Men could learn a thing or two about being women’s allies from Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai

Both Rahim Lala and Amin Faizi’s roles are pivotal in the film with respect to Gangubai’s journey, and offer insights into real ways in which men can use their privilege to be allies to women.
Alia Bhatt from Gangubai Kathiawadi
Alia Bhatt from Gangubai Kathiawadi
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Spoilers ahead

The fact that I watched Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi on the eve of International Women’s Day was a coincidence. But it got me thinking when I saw several banal messages – some of them certainly well-meaning – on social media the next day. There were also the usual marketing gimmicks like discounts, and shallow appreciation. All these things happen year after year on March 8, but it’s clear that despite being well-meaning, men (and women too) can often fail to be true allies. And there’s a thing or two we can learn from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film in this regard.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is a fictionalised account of Gangubai Harjivandas, a sex worker and “madam” in a Kamathipura brothel in the 1960s Mumbai. It is also worth noting that Bhansali’s film glosses over several aspects of Gangubai’s life, such as her involvement in crime, drug trade, and the underworld. Alia’s characterisation also misses the haggardness of the life she lived as a trafficking victim and sex worker. However, the film is enjoyable and reasonably moving, even if flawed. There are a few important men in Gangubai’s life who appear in the film, including Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) who is Gangubai’s sworn brother, and Amin Farzi (Jim Sarbh), a journalist. Gangu meets Lala after a man called Pathan, who works for him, brutally assaults her. It leaves her with several broken bones and a physical scar that runs across her neck and torso. It appears that the brothel’s gharwali (pimp), Sheela maasi, used Pathan to intimidate Gangu for flouting rules and setting her own terms for working. Lala is moved by Gangu’s dignity and strength when she tells him that her work is her ‘dharma’, and seeks justice. Lala, an underworld don, promises her justice and since then Gangu becomes his sworn sister.

Gangu benefits immensely from her relationship with Lala. She gets the police who raid her kotha (brothel) and others to toe the line by peddling his influence. I kept waiting for the plot to turn – like relationship between Lala and Gangu turning sour or Lala controlling her in return for the protection he offers. In the period in which the film has been set – the 1950s and ‘60s – one did not expect men to particularly respect a sex worker, that too one who doesn’t lower her eyes in shame, and speaks about her ambition and her rights. However, I was pleasantly surprised when this didn't happen. In fact, Lala turns out to be a powerful ally, one of the characters who shows how men can use their privilege to uplift women even today.

Throughout the film, it is apparent that Gangu, who ensures that Lala knows she revers him, wants to keep him in her good books. There are moments when they differ – especially when Gangu asks for a stake in Lala’s liquor business in order to raise money to stand for an election in the colony where she and 4,000 sex workers reside. However, at no point does Lala speak for her. He offers her space and dignity, and the consideration to speak her mind. When a school is coming up in Kamathipura’s neighbourhood and there is a movement to evict sex workers due to their “bad influence” on school girls, Lala invites Gangu to a meeting where she is told about these developments. He stands up for her against a man who tries to bribe them to evict the sex workers from Kamathipura. However, Lala does not fight Gangu’s battles – he tells her that she must do this for her community, and he will only deal with the builders.

Another important character in the film is journalist Amin Faizi, who profiles Gangubai and her struggle to get sex workers their rights, and their children, education. When her story is published in a magazine, Faizi is instrumental in telling her that she should capitalize on the media attention. He facilitates her journey to reach a larger audience about her cause, and ultimately, connects Gangubai to a politician who helps her meet the Prime Minister in exchange for Kamathipura’s support for his party in an election.

Both Rahim Lala and Amin Faizi’s roles are pivotal in the film with respect to Gangubai’s journey and offer insights on real ways in which men can use their privilege to be allies to women. While the world has changed substantially since Gangubai’s time, it is still largely still run by men. Men who continue to be in positions where they can make decisions, control power, and money. Many men also see feminists and feminism as the opposite of misogyny (hatred for women), i.e. misandry (hatred for men), when it isn’t. They find fault in policies of affirmative action for women such as reservation and protecting girl children. However, being an ally is not necessarily about giving up your position and what you have earned – it could simply mean to use your influence and voice to create space for those who have been deprived of it.

Some ways in which Lala does this is by acknowledging that as a young sex worker, Gangubai wouldn’t have the access to justice or even legal recourse against Pathan. When the world objectifies her, he offers her respect and dignity, thereby using his position to set an example for others. Lala knows that she wouldn’t be privy to governmental discussions and meetings and chooses to intimate her about the proposal to build a school in her neighbourhood in advance, so that she can fight her battle. Similarly, Faizi, who publishes her story in a magazine, realises that a young woman, who has not left Kamathipura in 12 years, Gangubai may require help to speak on a stage with reputed politicians on her own and helps her get access to that platform. He facilitates Gangubai to reach places where she can tell her story in her own words, and demand the rights of her community. The prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (Rahul Vohra), also sets an example, taking a political risk by allowing the sex workers’ colony to remain next to a school, thereby using his privilege and power with responsibility.

While many men – and even more privileged Savarna women – could be well-meaning, they erroneously try to speak for those they want to help. An important aspect of being a good ally is to set aside preconceived ideas of “we know better” and allow marginalised communities to speak for themselves. It is to share the platform we already have access to for these voices to write their own narrative. To be a true ally is to stop gatekeeping, remove conditions premised in prejudice to facilitate inclusion. In today’s world, it could look like asking women whether they want to be sent back home at 5 pm in a company cab or whether they would like other ways to ensure their security and safety. It could also be discussing with your domestic worker how much paid leave and weekly offs you can agree on. It could take the form of including more Dalit and Adivasi voices in our panel discussions on women’s rights. And it would certainly help to not say “not all men'' when women say “Me Too”.

We don’t really expect men to fight our battles. But since men’s voices often carry more weight, it is perhaps not unreasonable to ask that we expect you to share the platform so that we are finally heard about the issues that affect us, and that we are not spoken over and for. Sometimes, allyship can just be holding space for us to tell our stories. And like Gangubai and her friends showed, that’s not a bad place to begin. 

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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