We get to the bottom of the ‘Gangubai Effect.’
Echoing the music of “Dholida”, the Bangkok skyline shines bright with the success of Gangubai Kathiawadi. With trending reels, posts, and stories across social media, the story of Gangubai has secured a soft spot amongst its Thai audience. The Indian actress who plays Gangubai, Alia Bhatt, has herself taken to social media to share the movie’s admiration in Thailand. It is therefore not surprising that the film is trending as number 1 on Netﬂix in the country.
The story is loosely based on Indian social activist and sex worker — Gangubai Kothewadi. Adapted to screen by Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it is based on a chapter in the book Maﬁa Queens of Mumbai by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges. Without giving much away, the film traces the life of Gangubai, who was forcibly sold to a brothel and learnt to navigate her new life thereafter. It depicts her journey from her assuming the sole leadership of the brothel up until she wins the local elections and becomes a social activist fighting for the right to education for sex workers.
With divine set designs, stunning costumes, and skillfully composed music, it is to no wonder that the fi lm has transgressed boundaries and established a reputation globally. Yet, the way it has risen the ranks and found itself nestled in the hearts of Thai people, remains rather unique. This popularity has a longer origin; it can be linked to the history of sex work in the Indo-Thai spheres, establishing a connect that is more than just piggybacking off of visual elegance and aesthetic triumphs. Since both India and Thailand have not legalised sex work, the story of Gangubai has touched a chord that is relatable for women, especially female sex workers, from both countries alike.
Gangubai Kathiawadi has acted as a catalyst in helping Thai women relate to the sex workers’ industry in India. This has aided them to extend their perspectives beyond their own motherland. Indo-Thai women are ultimately working through a lens of shared solidarity and perception of sex work as a global phenomena, where refusal of their rights is just a global upshot.
Although sex work is illegal in Thailand, the Thai government, as well as brothel owners and sex workers, have found it is an extremely profitable business. According to a 2015 study undertaken by Havocscope — a company that researches and provides intelligence on the global black market, up to three percent of the country’s GDP can be attributed to the revenue generated by the Thai sex trade. Streets of Bangkok,
Phuket, and Pattaya are abuzz with sex workers openly soliciting customers on the streets. The illegality of such a profession need not necessarily result in the intolerance of it, but is rather acknowledged widely as simply an act of financial transaction. However, in professions like these, the idea of abuse and malpractice is deeply rooted and interconnected. The ferocious scenes of violence in the film are not just portrayed to add the “oomph” factor, but to highlight the brutal reality of sex work. The ramifcations of criminalising sex work is widespread; when legal frameworks are unsupportive of sex workers’ rights, their safety and protection are thoroughly jeopardised.
The discreet nature of sex work often results in instances of physical and verbal abuse that goes unreported due to fears of prosecution. Under the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, sex work is prohibited in Thailand and any person soliciting sex can receive a THB 1,000 penalty. Similarly, customers who solicit sex from underage workers can be jailed for up to six years. Such hostile environments thereby lead to higher levels of tolerance for abuse, increased chances of contracting STDs and rampant medical negligence. Furthermore, sex workers receive no workplace benefits or assurance of safety as brothels act as illegal establishments because they conduct unlawful practices. Thus, many workplaces are unregistered, that additionally do not account for health and safety standards.
The Joint Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Submission on the Human Rights of Sex Workers in Thailand in November 2021 highlighted the role of Thailand as a “transiting” country for sex workers. This means that there is an extensive raquette of sex traﬃckers which leads to growing numbers of migrant sex workers. They face the double jeopardy of prosecution; not only are they exposed to the threat of non-recognition over their rights as workers, but also the possibility of getting arrested on grounds of undocumented immigration.
Contributed by several local grassroots organisations, the UPR in 2021 sought to address the legalisation of sex work in Thailand. However, decriminalising sex work is often the last step in such long-term societal understanding and/or acceptance of it. This is because, in order to even discuss the act of sex outside of a committed relationship or a monogamous marriage, one has to address other non-orthodox forms of relationships like polyamory, swinging, polygamy, and so on. This will inevitably involve transgressing existing socio-cultural taboos and taking part in conversations different from those that have long been voiced.
Not only does Gangubai unfold a plethora of new discussions about the nature of human rights, but the political aspect of the fi lm also addresses the importance of sex workers being part of their nation’s political system. Any dialogue exchange involving sex workers is ultimately in vain if it does not involve the subject in question. Gangubai is a testament to the kind of channels one has to trespass in order to repeal systems of oppression and accumulate power to safeguard one’s own community. Gangubai’s true grit lied in her community-building eff orts while preserving the rights of sex workers in her vicinity.
Lastly, the sensationalising of the film can also be partially accredited to the role of COVID during the past two years. The shortfall in the income of sex workers has aided the long-term need to legalise sex work so that these workers receive equal remuneration from their governments through working schemes. Even though Thailand has begun lifting travel restrictions, what further obstructs their earnings is the several international borders that remain closed and/or continue to impose countless restrictions on travel. Known for its sex tourism industry, international travellers frequenting the red light districts generate much of the income for the sex workers in Thailand. So, the lack of such governmental payment schemes and the decreasing tourism industry have now forced many sex workers to look for alternative means of income and livelihood.
Many sex workers have anonymously taken to social media to discuss their dire situations, but to no avail. Even behind the reels and posts of rather notable Thai celebrities and influencers garbed in costumes that resemble Gangubai, are silent protests about the state of sex workers and hopes of their equal standing
in the Thai society. Gangubai Kathiawadi has stirred a cycle of relativity for its Indo-Thai audience and this after-effect is here to stay.
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