Sold to sex trade, she triumphs; language, violence.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Gangubai Kathiawadi is the story of a young girl sold into sex slavery who rises to own a brothel and procure rights and protections for sex workers in Mumbai, India, in the 1950s and '60s. No sex or nudity is shown, and the movie doesn't dwell on the violence that brought most of the girls to become sex workers, but that brutal fact is taken for granted throughout. Young women and girls are sold by friends and family to brothels, where they're imprisoned and raped until they recognize that they have nowhere else to go. A reference is made to untrustworthy men having sex with corpses. A woman is beaten severely by a paying customer. Women are chained to keep them from running away. This is based on a story presented in a 2011 book called The Mafia Queens of Mumbai. Infrequent use of language includes "f--k," "s--t," "ass," "damn," "hell," "bitch," "bastard," "scumbag," and "whore." Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and there are references to drug use. In Hindi and Telugu with English subtitles.
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What's the Story?
In GANGUBAI KATHIAWADI, young Gangu (Alia Bhatt), daughter of a "good" family, wants to be an actress. She runs off with her boyfriend from her small Indian town to what was then called Bombay to achieve stardom. But the boyfriend has another plan, dumping her at a brothel for 10,000 rupees in the city's notorious sex work area. She's raped, ending any possibility that her family will ever accept her or want her back. Gangu is strong-willed and smart and begins to see how she and her fellow sex workers can leverage what little power they have. She challenges the madam in charge, taking the entire workforce to the movies one day for a night off. She becomes a leader and spokesperson for the other women, treating them generously and lobbying the powerful for the rights of sex workers and their children, who were also shunned by "decent" society. Eventually she takes over the brothel and becomes a revered figure in the red-light district that is home to 4,000 sex workers and their shunned children. She runs for president of that neighborhood, overthrowing the current power by enlisting the aid of the local mafia chief (Ajay Defgn) and taming the police with bribes to minimize their raids. The movie reports that although developers try to oust the women from their neighborhood to build a skyscraper, with the assistance of a journalist, she meets with a sympathetic prime minister to at least temporarily secure the 4,000 women's homes.
Is It Any Good?
Gangubai Kathiawadi is a sprawling and unwieldy 153-minute epic, with breaks for musical numbers, as is customary in many Indian features. The movie treats the plucky and strategic Gangu as a larger-than-life figure of the 1950 and '60s, presenting her as if her accomplishments were on the same scale as those of Mohandas Gandhi, the 20th century activist whose use of peaceful passive resistance to oust the British rulers was memorialized in the sweeping 1982 biopic Gandhi. Gangu grandly refers to herself in the third person, as if a living legend, arguing that sex work should be legalized because without sex workers, society would crumble, more women would be raped, marriages would disintegrate, and chaos would ensue. Like Gandhi, she even acquires an acolyte journalist (Jim Sarbh) to support her cause. The movie touts women's rights and advocates for enlightened attitudes, including the idea that all religions are equal. Alia Bhatt, who looks a lot like Juliette Binoche, gives a riveting performance that carries us through what might otherwise feel like a long drag. She dances with feverish joy in the obligatory Bollywood opulent extravaganza production numbers.
As much as this may adhere to nuggets of actual biography, there's plenty to wonder about. Gangu throws in with a mafia boss, and there seems to be no downside to that risky proposition. He helps her, gives her his illegal alcohol business, yet never strong-arms her for more, as might usually be the case in that kind of deal. Although she's sometimes seen as abrupt and controlling, she's also kind, sending some kidnapped girls back to their families before they are sullied. Her reported crowning achievement of keeping developers from decimating the red-light district and making 4,000 working women homeless is fuzzy. What did she really accomplish? She returns from meeting the prime minister to a massive parade. What are they celebrating? The Indian Express reports that there are no contemporary accounts to support the movie's claims. The movie is facing legal challenges by adopted children of the real Gangubai.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the way that families of kidnapped young girls shun those girls once they have been forced to become sex workers. Does it seem unfair that their families blame them? Why?
Are women treated differently than men in 1950s India as portrayed in this film? How do you think the treatment of women then compared to the treatment of women in the United States at the same time? How about today?
Gangu is often seen as abrupt, mean, and dismissive, yet also kind, generous, and caring. How do you feel about her?
- On DVD or streaming: April 26, 2022
- Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ajay Defgn, Jim Sarbh
- Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 153 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: February 17, 2023
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