We go to the movies, sometimes to escape reality, sometimes looking for it. When a character felt the same way we did, we feel seen, we feel understood. And so, my favourite on-screen characters have always been ones I could relate to. Through the years, many female characters have beautifully depicted nuances of womanhood that were universally relatable. However, what Gangubai so unapologetically directed our attention to are the experiences we fail to acknowledge because we can’t relate; the experiences we fail to empathise with, because we just don’t know how to. As a rare voice that advocated for the rights of women in one of the most marginalised professions, Gangubai Kathiawadi, the character became not just my favourite female protagonist, but my favourite protagonist who understood what it meant to be a woman in a way most of us often failed to.
Empowerment, upliftment, respect – these terms do not spell the same things for all women. For some, it is equal pay; for some, it is for their opinion to be heard in a family discussion; and for others, it is basic human dignity. Today, we call it ‘intersectional feminism’ – approaching feminism in a way that understands and acknowledges how women from marginalised communities face oppression on multiple fronts. Progress for them could be what others may already have access to and is hence at the danger of being under represented. When Gangu gave her speech in Azad Maidan demanding rights and dignity for sex-workers, she was, in her own style, advocating for intersectional feminism.
Sex-workers face oppression owing to their profession, gender, financial and social status, lack of education, health among other reasons. It is considered taboo to a point where you cannot ever disassociate it from your own identity. Which is why what Gangu did is so heroic. Instead of shunning it, she embraced it. She said, ‘Yes I am a sex-worker and you better respect me for it’. This is not to say she was glorifying the trade itself. After all, she fought for the right to education of the kids of Kamathipura so they don’t have to work the way their mothers had to. What she was saying is ‘This is a profession where as a client, you make use of my services. But why don’t I get any respect for it in return? Why am I belittled, stripped of my dignity and basic rights? If this profession makes me a lowlife, what does it make you?’ Even today, while feminism is a concept still understood in bits and pieces, her approach to it is worth thinking about and putting into practice.
When Gangu wasn’t on stage or in processions, she allowed herself to be all shades of woman, all shades of human.In the way she embraces Afshaan and wishes for his gentle reassurances, we see a woman who wants to be held, to be loved. In the way she holds Kamli’s baby daughter in her arms and rocks her to sleep, we see a woman who has just so much love to give. In her disbelief upon seeing her picture on a magazine cover, we see the joy of a woman who never allowed herself to fly too high. During the final moments of the film, when she gives Faizi a forehead kiss and the kids a flying kiss, we see a woman who made not just a name but a family for herself.
Gangu was not a saint, she never claimed to be. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie was how they left it to the audience to interpret whether Gangu did some deeds out of goodness of her heart or with the upcoming elections in mind. When Gangu sends a young girl who was forced into prostitution back home, or when she gets Roshni, the daughter of a sex-worker married to her own love Afshaan, we see people saying ‘Gangu, ab toh tu election jeetne wali hai!’. Though the intent behind her actions is unclear, the emotion behind them is very, very clear. When the young girl chooses to die rather than stay in the brothel, we see her conscience flicker through her eyes. When Afshaan and Roshni are getting married, we see her silent heartbreak. This clarity within the ambiguity breathed life into the character and allowed us to empathise with her.
Simply put, she is a firecracker of a human. She drank her Rani Chaap, did her exercises and didn’t let anyone take advantage of her. Her relationship with the rest of the women at the brothel is one of my favourite parts of the movie. The frame where she lies next to an ill Kamli and they look at each other with love, helplessness and a lifetime of memories pouring out of their eyes is forever engraved in my mind. Alia Bhatt brought her to life with great sensitivity and understanding, like she swam through the tides of Gangu’s emotions, let them run wild and tamed them too. She embodied ‘Gangu wala safed’ with so much honesty and grace, even in her most unhinged moments, I couldn’t help but fall in love with ‘Alia wali Gangu’. She proved that power and physical attributes do not have any correlation, urging us to let go of stereotypical expectations of how powerful women should look and act.
I want to end this love letter of mine by mentioning how this Gangu was Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Gangu through and through. She expressed her anger through poems and heartbreak through dance. Someone like Anurag Kashyap would have brought a different Gangu to life, and I would have loved her too. After all, the fun in art lies in the interpretation.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.