Gangubai Kathiawadi did something different while talking about women who are involved in sex work. It portrayed them as women - nay, people who are just as much a part of the society. It was portrayed as it should be.
But long before Gangubai Kathiawadi, a few other Hindi movies also explored the life of sex workers, and tried to throw a spotlight on their lives, challenges, and society's perception towards them:
Shyam Benegal’s Mandi was not only ahead of its time but also offered a more dignified representation of sex workers. It focused on their lives beyond their profession. As it is for any other professional, their profession may define part of their lives, but it did not have to demean them The cast was just as powerful as the story and it managed to leave a mark that has stayed after all this time.
The film managed to humanize sex workers with the very first glimpse. While doing that, it also focused on the less talked about perspective - how men look at sex workers, as women who are 'impure' and 'foul-mouthed'. The Kareena Kapoor starrer showed the human side of sex workers viewed as properties.
The Anurag Kashyap film is a modern-day take on the classic Bengali novel Devdas and it explored the fact that sex work could be a choice. It didn't restrict the life of a sex worker when it focused on the backstory of Chanda. The film was a fresh and more realistic view of female choices, and making the best of a bad situation.
4. Anaarkali Of Aarah
Anaarkali Of Aarah put light on the safety of women who are involved in sex work or who are 'treated' as sex workers. Anaarkali is an orchestra singer who fights for justice when society thinks that the vulgar treatment is normal for somebody in her profession. We beat around the bush when it comes to this discussion but the film and the characters made sure to be vocal about it.
5. Tikli And Laxmi Bomb
Directed by Aditya Kriplani, the film focused on sex work in the most realistic sense, and brought us closer to a world which has always been distant in Bollywood. Tikli And Laxmi Bomb didn't shy away from exploring all the angles and perspectives involved. It looked at sex workers through a feminist lens - how it should be.
6. Chandni Bar
Tabu's portrayal in the film, is an add on to the already strong story, where she has to take up work in a bar as a dancer. The film explores the harshness that with the life as a sex worker, thanks to society's judgements and the brutality meted out by people in general, and often, 'customers'.
7. Begum Jaan
Wrapped in politics and the ways of surviving in a man's world, the film was a broader look at sex work. It was a stronger, more firm take on the subject majorly because of its characters.
It remains a fact that the film was ahead of its time and garnered a lot of praise for its beautiful story. At that time, Pyaasa also managed to bring a different plot, concerning sex workers. It was an elaborate look on the topic and the need to humanize sex work.
These films managed to destigmatize sex work and the way we look at sex workers. Something, that remains ignored in our society and in turn, cinema.