As is often the case with his work, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's most recent film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, doesn't fail to shock. Based on a story from a chapter in S. Hussain Zaidi's Mafia Queens of Bombay, the film follows Ganga Harijavandas (played by Alia Bhatt). Ganga is a young woman who is trafficked into sex work by a boy she loves, Ramnik Lal. The film takes a critical turn as we see Ganga growing up in the brothel and realising how she wants to negotiate her position in the world. She decides to reclaim sex work: she changes her name to Gangu, participates in the sex business on her own terms, fights for the rights of her and other women in her brothel, and makes a national plea to legalise prostitution. While this daring, coming-of-age plotline is relevant in its own right, Gangubai also makes a very interesting commentary about cinema that might miss one's eye at first glance.
This interest in cinema is established from the get-go. The film begins with Ramnik promising Ganga that she can get roles in mainstream Bollywood films if she elopes with him. Excited by the idea of entering the world of stardom, especially to share the screen with her beloved Dev Anand, Ganga agrees to escape her house to follow her dreams. Except, it turns out that Ramnik is manipulating her for money. He sells her into sex work. Cinema breeds desires that land her into danger. Quite ironically, then, the film seems to warn its audience about the perils of its own form.
At the same time, the filmy world of Bombay cinema makes its way into her everyday life. For instance, we see all the sex workers sit underneath a photograph of the famous actress, Nargis, mimicking her posture and donning makeup to look like her. These workers also teach Ganga how to pose to solicit customers. Instead of becoming an actress for mainstream films, Ganga learns the performance involved in prostitution. Cinema thus informs and influences material reality, even as it remains into the realm of fantasy.
Indeed, the fascination for the world of cinema never dies in the film, even when Ganga becomes Gangu. Disobeying the rules of the malicious brothel owner, Gangu demands a day off from work to watch a film with her fellow workers. The workers wear their best saris to watch a Bollywood movie together. When a pedestrian makes a move at Gangu, assuming that she is at the theatres to offer her services, Gangu screams back and asserts that she is not working. She remarks that she has come to the theatres for leisure. After viewing the film, she lies back on her bed and notes how she can now sleep peacefully after having seen Dev Anand's face. Dev Anand, as an actor, becomes a pertinent object of desire in the film.
Little wonder, then, that Dev Anand shows up in other intimate moments in the film. Consider the song, "Jab Saiyaan," during which Gangu is sitting on the bed with her love interest—Afshaan—against a photograph of Dev Anand. While Afshaan looks away, Gangu quickly turns the photograph towards the fall, hiding Dev Anand's face. Gangu's attachment to Dev Anand seems phantasmic and real at the same time. She is attached to the image of him that is presented by Bollywood. And yet, this image has material significance for her, so much so that she finds it necessary to make Dev Anand look as she flirts with her other lover, Afshaan.
The figure of Dev Anand is also used to provide comic relief in the film. When Gangu tries to admit the daughters of some of the sex workers to school, the conservative Catholic school principal rejects them. The school principal mentions that he cannot take the girls in since the admission form requires a father's name that they don't have. Smirking, Gangu responds by saying that he can fill in "Dev Anand" as their father. In this way, a Bollywood star becomes a sigh of relief amidst the vicissitudes of everyday. Bollywood becomes simultaneously provokes impossible desires, offers solace, and engenders disappointments.
In some senses, we can say that Gangu becomes a star as well. When a journalist named Amin Faizi (played by Jim Sarbh) covers Gangu for an article, he takes photos of her and gets her story published on the cover of a literary magazine. As Gangu sees her own image on the cover of the magazine, she is stunned. The other sex workers praise her and tell her that she looks like a superstar.
Yet, it seems, that she doesn't want to be in the spotlight after all. Towards the end of the film, she addresses a large audience and advocates for the legal rights of sex workers. Everyone in the audience cheers and applauds her wit and intellect. When they click photographs of her, she looks away from the flashing lights and tells the cameramen to stop. She says she's not used to being filmed and photographed. She cannot be in front of the camera, even if that is what she always wanted.
For Gangu, cinema produces a world of endless possibilities and utopias. However, the cinematic universe maintains its charm only as an unattainable dream. This representation of cinema hits a chord with many of us: cinema fuels our fantasies of love and the good life and makes reality liveable. Even then, it often makes us feel as though our material world is incomplete. Our fantasies attach us to cinema, even as they seem to pull the wool over our eyes.
In this way, Gangubai Kathiawadi continuously meditates on its medium. It is deeply invested in the pleasures and dangers of cinema. One can say that the primary object of attraction for the film is neither Gangu, nor Dev Anand, not even Afshaan, but cinema itself.