt, whose skin color stands in contrast to the rest of the women in the brothel.

In legal texts, the term ‘prostitution’, in contrast to sex work, impliedly connotes that all women in prostitution are forced into it, or ‘trafficked’ for sexual exploitation. However, in contrast, the use of the term sex work reflects an understanding that the women are viewed as rights-bearing agents who can talk about their work conditions and move towards negotiating the stigma attached to their work by affirming themselves as such.

Towards the end of the film, Gangubai Kathiawadi finds its way into a fight for survival, and the film begins to sag. Bhansali chooses to depict Gangubai as a primeval saviour, and when there is no marvel to orchestrate, Bhansali gives the impression of losing his belongings. Just as the incision across Gangubai’s torso vanishes after it attended its purpose, so does all the sex work. When Gangubai accumulates money, it is from her illicit liquor business and not sex work. Not all sex workers are Gangubai, nor every filmmaker Bhansali.

The sex workers were remarkably close-knit even though lonely; they were not forlorn as we wanted them to be even though they were wretched; they were inexact of the law as sure of the ways around it; they lived in a skirmish with society but had society already reckoned out; and they dress in their sexuality on their sleeve, not behind some wardrobe malfunction.

Also read: We don’t need the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018

Even though the film ended up homogenising generalisations of sex workers by indulging in the problem of white solipsism, what enchants the audience is that in numerous scenes, especially towards the end, Bhatt has some heavyweight seeti-maro dialogues. She delivers them all with a pro.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is able to display how the law has excluded women’s and other marginalised groups’ viewpoints based on knowledge garnered from their experiences. The issue of ‘white solipsism,’ on the other hand, appears to have gone unexplored in the film.

The author would like to thank Prof. Prerna Dhoop of NLSIU Bangalore for her valuable insights into the article.

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