Since its release on 25 February, people have been flocking to cinema halls to watch Gangubai Kathiawadi. Despite cinema halls operating at 50 percent capacity in Mumbai and no late-night shows in Delhi due to the curfew, the film has managed to do good business and garner critical acclaim. However, before its release, the film ran into legal trouble.
A petition was filed by Congress MLA Amin Patel in the Bombay High Court on Tuesday, 22nd February. It asked the makers to change the name of the film just before its release and stall its release. As per Patel, it distorts the image of the red light area, Kamathipura. Such were the fears before its release, that the Kathiawadi community was afraid that their community name would be destroyed.
Gangubai Kathiawadi was famously known as the ‘Mafia Queen’. She was born in a well-known family in Kathiawad, Gujarat. Her real name was Ganga Harijivandas. From a young age, she had big dreams and wanted to pursue a career in acting. During her college days, she fell in love with Ramnik Lal, her father’s accountant. She ran away with him from Kathiawad and settled in Mumbai. In a twist of fate, her husband betrayed her trust. She was sold for Rs.500 to a brothel. It shattered Ganga. She became a prostitute and started living in the red light area called Kamathipura.
According to Hussain Zaidi’s book, “Mafia Queens of Mumbai”, she was raped and brutally assaulted by a member of Mafia Don Karim Lala’s gang. She went to Karim Lala to seek justice. Karim Lala beat Gangu’s abuser and this developed a sibling bond between the gangster and Gangubai. She rose to power because of her alliance with Karim Lala. Eventually, Gangubai ruled Kamathipura but she never exploited young girls and women into prostitution.
Even after going through a lot of suffering and hardships, she was determined to work for the betterment of sex workers. Just like Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I rise despite injustice meted to her life”, Gangubai was regarded as a messiah for sex workers and orphans. Supposedly, she also met Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who approved her proposal to protect the red light area.
Gangubai passed away in the mid-70s and didn’t have children of her own. However with the release of the film, many people have come forward claiming that they were adopted by her. They objected to her portrayal in the film and sought to put the film on hold. A case was also filed against Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Alia Bhatt by a man claiming to be Gangubai’s son. However, the plea was dismissed by the Supreme Court. As per the Senior Advocate C Aryama Sundaram the film glorified Gangubai and depicted her as a social worker. Moreover, since Gangubai passed away, legal heirs cannot pursue any defamation claims.
Despite the odds, the film was released worldwide. The film received an 8-minute standing ovation from 800 people at the Berlin Film Festival. Critics have also praised Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s kind of dialogue-heavy, sentiment on sleeve film. Though long gone, Gangubai truly epitomises the spirit of a woman who remained unfazed by her circumstances and gives back to society.