Art & Entertainment

Gangubai Kathiawadi: Why Kamathipura's Matriarch Is In The News Again

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' is in the eye of a storm, as the real-life daughter and grandson of the brothel owner are fighting to ‘protect the dignity’ of the long-dead queen of Mumbai’s red light district

Gangubai’s daughter Babita
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Kamathipura in central Mumbai is gearing up for the release of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-publicised Hindi film Gangubai Kathiawadi, which will hit the theatres on February 25. The Alia Bhatt starrer is being bandied as a “true picturisation” of Gangubai, one of the most powerful brothel owners of Kamathipura, whose lanes had seen a thriving sex trade until some years ago.

Though in present-day Kamathipura, sex trade is confined to a few lanes, public curiosity has given it a different dimension. As the release date nears, winds of protest are blowing through the area. Residents believe Bhansali’s film has taken away the dignity of the neighbourhood, by painting the whole of Kamathipura as a red light district.

They are demanding a ban on the film unless the contentious parts are edited out. Driving the protest is Babita Gowda, the adopted daughter of Gangubai. Helping her in the crusade against Bhansali is her son, Vikas Gowda.

Babita is barely five feet tall. Four of her front upper teeth are missing. She says they were ext­r­a­cted as they had become sensitive. Her dark hair is pil­ed high in a messy bun. The face, whose only acce­ss­ory is a small tattoo akin to a bindi, glistens in the incandescence of a single tubelight. Clad in a red synthetic sari, faded green blouse sans any jewell­ery, Babita appears to be a stark contradiction of the woman whose framed B&W photogr­aph hangs on the wall facing the door. It is difficult to believe that the woman looking out of the photograph with her long bindi, black framed glasses and thin lips is Gangubai, the once powerful brothel owner of Kamathipura.

Forty-five years after her death, the film has stirred a hornet’s nest. Based on writer Hussain Zaidi’s book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, the filmmakers claim it showcases the life of the powerful woman.

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Queen of Nightlife Poster of the film

Babita is angry at the celluloid depiction of her mother. The ire of the 55-year-old (as she claims) is fired by promos of the film. She says it is grossly out of sync with her late mother’s life. Babita’s 34-year-old English-speaking son Vikas, who has grown up in the lanes of Kamathipura, has never seen his grandmother. By the time he was born, she had passed away. Yet, he stands in support of his mother to “guard the dignity of his late grandmother”. There were other adopted children, but they moved away from the infamy of Kamathipura and changed their names to avoid any connection to Gangubai. The Gowdas live in Babita’s marital home, which is close to the house where her mother once lived. They say they will never move out of Kamathipura as it is the place that has given them an identity.

“We’re fighting for our mother’s dignity. There are factual inaccuracies in the book and also the film. We are demanding a ban on the film,” says Babita to Outlook. “Kathiawadi was not my grandmother’s surname. We are fighting for the dignity of our family, my grandmother, my mother and this area we live in,” says Vikas, an employee of a reputed bank. “Kamathipura is a vibrant place with so many educated people. Why isn’t Bhansali showing today’s Kamathi­pura? His film will bring more disrepute to this place,” says Vikas.

It is difficult to believe that the woman looking out of the photograph with her long bindi, black framed glasses and thin lips is Gangubai, the once-powerful brothel owner.

We are sitting in a small white-tiled room that has an altar of Goddess Ambabai on the wall next to the one with the photograph of the long-dead protagonist. Heaped on the far corner of the wall with the deity are oversized steel vessels, all filled with water for the family’s daily use. Behind the front door is a small space used for bathing and washing clothes. A loft is occupied by two girls, who are Babita’s adopted daughters. The light here is dim, in contrast with the room below. Both are pursuing higher studies. Babita’s biological daughter Khushboo, a designer, is married. She does not live in Kamathipura. Despite the inf­amy of the place, it wasn’t too tough to find a suitable boy for her, says Babita.

“The Kamathipura of today is very different from back then. There are doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers and people from all walks of life living here. Show that, show people the reality of today,” argues Vikas.

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Red Light Sex workers in Kamathipura (left); the building where Gangubai lived and a poster protesting the film’s release

Many of Kamathipura’s 16 lanes have been home to commercial sex workers and are coun­ted among India’s largest red light district. Tho­ugh their numbers have dwindled, there are many who still practice the world’s oldest profession. Gangubai was reportedly the queen of this empire and had enviable connections with all those who mattered. “A chair was placed for my mother permanently at the naka (street corner). She would sit there like a queen,” reminisces Babita.

Back in Gujarat where she hailed from, Gangubai was known as Ganga Harjivandas. According to the book and the film, Gangubai came to Mumbai with her husband Ramnik Lal as she was keen on working in Bollywood films. The book suggests that her husband deceived Gangubai and sold her to a brothel for Rs 500. Either way, she ended up as a commercial sex worker in Kamathipura and developed close ties with the then underworld don Karim Lala. The book mentions that many members of the und­erworld were her clients. Eventually, she rose to become one of the mafia queens of Mumbai, writes Zaidi in his book. “This is absolutely false. My mother met Karim Lala to resolve the problems of the people. There are people from every state in Kamathipura. They were being exploi­ted. My mother stood up for them and helped them. She was a queen, not a mafia queen,” laughs Babita.

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“Kamathipura is a vibrant place with so many educated people. Why isn’t Bhansali showing today’s Kamathi­pura? His film will bring more disrepute to this place.”

Remembering her mother as a fair-complexioned, elegant lady who only wore white or cream coloured saris, Babita speaks of Gangu­bai’s passion for gold. “She wore a lot of gold. She was always decked up in necklaces and bangles, and her hair was held up by a flower-­shaped clip in gold. She even had a gold toothpick. Bahut shaukeen thhi meri maa (My mom was a connoisseur),” narrates Babita.

Gangubai’s address in Kamathipura was Bungalow Number 5, a sprawling complex that housed nearly 200 “girls”, domestic helps and the adopted children. “Ours was the first house to have a B&W TV and a refrigerator. There were about 200 girls who worked for my mother,” says Babita. “She stood up for the rights of everyone who worked in Kamathipura. The women who worked here had so many problems. My mother solved them through her contacts. Everyone res­pected her,” said Babita, who has sought the help of MLA Amin Patel to take forward the fight for her mother’s dignity.

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In solidarity with the Gowdas, residents of Kamathipura have already started protests agai­nst the film. Echoing their stand, Patel has also met Maharashtra cultural affairs minister Amit Deshmukh, demanding that the name of the film be changed, and Kamathipura be shown in a better light.

Gangubai passed away on September 8, 1977, at the age of 85. For Vikas, the stories of his grandmother are inspiring. “My mother was bindass. She spoke her mind. She never spared anyone who was wrong,” says Babita, navigating down memory lane. For Babita, an orphan, her mother gave her much beyond her needs. Gangubai believed in community living. So every child in the lane got new clothes for major festivals. She shared all that she had, says the daughter. Did her mother ever send clients her way? “Never. Never. Never. I was her daughter. She loved me a lot,” says Babita. Gangubai loved and lived a luxurious life. “She always drank Rani chaap whi­skey. She played matka (a form of gambling), went to the horse races and had many domestic helps. She had a white Ambassador car and looked after 25 street dogs. She would feed grains to pigeons and sparrows and jaggery-­masur dal to stray cows. Every Thu­r­s­day, there would be a line of beggars queuing up outside our bungalow. She would give them money and food,” recalls Babita.

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Gangubai was passionate about Hindi films and the family often went to the theatres close by—Albert being their favourite—to watch them. “We visited Haji Malang every year, and half of Kamathipura would accompany my mother.” The only sister among eight brothers, Gangubai never returned to her hometown. However, she always asked those tra­velling back from Gujarat for news about her family. She remained single and did not have any biological children. According to Babita, her mot­her was a healthy person, except for an occasional bout of asthma.

Gangubai loved watching wedding processions that passed through the lane. She would ask the band to play her favourite song “Baharon phool barsao, mera mehboob aaya hai”. Only then wou­ld the procession be allowed to proceed. “My mot­her had a heart of gold. This is the reason peo­ple in the lane have her photographs on their walls,” says Babita with a smile, adding that Gan­gubai lived by the belief that a lie told for the greater good was no lie at all.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Kamathipura's Matriarch")

Haima Deshpande in Mumbai

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