Welp, time for the spoilers review! Which won’t give you a heck of a lot more than the no spoilers review, because there isn’t really much of a beginning or an end to this story, it all is just sort of a goes along without a point.
Whole plot in one paragraph
We start with a young girl being prepared for her first client at a brothel. And then a few days later she is still screaming and complaining so they call Gangubai to come talk to her. Alia arrives and tells the girl her story. She was the educated daughter of a barrister who ran off with her boyfriend to be a movie star and ended up sold into a brothel. At first she complained, but then she went out on the street and had her first client. And determined she would be reborn as the best prostitute ever. Within a few years she was tough enough even to scare the Madam, who arranged for her to have a dangerous client that tried to kill her. Alia learned the client worked for the gangster Ajay Devgan and went to Ajay to demand justice. Ajay was impressed and helped her destroy the gangster and took her as a sister. When the Madam died, Alia naturally took over as the new Madam. Now she is a power in the neighborhood and running in the local election for “president” of the neighborhood. The flashback ends and we move on to Alia navigating the election. At the same time she meets the cute new tailor’s assistant. They flirt and fall in love. But Alia ends up using him, getting a daughter of her brothel married off to him with much fanfare and thereby impressing the neighborhood and winning the election. And then a new challenge, the local school is suing to get them evicted because they are immoral. Alia starts fighting the school and gains support from the reporter Jim Sarbh. He gets her to give a speech to a public improvement group where she defends the right of sex workers to exist. Jim ends up helping her to get an audience with Nehru himself and gaining Nehru’s support to save the neighborhood. And then she comes home and has a parade and that’s the end.
The first two thirds of this movie aren’t that groundbreaking. Young girl tricked into prostitution, meets the Madam, has her first client, falls in love, gets heartbroken because Love Is Not For Such as She. It’s every Tawaif movie ever. Just with more swearing.
It’s not really a good fit for the last third where Alia is tough and strong and sure of herself and fighting for her neighborhood. Bhansali keeps trying to Bhansali the story and bring up her still being in love with the boy who first tricked her, or her heartbreak of marrying off the boy she loves to someone else. Sure, tough sex worker activists also fall in love. But shouldn’t their story be more about tough sex worker activism and not about being all droopy and drippy over a boy?
The sex worker activism part is handled pretty well. It’s a tricky topic. Because on the one hand, human trafficking is horrible. But on the other hand, sex workers need to be protected from violence and exploitation. Where is the line between “rescuing” from human trafficking and “protecting your right to earn a living”? This movie doesn’t have a clear answer, but honestly, no one else has a clear answer either.
There are a few glaring flaws to me. First, we never see a woman choosing this life. Say, an abused wife or abused daughter who runs away to the city and chooses sex work because it is better from where she came from. Of course we don’t see that, it’s a Bhansali movie! Fathers and husbands are never blamed for anything! Speaking of, we also have a touching scene of the sex workers writing a joint letter to their fathers asking for forgiveness and expressing love. So sweet. But, what about FATHERS WHO SOLD THEIR DAUGHTERS OFF!!! Or, fathers who were abusive, who were rapists, who caused them to go into sex work. Doesn’t exist, not in Bhansali world.
Second, Alia’s big speech about the rights of sex workers ends with a message of “we are saving the other women from putting up with rape and blah blah blah”. So, wait a second, first we are accepting that all men have deviant desires that will be unpleasant for female partners. And second, we are accepting that no wives or “respectable” women ever have to put up with those desires. And of course third, that no proper woman ever enjoys sex, only the prostitutes. Not really a sisterhood of womanhood, much more a “virgin-vamp” line there.
Maybe that’s why it’s such a meandering film? Because Bhansali never really grappled with what his point was, with where he wanted to take it? I mean, sex workers are still treated like trash in modern India, their children still have a limited future, and just to underline this INDIA IS THE LARGEST SOURCE OF SEX TRAFFICKING IN THE WORLD. So, why are we watching this movie about this woman in the past when today, every 8 minutes, a child is sold into sex slavery in India? Not saying we shouldn’t be watching that movie, but, Bhansali really needed to answer that question for himself before he started writing and filming.
And really, Bhansali should have grappled with that as a moral imperative. I saw this movie with two women who grew up in Bombay, they actually knew the neighborhood shown because they used to ride the train past it. And on the way home I was mentioning how I was disappointed that the film didn’t show how this was still happening modern day and how parents sold their own children. And both women responded that yes, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, children are kidnapped. But parents don’t sell them. And it doesn’t happen in India. But, IT DOES!!! It happens in India literally more than anywhere else on earth. And most of the time, it’s the families and parents that sell the kids. Why am I even watching this movie if it’s not going to address the reality of the present day?
So, in the end, it’s another Bhansali fantasy. A fantasy world where only foolish girls who fall in love end up as prostitutes. Where prostitution by force is something that ended back in the 60s. Where prostitutes just want to fall in love and go home to their parents.
UGH! I HATE BHANSALI!!!