Legal Controversy Over ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ Shows How Marginalized People’s Stories Are Appropriated
The Supreme Court on Wednesday recommended that the filmmakers of Gangubai Kathiadwadi, an upcoming biopic about a courtesan in Mumbai, change the film’s title. The bench, comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and JK Maheshwari, was responding to a petition by a man claiming to be Gangubai’s adopted son. The petition sought to appeal a Bombay High Court verdict that refused to stay the release of the film.
The petitioner claimed that the film, and the book it was based on — The Mafia Queens of Mumbai — were defamatory and infringed on his right to privacy, self-respect, and liberty, Live Law reported.
This is not the first objection from people in the real Gangubai’s life. Others who were related to her and still reside in Kamathipura — a “red light” district in Mumbai where Gangubai once reigned supreme — claimed to be receiving objectionable comments from men ahead of the film’s release. The incident already has parallels to another biopic that was told without regard for the privacy and consent of the people involved: Bandit Queen.
“I will make my own film and tell the true story. I will talk about what was done to me and what I did to people… How can they show a woman like this, baar-baar (repeatedly)? This is all a vyapar (business),” said Phoolan Devi, the legendary member of parliament and activist on the 1994 biopic on her life. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the infamous film is known for its voyeuristic portrayal of gang-rape — without Phoolan Devi’s consent. Reportedly, she wasn’t even shown the film or invited to screenings to watch the supposed story of her own life.
Phoolan Devi’s real life story contained brutality in it, but so much more. The film about her would have, perhaps, had the nuance it needed if it had consulted her or cared to involve her own thoughts on the narrative about her life. Instead, her story was appropriated for art, where the director felt it was within bounds “to relentlessly assault the viewers’ senses so that he or she could live for two hours the life of an oppressed, low caste woman in a rural area. Be treated as sub-human. An animal,” as Kapur said, of his vision.
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The dehumanization is arguably unique to biopics about people who lack the social, cultural, or economic capital of “elites.” In contrast, films about people with storied careers in films, sports, or those with more “respectability” are often loving hagiographies or, if not that, are at least told after careful consultation with those involved.
Take, for example, the recent Shakuntala Devi biopic. “We spent almost three years talking to Anupama Banerji — unwrapping the many, many layers of her mother’s story!” the makers of the film said. Or take the biopic about Sanjay Dutt, Sanju. “We had shown everything and he [Dutt] never came to the shoot. I was wondering, what will be his reaction?… He was watching the film and I was stealthily watching his reactions,” director Rajkumar Hirani said in an interview.
On the other hand, more recently The Dirty Picture, also a biopic on famed actor and dancer “Silk” Smitha, ran into similar troubles as Gangubai and The Bandit Queen in that Smitha’s family members objected to her portrayal in the film. They filed a legal notice that they were not consulted, and that filmmakers didn’t seek their permission for the movie beforehand.
“Life story rights,” as they have begun to be called in Hollywood, are slippery and difficult to define. Legally, people don’t have strong protections preventing their stories from being appropriated for art. But this doesn’t preclude accountability and respect for privacy — something that, when it comes to people whose respectability is taken for granted, is often waived by default.
The pattern speaks to a pervasive and troubling attitude among filmmakers as to who deserves to be involved in the telling of their stories, and who doesn’t. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali also ran into trouble for his comments recently on actor Alia Bhatt’s “upper class” background, praising her for taking on the role of Gangubai nevertheless. This, and the legal drama with a historical precedent, shows a classist and casteist attitude towards storytelling.
Excluding the kin of the biopic’s subject is not only a disservice to the person, but also to their story. Who better to breathe life into a character than the people they knew and loved? But basing the film on a book — written, again, by upper caste, privileged authors who are as removed from the subject as the filmmakers — is a trend often seen with films about marginalized figures. In the process, even if the film is factually accurate, it cannot be said to be giving agency to the very character whose story is being told.
Who owns the right to tell stories about a person? Whose gaze is represented in which stories? These are pressing questions that film industries must begin to take seriously.