The one thing that’s making waves these days is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest release Gangubai Kathiawadi, and it honestly deserves the hype. Not only is the movie a brilliant piece of art, with gorgeous cinematography and on-point acting, but also, with a strong storyline, it brought a sensitive topic as sex work into mainstream Bollywood.
Now that the elephant in the room has been addressed, I couldn’t help thinking about the portrayal of sex workers in the Hindi film industry so far. While Gangubai Kathiawadi looks at the world of sex workers through a feminist lens, giving complete agency to the female protagonist, we have had a limited representation of these women in Bollywood. Mostly, though not always, they are these seductive, paan-chewing women with just a monetary mindset, or they are these abla naaris who need to be rescued.
That’s when I remembered Chanda from Dev.D.
Dev.D, starring Kalki Koechlin, Abhay Deol and Mahie Gill, was a realistic, modern-day rendition of the iconic Devdas, which had a more romanticized approach in depicting a tragic love story. While the realism in the movie is something that deserves praise, the characterization of Chanda in the film needs recognition too.
Chanda aka Leni, played by Kalki Koechlin, was a modern adaptation of Chandramukhi, the popular fictional courtesan. She was a feisty, independent woman who lived life on her own terms. After she lands in an MMS sex scandal, her life takes a turn for the worse, as her father commits suicide out of shame, and her mother sends her to live in a small rural town.
However, she refuses to accept her so-called “ill-fate”, and travels to Delhi, where she begins her life as a sex worker at night, and continues her studies during the day.
What’s remarkable about the portrayal of Chanda is that it was different from what we had seen on-screen. Anurag Kashyap brought the character to life by telling her back story to the audience, which humanises the otherwise ‘dishonourable’ sex worker.
The movie doesn’t portray the so-called taboo topics in a notorious light, be it having pre-marital sex, substance usage or sex work. Moreover, something, as slandered as sex work, is depicted to be a personal choice, which brings home the idea that a woman’s agency over her body and sexuality is also a feminist ideology.
Chanda, who is involved in sex work, isn’t stigmatised like it’s done in most Bollywood films. The movie touched upon the seldom discussed humanistic side of sex workers, as we are shown the person Chanda was, and her identity, which is not just confined to her profession. Her emotions, reflections and feelings are paid heed to, which is seldom discussed in movies that touch upon prostitution.
While a positive picture of the hidden world of sex workers is painted, with the prostitute’s character being brought to life, the movie does away with the usual assumption of sex workers as victims who need rehabilitation and protection from pimps and brothel owners. We see how Leni’s part-time profession was a conscious choice on her part, and how she shares a candid relationship with her pimp Chunni and other sex workers.
Chanda’s story about how she ended up as a sex worker was not because of her being kidnapped and forced into it, but because society didn’t accept her for her choices. This is basically the root cause of the infamy of ironically, the most widespread and ancient profession, which is still stigmatised behind the curtains of society.
Even the language used in the film when addressing sex workers is modest and professional. For instance, in one scene, Dev asks Chanda how she landed up in the brothel house, to which she explicitly asks him why he called her a ‘sex worker’ instead of the degrading ‘randi‘. She further says that her clients addressed her as a commercial sex worker.
Moreover, no one commodified Chanda or tried to own her. As was her personal choice to enter the profession, so was it to leave it and pursue another career, without anyone interfering.
We need more such portrayals of sex workers in mainstream Bollywood to remove the stigma attached to the profession. Moreover, sex workers deserve greater, and more honest representation in the media, so that they are not devoid of the living standards they deserve, and the rights Gangubai fought for.