Art & Entertainment

From Shabana Azmi To Alia Bhatt: A Walk On The Wild Side

Very few Indian directors have handled the subject of sex workers sensitively. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai is an exception.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Kamathipura as part of a reporting assignment. A colleague and I knew it’s not going to be easy but we were excited to explore this otherwise forbidden world. As the man, who was coordinating our visit, took us through the dingy lanes of Kamathipura, we realised that it was nowhere near what we had anticipated. The time was around noon. The man with us had kicked open a wooden door, peered inside for a second and closed it immediately, muttering under his breath, “subah subah shuru ho gayi”—loosely translated to, they are at it right in the morning—and walking away without even offering us an explanation. As we meekly followed him, another door was kicked open which led to a large, messy hall, with several exh­austed women deep in sleep, their clothes in disarray and a few children sleeping in between them. This was a world beyond our worst imagination. Here dignity was a luxury and survival was the only thing one could aspire for.

As I was watching one particular scene in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, where Gangu enters Kamathipura for the first time, walking into a room full of sleeping women, that uncomfortable memory of our visit came back in a flash. Credit to Bhansali for actually weaving a few realistic scenes in a film that is exp­ected to be larger than life in his trademark style. Bhansali’s sex workers are a mix of reality and fantasy. Distinctly different from the brothel and the brothel-keeper Chandramukhi, played by Madhuri Dixit, in his earlier film Devdas. Chandramukhi was all heart and flaunted her vulnerability, Gangu is all grit and chooses to give her longings a backseat, rep­lacing it with ambition.

Sex workers in Hindi cinema have always been largely dependent on the individual filmmaker’s gaze and imagination. While Bhansali’s view of the world of Kamathipura is full of light and colour and music, his central character shines in white—in a way reflecting the purity of her soul—in spite of the dim circumstances around her. However, Bhansali got so busy fleshing out his central character that the rest of the girls fade into the background and are, ironically, painted in one colour, that of helplessness. And Bhansali makes a distinct black and white differentiation between the madame of the house (Seema Pahwa) and the women working under her.

Bhansali’s sex workers are a mix of reality and fantasy. Gangu is all grit and chose to give her longings a backseat and rep­laced it with ambition.

This reminds one of Shyam Benegal’s ageing madam in his much-celebrated 1983 film Mandi. In stark contrast to Bhansali’s evil madam, Benegal’s Rukminibai, played brilliantly by Shabana Azmi, is herself a victim of circumstances. Just like the girls working under her. Just as no one chooses to be a sex worker, no one chooses to be a madam either. More realistic in approach as his style is, Benegal did not choose the easier path of lining up all his characters for sympathy, instead he showed them as real-life people of flesh and blood. But, of course, Bhansali’s film is a biopic of a real-life character, hence perhaps the extra att­ention to the central character is justified. Benegal’s movie was more of a fictional story of many characters coming together.

Handled as sensitively is Gulzar’s sex worker Kajri in his 1975 film Mausam. Mausam’s madam, interestingly called Gangu and played by Dina Pathak, has a heart, and she goads Kajri to get out of the brothel and find love. Gulzar’s Kajri craves for love, but is not the one to show her vulnerabilities easily. She struggles to make peace with the situation that she’s in and resorts to alcohol, just like Bhansali’s Gangu, to digest her situation better.

Just as Bhansali paints a beautiful picture in spite of the dismal set-up in Kamathipura, Shakti Samanta worked his magic with his central character Pushpa, played by Sharmila Tagore, in his 1972 film Amar Prem. Samanta’s film is set in Calcutta’s infamous red light area Sonagachi. It is the music that transcends the harsh realities of the central character’s life in both these films.

(This appeared in the print edition as "A Walk on the Wild Side")

(Views expressed are personal)


Shubha Shetty Is a film critic and producer