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.