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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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Courtesy of Bhansali Productions and Pen Marudhar Entertainment

Gangubai: from pawn to player

Bollywood film "Gangubai Kathiawadi" reminds us that legends can emerge from society’s castaways.

The story of Ganga Jagjivandas starts out bleak. Entangled in the youthful rush of love, Ganga elopes away from her wealthy family in the Indian peninsula Kathiawar in hopes of barreling towards her dream of becoming a Bollywood actress.

The dense, scraggly streets of Kamathipura, a red-light district on the fringes of Bombay, is not what Ganga had in mind when her boyfriend promised her acting tutelage under his aunt. Before dusk had infected Kamathipura’s smoggy skies, Ganga Jagjivandas was tricked. She had been sold into prostitution. 

Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Jayantilal Gada’s film “Gangubai Kathiawadi” is based on the true story of Ganga Jagjivandas in S. Hussain Zaidi’s book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai.” 

Wait, wasn’t she a prostitute? When did she become a mafia queen? This is exactly what makes Bhansali’s film so intriguing. 

“Gangubai Kathiawadi” is a story of individual hustle, neighborhood politics and crucial social debates on education policy, womens rights and discrimination. 

Initially, Ganga’s youthful spirit is shattered by the demeaning nature of her new reality, but it is later reformed — hardened and reshaped into an iron will. After she is sexually assaulted in her own brothel, Ganga’s drive for justice is ignited, propelling her to request help from the most powerful don in Kamathipura: Karim Lala.  

Ganga’s rebuilding of herself into “Gangubai,” with “bai” as an honorific suffix for respected women, is a journey of politically maneuvering herself into a symbol of fear for those who would otherwise attempt to oppress her as well as into a symbol of respect from those who relate to her struggle. 

In a society of men in positions that dominate over women, as is symbolically represented by the movie's focus on the nature of sex work in Kamathipura, Ganga’s initial campaign for justice seems futile. However, her masterful emotional manipulation of Karim Lala, her society’s most powerful individual, towards countering the threat of her assailant reveals a powerful, yet largely underappreciated way in which women in such patriarchal conditions often shape their realities: pure wit.

Somewhere along the way, Ganga’s initial crusade for justice morphs into a demonstration of how even the most demoralizing of systems can be tackled from the inside. Upon the death of her brothel’s cruel madam Sheela Masi, the women of the brothel plead for Ganga to take leadership and responsibility for them. For the first time, a brothel in Kamathipura functions on respect and admiration instead of hierarchically infused fear. For the first time, the women of the brothel do not have to fear being assaulted with justice nowhere in sight. “Gangubai,” who gets as many early morning reps with the tijarat as any man, will not let them relive her trauma. 

From here onwards, the tale of “Gangubai,” both society’s impression of sin and society’s newest revolutionary, takes off in earnest. 

From a mistreated “kothewali” — or prostitute — to “madam,” Gangubai penetrates society’s most pressing discriminatory issues while displaying the political cunning of any global leader. The steel and grit she develops with each passing minute carries her to the top of Kamathipura’s underworld where she stands as Karim Lala’s sister: his equal. 

From this position, Gangubai resists industrial agendas that would boot Kamathipura’s residents out of their homes. She fights for the rights of the “immoral” poor at the bottom of society and exposes the structures that force them into positions that brand them so. In her seat of power, Gangubai questions the status quo of sex workers who are strongly discriminated against by the very people they serve. 

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“We have more dignity than you, ask me how. You lose your dignity once, it’s gone forever. We sell our dignity every night, and yet it never seems to run out,” said Gangubai in a scene shown in the film’s trailer.

When the neighborhood’s school refuses to provide education to the brothel’s children, it is Gangubai who fixes her hat of justice and readies her gloves of revolution. 

If anything seals Gangubai’s resume as a legend to remember, it is the 15 minutes she procures with the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru. Those few minutes were enough for Gangubai to save an underprivileged community that many desired to erase.

Unlike most heroes, Gangubai wears no cape, or technologically advanced bodysuit. However, her suave smile, signature black sunglasses and pure white sari bring a different level of iconic to the world of global cinema. Spirit ablaze, Alia Bhat’s performance as the mafia queen of Kamathipura lets us know that those labeled as “immoral” may indeed have many moral sides to them, and that leaders can emerge from even the most outcasted groups of society. 

It is worth sparing two hours of a day to experience the riveting tale of “Gangubai Kathiawadi” — the tenth highest grossing Hindi film of 2022 — on Netflix.

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