Gangubai Kathiawadi
an unconventional Bombay biopic with a sex worker as hero

by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta

In an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, director of the biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), mentions that he advised the film’s lead actress, Alia Bhatt, to prepare for her role by watching the courtesan classic Pakeezah (1972). Given that Gangubai Kathiawadi focuses on a sex worker in 1950s-60s Bombay, we would expect that Bhansali would recommend that Bhatt read the chapter on Gangubai Harjeevandas in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, which inspired the film or perhaps, watch documentaries on Bombay’s red-light districts to get a better sense of this sex worker and her habitat. What does a courtesan classic set in Lucknow, steeped in filmic representations of Islamicate culture[1], [open endnotes in new window] and starring the tragedy queen Meena Kumari have to do with a Gujarati migrant sex worker? Bhansali’s suggestion is far-removed from the demands of accuracy and authenticity that structure the generic expectations of a biopic.

We argue that in a deft, counter-intuitive move, with this film Bhansali changes the terms for how we approach both the courtesan genre and the biopic. Adding a further twist, he positions Alia Bhatt as a “traditional Bollywood hero” (Chopra). By mixing the sex worker, courtesan, and Amitabh Bachchan’s famous angry young men roles, he shifts how we address the ‘woman question’ both on and off the screen. In a two-pronged move, Bhansali invites us to reimagine the history of India as nation and the history of Bombay cinema from the vantage point of bodies that are marginalized and cast as “illegitimate.”

Inspired by the story of Gangubai Harjeevandas (1936-1977), Gangubai Kathiawadi ostensibly narrates the tale of a Savarna (upper-caste), upper-class young woman who is abducted and forced into sex work, and who later transforms into a political leader. Through a flashback, we get an account of Ganga’s entry into the brothel and her transformation. Ganga is duped by her boyfriend, Ramnik Lal, who promises to bring her to Bombay and make her a film star. Instead, he absconds with her gold jewelry and sells her to a brothel for one thousand rupees.[2] Initially, Ganga refuses to sell sex, but eventually both physical violence and emotional coercion administered at the brothel defeat her will, and Ganga becomes Gangu, a sex worker. She quickly rises to become a much-desired sex worker, bringing in both clients and money. While Sheela Maasi, the brothel’s madam, is delighted with the money that Gangu brings in, she fears Gangu’s increasing power and popularity in the brothel. To cut Gangu down to size, Sheela Maasi deliberately sends her a brutal client, Shaukat Khan Pathan, who sadistically beats and rapes her. In order to obtain justice, Gangu turns to Shaukat’s boss, the gangster, Rahim Lala, who proclaims himself as her brother and vows to protect her. Then, Gangu lays a trap for the rapist Shaukat, who is mercilessly thrashed by Rahim Lala. Subsequently, Sheela Maasi, the brothel’s madam, passes away, and the sex workers choose Gangu to be their leader, making her Gangubai. In order to expand the brothel’s income, Gangubai, with Rahim Lala’s support and collaboration, begins to sell alcohol. At this time, she also begins a love affair with Afsaan, a young Muslim tailor; later, Gangubai sacrifices this love for politics.

After establishing her economic might, Gangubai turns her attention to politics. She runs an astute and successful campaign against Razia, the incumbent Kamathipura president, drawing away potential voters by screening a film at the same time as Razia’s speech. In order to ensure her win, she gets Afsaan married to a sex worker’s (virgin) daughter. Once Gangubai becomes the area’s president, she begins to advocate for sex workers’ rights. She fights with politicians who wish to evict Kamathipura’s poorer residents and sex workers and raze their homes to build luxury developments. She challenges the teachers and principal of a nearby convent school who discriminate against sex workers’ children and denigrate them. With the help of a journalist for an Urdu newspaper, Amin Faizi, Gangubai attains public recognition and gives a crackling speech on sex workers and their rights at a political rally that is met with resounding applause. This speech is covered widely and secures Gangubai a meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who does not accede to legalize prostitution, but promises both to set up a committee on sex workers’ welfare and to block attempts to eradicate Kamathipura and displace its residents.

Re-imagining the biopic

Biopics have a long and enduring history in Bombay cinema (Dwyer). The past decade or so has witnessed an increase in production of biopics; life-stories of successful sports figures, anti-colonial revolutionaries, politicians, royal personages, geniuses, and brave citizens have enjoyed box-office success. The majority of these biopics focus on men and their impressive achievements; fewer biopics are on women. Thus, extending Tom Brown and Belén Vidal’s assertion that the Hollywood biopic is a “biased fetishization of the great white man as the agent of history’” (2016), we, along with Preeti Kumar, argue that the Bombay biopic positions great brown man as “the agent of history.” Through her analysis of historical and revolutionary biopics, Kumar shows how this genre positions the nation as masculine. We can take these insights a step further and add that this genre both favors and reproduces the “good guys,” i.e., resolutely moral and ethical, hard-working, self-sacrificial, aspirational, family-oriented figures, who are positioned as the legitimate heirs of the nation.

In biopics, immoral figures—gangsters, bandits, and wayward women—are generally punished so that we recognize “illegitimate” subjects of the nation—and we understand what happens if we choose to go astray. Diverging from the standard path of the biopic, Bhansali makes a film about a sex worker that positions her as an agent of history, ‘mother’ and legitimate heir of the nation. Although Gangubai’s biological, ‘real’ family no longer recognizes her once she becomes a sex worker, at the brothel she forges new kinship relations. She becomes an ‘older sister’ for the sex workers, younger sister to a prominent gangster, aunt to the girl who she gets married, and mother to her friend’s child.

The biopic is a hybrid genre often drawing upon elements of the sports film, war epic, historical, political drama and so on (Hollinger). However, it is often judged according to a realist yardstick. Thus, an actor’s physical appearance, gestures and voice need to match closely those of the real person. The locations and sets similarly need to be authentic. Key elements of this genre–the flashback, and in media res story-telling– narrate difficult or ordinary pasts of these figures, which are subsequently overcome (Brown & Vidal, Cartmel, Haiduc). While a good dose of melodrama generally assists in amplifying the film’s emotional charge, building narrative tension, creating ‘larger-than-life’ beings, and establishing connection with audiences, critical reception of the genre often laments any such moments and accuses directors’ of simplifying the lives of these real personages (Haiduc). This realist style is visible in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), a film that might appear to be a close companion to Gangubai Kathiawadi since its protagonist is a female “illegitimate figure.”[3] However, Bhansali complicates the realist aesthetics that drive this genre. Moreover, unlike Kapur, Bhansali does not perform the “great rape trick,” exploiting the protagonist’s rape and calling it “realism.” Additionally, at the end Bhansali’s Gangubai is a triumphant figure who challenges the state, unlike Kapur’s submissive figure, who kneels in surrender .

In Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhansali pairs realism with a melodramatic aesthetic . We encounter realism in full force during the opening and flashback where young girls who have been abducted are mentally and physically assaulted—broken, so that they submit to becoming sex workers. Melodrama, audible in the background score and plaintive sounds, intensifies our experience of these scenes. Alternately, in the qawwali song sequence, melodrama plays a particular role. (Qawwali is a musical form of South Asian Sufi devotional practice that frequently appears in Islamicate settings on film due to its fervor, visual spectacle, and the potential to exploit the tension between its lyrics’ devotional vs. secular, romantic interpretations and contexts.) The mixing of realism and melodrama creates a contrast between the dreary, harsh world of sex workers and the visually sumptuous world of the courtesan genre. The melodramatic lighting, luminous for Gangubai, and dim, dull for the other workers, marks her as extraordinary—and them as ordinary.

If the force of the biopic is closely tied to the actor’s ‘authentic’ performance, then Gangubai Kathiawadi’s combining the real and the reel jostles our understanding of authenticity. Reviewers and we would certainly say that Alia Bhatt’s performance in the film is “authentic,” but not in a conventional sense. How do we make that assessment, and which criteria does it rely on? We know little about Gangubai. Unlike the typical protagonist of a biopic, before this film was released, she was not known globally, nationally or even locally. Her fame is limited to Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, and its surrounding areas. In fact, there are barely 30 pages devoted to her life in the book Mafia Queens which inspires the film. According to Bhansali, he filled in the rest with his childhood memories of Kamathipura, the red-light district where Gangubai resides, and he integrated those memories with fictionalized yet recognizable representations from Bombay films (Chopra). The photos of the actual Gangubai available on the Internet show no discernable resemblance between her and Bhatt beyond the white sari and red bindi.[4] In fact, many netizens have commented that the real Gangubai was not as attractive as Alia Bhatt but still drew men. Thus, Bhansali isn’t giving us a likeness of Gangubai. He is giving us representations that we recognize and therefore imagine being “authentic”: the young Gujarati girl happily doing garba, the brothel madam, the courtesan, the sex worker, the politician, and the underdog hero effortlessly speaking Bambaiya Hindi. Bhatt conjures up and beautifully performs representations that we have imbibed and which structure our imagination.

Cinephilia, citations, and the
crafting of alternate histories

Gangubai Kathiawadi is peppered with both aural and visual treats for a Hindi cinephile. They are curated, clearly much-loved moments of the past: e.g., a courtesan classic (Pakeezah), a historical tour-de-force (Mughal-e-Azam), a beloved social [5a] (Pyaasa), Bhansali’s father’s film (Jahazi Lootera), a Muslim social [5b] (Chaudvin Ka Chand). This cinephilia permeates the film. It can be found in the sets, lighting, framing of scenes, music and background score, the songs, the plot, the reference to the debonair male star, Dev Anand, the costumes and even, in our heroine’s tresses. Gangubai doesn’t just pay homage to films, but also to theaters, film posters, calendars, and star publicity photographs. This cinephilia encompasses sites of public exhibition, theatrical and outdoor screenings as well as the private adulation of a beloved star.

This film, however, is not simply a cinephile’s delight. Through its dense and layered address, Gangubai directs us to alleyways of both filmic and political pasts, while pointing to the present and future. Cinephilia here plots alternate historiographies of cinema and the nation, forging a new figure of woman, who combines the roles of sex worker, daughter, sister, mother, lover, friend, businesswoman, and politician. This figure is not simply a series of identities worn and discarded, but an amalgamation of those identities that constitutes a movement, perhaps, a revolution, maybe even an institution. The film’s final dialogue, “heroine banne aayi thi, kambakht poori, ki poori cinema ban gayi/she came to become a heroine, instead, became the entire film” aptly captures the larger-than-life size of this figure. Her longevity, the voiceover tells us, exceeds that of other films whose posters change every Friday. In stark contrast, posters of Gangubai have remained in Kamathipura for over 50 years.

Begum Akhtar’s sonorous voice, singing Mirza Ghalib’s well-known ghazal, “Yeh na thi hamari kismet/ This was not my fate,” opens Gangubai Kathiawadi. This opening sets the tone for the film’s dizzying references to both cinema and ‘real’ life. Akhtar was a daughter of a courtesan and barrister; her father abandoned her mother and his two daughters. Akhtar became ‘Akhtar bai’ a courtesan, and later, transformed into Begum Akhtar after she herself married a barrister. Akhtar’s voice and life evoke the courtesan genre as well as parallels with Gangubai’s biography. From its outset, the film thus takes a distinct position on a female biopic. This film is not simply about a biography of Gangubai. Rather, it is a history of both real and imagined female representations as indicated in Bhansali’s advice that Bhatt watch Pakeezah to play Gangubai—as well in the narrative that Gangubai herself sometimes fashions. Citations and references are thus part and parcel of the film’s narrative. The film, moreover, nudges its viewers towards a cinephilic sensibility, which uncovers varied layers of representation and connections with films as well as politics. This is visible both in reviews of the film and in our own viewing and conversations.

These are some of the associations the film had for us: 

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, President of Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, and Gangubai herself, have draped themselves in white saris of varied hues.[6] The white sari’s associations with widowhood inherently suggest the celibacy and moral purity of the woman who wears it—to the extent that even a woman who never married, such as the late singer Lata Mangeshkar, consistently wore white saris to construct her moral authority—while performing in public. When Gangubai dons the white sari, we understand that she has taken charge of the brothel and will no longer be servicing clients; she no longer presents herself as sexually available.

Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. Source: Marilyn Silverstone. Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party of India, wearing a white sari. [3a]