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On Gangubai Kathiawadi And Sex Work
Embedding the movie in the context of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's art-artifice
Sanjay Leela Bhansali revels in his consummate, edge-less universes, those extravagantly mounted, referentially diffuse (some Guru Dutt, some Gandharan Buddha, some GB Road ), logistically vertiginous sets — booking every possible, available floor at Mehboob Studios, trying to get as many generators from across the city to fire up his red-light district perched on a confected lake, driving marriage halls to panic because of the scarcity of generators. He calls his set his temple, a space of worship and labour, quiet, chaos, inspiration, and identity. He mumbles around it, alone. There is a painstaking indulgence, an attention to detail, an indifference to life and labour outside the studio, and to standards of life and labour inside the studio. Horror stories leak out of his sets like a broken, incorrigible tap, and just as often, art. Director Vikramaditya Motwane, who assisted Bhansali, had told me, laughing, “To give you context, while I was working on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam my closest friend got a new girlfriend and I met her only 4 months later!”
Submission, often considered an act of romance, a wilful renunciation of agency — giving up the very thing that challenges destiny — with Bhansali, is woven into something both vital and violent; his movies belong in that hazy corridor between madness and love. It is impossible to look away. It is impossible to not be disturbed.
With every film of his that comes out, the same round of questions are asked — Is beauty enough? When does melodrama sink a scene under its weight? How neatly should the fraying strands of the story taper? How long can an actor hold their breath while rattling along a passionate dialogue? Why the ham-fisted, bow-tying voice-over?
It is hard to parse these questions apart — the cynical from the inquisitive, the decisive from the yearning, unsteady viewer who hasn’t made up their mind, and indeed does not know how to. Submission — that is the word employed to winnow those who like a Bhansali movie from those who don’t, because no longer does the vocabulary of like-dislike, love-hate work. It is simply a matter of submission — can you or can you not? Suddenly, the thing being judged is not the film — good or bad — but you and the malleability of your imagination — can or can’t. It unsteadies criticism, spectatorship.
That is, perhaps, the hazard of being an auteur — with the recognizable impress, the chhaap of his labour, his artistry, his insistence. But Bhansali is an auteur, the author of his work, in a more expansive sense, too. There is the writing and directing, yes, those long shots allowing characters, choreography, and catharsis to emerge slowly, the increasing usage of the blur to end a scene, the constant references and dedications to his father, but there is also the neat editing that he does and the music he composes.
His musical sensibility cascades in the most effervescent, egalitarian way possible. When Ram Leela came out, it was performed at school farewells by juniors who would later complain about knee pain. ‘Ghoomar’ from Padmaavat produced a post-toddler niece who insisted on spinning like Deepika Padukone till she hit her head against the cupboard. Instagram Reels is awash with ‘Dholida’ cosplays — unironic gestures of fandom. It cuts through, somehow retaining the fragrance of culture — through raags, through folk instrumentation, through the gestures Bhansali’s cook makes, which he ossified into the ‘Pinga’ choreography.
His last two films, however, are musically leaner — just six songs each, barely a handful of them choreographed in the lush ways we have known him to. When compared to his musicals — 10 songs of Ram-Leela, 11 songs of Guzaarish and Saawariya — this might seem like a swerve, a challenge, and even a disappointment, because Bhansali is solely perched on the mantle of filmmakers who knows what to do with music in their movies. He can produce awe, stun the film’s pace for a few minutes, elevate its drama without furthering it in the story. But more importantly, he understands the value of percussion — “sab kuch beat pe hona chahiya”, the beat is sacrosanct. When Sonam Kapoor has to open a letter folded twice over, Bhansali instructs her to open it with a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. When each card is flung in ‘Jab Saiyan’ in Gangubai, it happens to the beat. Each push, shove, invocation, invitation of ‘Meri Jaan’ happens to a nip in the voice, the body cresting with music, even if it isn’t “dance” in the choreographed, synchronized sense. A student of Odissi, Bhansali understands grace as necessary to life, not as embellishment. It must seep into the very being, leak out of every pore. It is why the setting of this film, 1950s-1960s Mumbai, is a desperate recall to the last generation where grace was used, however romantically and myopically, to describe the gait of sex workers. The film doesn’t touch the years of Indira Gandhi, ending shy of it — many considered the Emergency of 1975-77, with its erect-spine moralizing and forceful sterilizations, the beginning of the decline of red light districts.
Sex work has often been described as the oldest profession. In India, its shape was somewhat unruly — the kothewalis of Lucknow, for example, were the highest tax payers and owned property. While these are symbols of economic freedom, socially, the question was more complicated. They were propped up by a dense but fragile network of patrons, hinged on their voice as much as their body. That the British, with a fell swoop of laws and confiscations, churned the moral order is another complication. Post-independence, as patronage sapped, existentially, sex work was refashioning itself. Twice, the author Mayank Austed Soofi, who was writing about the sex workers in GB Road, Delhi’s red-light district in his book Nobody Can Love You More: Life In Delhi’s Red Light District, was reminded that the mother of Saira Banu, actor Dilip Kumar’s wife, was a kothewali — she would dance to thumri, dadra, and entertain customers. It was a casual but also a nostalgic fact. That so much of the art that has been accommodated among the glitterati came from these streets. It is a yearning too, for an epochal lunge.
Since then, the sex workers had even shifted geographies, from Chawri Bazaar to GB Road. Soon, the music changed, the demands and demography of clients transitioned. The Sitar that was ever present in the kothas was sold. Instead, came the disco lights. The shacks of the mirasis, singers who would accompany the kothewalis, descended into fetid slums.
Gangubai Kathiawadi, that begins with Begum Akhtar singing Mirza Ghalib’s ghazal, ‘Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat’, that finds within its cracks the space for Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Ulti Ho Gayi Sab Tadbiren’, Ghalib’s ‘Hazaron Khvahishen Aisi’, and Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par’, is a lament of the violence of the world, yes, but it is also a longing archive of a time that has been lost.
Ye na thi hamari qismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota
Agar aur jiite rahte yahin intizar hota
Just that it was not destined for the lover and I to merge
If I were to live longer, the wait would have been that much more
In Gangubai Kathiawadi there are two songs of love — one is ‘Jab Saiyan’, a montage across time, the first time he has attempted a montage song, and ‘Meri Jaan’, a single take at the back of a car. In the former, there is a scene where the lovers play cards, one above, on the balcony that is higher but also constricted, a gilded cage, and one below, lower but free. A splitting image — of lovers playing cards — is stretched across an entire song in Devdas, but here its melodramatic wings are clipped — beautifully, economically — as merely part of a tapestry of encounters. There is something rushed, as if love was not the point. In Gangubai, it isn’t, and this is both a characterization and criticism of the film — that it found no space in it for love beyond an incidental side-plot, bereft of the eros that accompanies sex work. At the end, when all the dust is settled, Gangubai is, as the Ghalib sher crooned, alone.
‘Meri Jaan’ is an exploration of the malleability of space, to reach out a leg entirely across the length of the seat (Can you? I can’t), to fold it, bent at the knees, to fondle, to fumble. The cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, when I had spoken to him months ago, had hinted that Bhansali was trying to do something adventurous with space, producing challenges for himself, excited yet exhausted at the possibilities, looking towards Meena Kumari in ‘Na Jao Saiyan Chhuda Ke Baiyan’ in Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, where she, with her expressive eyes, exaggerated gait, desperate pleas, makes you forget that she has barely moved her lower body.
There is always an emotional turbulence that propels his music, his dance, his long takes. The long one-minute shot in ‘Dholida’ was to provide the required affective intensity that reflects the trance Alia Bhatt has swirled herself into. Of course it is a triumph of technology, a soaring ode to the logistical legwork, but what of it? The chatter around the long sequences in West Side Story baffles me, because its technical brilliance cannot mask its emotional vacuousness, its affective numbness. (Pauline Kael’s pan of the original West Side Story holds even for the Spielberg re-enactment, “It’s a great musical for people who don’t like musicals.”) The shot in that film never holds on a face, the expressions can never be discerned. With Bhansali, his long shots, which can be remarkably still without the pyrotechnics of awe, are designed to get you closer, more intimate, more invasive — you can see Alia Bhatt’s eyes darting at the next bronze plate of gulaal to slap into as she makes her twirls, you can see her bite her lip, swagger her eyebrows, her eyes lost in the dizzy aftermath. Technology cannot single-handedly produce awe. It can aid it, massage its prospects, gild its possibilities, burnish its cadence. That’s it. There must be a throbbing heart, too.
Then, there is the politics of his movies — almost like that of the post-independent, Nehruvian films of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, of social cohesion in the most myopic, banal, kind sense, grasping at what is immediately palpable, a roster of social issues used merely to build dramatic intensity — is never the centerpiece, never nuanced, not built to be translated into action, amenable to dialectic. This is not the kind of messaging you learn from or engage with. So, similar to the futility of the love-hate binary in discussing his movies, it never is about whether you agree or disagree with his films politically, as much as whether you are able to submit to their aestheticization of political issues or not. This distinction might be helpful when trying to grapple with Whatsapp forwards like this.
For the politics of his characters are aesthetic gestures, excuses for drama, not polemics. When, in Bajirao Mastani, Mastani waxes eloquent about how “rang ka koi mazhab nahi hota”, that colour has no religion, but religion has chosen its colors — green signifying Islam, saffron symbolizing Hinduism — it isn’t a political point she is making. It is to humiliate the villain, exaggerate her vitality in a breathless stream of dialogue, and introduce a softness for her in Kashibai’s heart, the woman whose husband was yanked away in love.
Similarly, when in the end of Padmaavat, he carts all the women in one flowing red river into a burning pyre, he is unconcerned about the politics of dignity and shame as it plays out in our realm. It is a gesture of violence performed with poetic flourish. He had defined the meaning of honour in an earlier scene — however narrowly — and ran with that. It is what Paromita Vohra calls his “politically indisciplined queerness”. To expect him to be more capacious, more feminist, more aware of the ground reality of women, is to ask him to be another filmmaker, one more engaged with reality, not artistry. The terms of engagement with his movies are set — entertainment, swoon, entertainment, swoon. To demand insight, too, then? To see in his movies a political point is to severely misread them.
It is true that Gangubai Kathiawadi pits itself unambiguously against the second wave feminists — who argued that pornography and sex work must be banned for they perpetuated patriarchy, producing a schism in the feminist movement that has not since reconciled. However, the film’s dramatic tension collapses the moment it takes up the issue, because after an entire film with physical opponents and impending obstacles, the antagonist now is an idea. And even Bhansali cannot make an abstract idea an effective villain. Which is why he, most curiously, but also unsatisfactorily, ends his film with a promise of progress and protection of sex workers, and not the fulfillment of it. A reminder that this movie is not about sex work but about Gangubai, an emphasis best exemplified in a scene where she is framed in the midst of other sex workers — a frame of painstaking composition, heads, shoulders, necks, perched precisely, that is repeated twice more through the film, once in the beginning, and once towards the end, with Gangubai surrounded by kids. Being literate, she is the only one able to write letters, and so when someone asks her to write something to send to their father, Gangubai begins to speak the letter she is writing, only to, like a trail of Mexican wave feelings, be continued by another sex worker, then another, as though they are all feeling the same thing — regret, apologia, a wonderment at a parallel life. As we come towards the end of the letter, I wondered how Gangubai would sign off this collective exhuming of emotions. With her name? The name of the woman asking for the letter to be written? A collective name? As the scene progresses, the camera comes closer to Gangubai’s face, and in a narrative choice that is hand-in-glove with the camera, she signs of with her own name. This is her film, after all.
It is true that sex work warps our comfortable notions of labour, intimacy, love, and money. I laugh thinking of this anecdote from Nobody Can Love You More, where a group of men go to a kotha, and once they are done, the sex worker politely asks, pointing fingers at each of them, “Sir, are you done with your fucking? Sir, are you done with your fucking? Sir, are you done with your fucking? Sir, are you done with your fucking?” A world where sex work isn’t seen as a distillation of all the patriarchal violence? Sex work as casual, check-list, don’t-forget-to-leave-a-rating?
Thinking of sex work requires a radical re-imagining, renegotiating our ideas of value and the body as transactable. (It also requires us to rethink what work means, for as many Marxist philosophers have pointed out, calling something “work” is the beginning of the production of distaste for it, a refusal to do it, a boredom at it being brought up. But if distaste is the defining characteristic of work, then how do we think of sex work?) If, as the philosopher Amia Srinivasan notes, we still look at sex as not morally problematic or unproblematic but only as consensual or non-consensual, making “the norms of sex … like the norms of capitalist free exchange, [where] what matters is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand — why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it — but only that both the buyer and seller have agreed to transfer”, then can sex work be considered morally unproblematic, insofar as consent is involved?
What is consent in this context? Years ago, when I was briefly in Kolkata for an assignment I had a long chat with Prof. Ratnaboli Chatterjee who had worked with the sex workers of Shonagachi, the red-light district. She had told me how when young girls are trafficked into the brothels, they are first “broken in”. This would ensure that they won’t leave, for now even their parents won’t take them back. That first act of sex would be, I assume, non-consensual, violent, but then, having resigned to her fate, when the sex-worker continues to perform sex and transact money, is consent still a consideration?
The professor had told me about the “Calcutta Model”, which was a reminder of how morality, dignity, and aesthetics are relative preoccupations. In the “Calcutta Model”, they would hire older sex workers as sex educators to evangelize condom usage as HIV was slowly rumbling into a shriek in the public consciousness. But, the professor continued, some of the elder sex workers refused, seeing the images they would have to show, of what disease looks like, “Ganda picture nahin dekhenge.” That they won’t see such dirty pictures, that it was against their ideas of aesthetics and morality. They found it obscene. It put them off. They thought it was immoral to discuss such things.
Morality, that slippery little slab of slime — there is no one way to grasp it, no one way to hold it in your hands, control its shape. To think of sex work is to entangle in the complications of feminism, the limitations of consent, the addendums to pleasure, the asterisks to violence. But maybe its complication is a ruse. To move us away from the material circumstances into the realm of thought. Ifs and buts. Nuance. Layers. As a sex worker in Nobody Can Love You More: Life In Delhi’s Red Light District deadpans, “She makes money and makes love.” Sometimes, it just is that simple. But what when it is not?