Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi takes place in a spruced-up version of Mumbai’s Kamathipura red-light area. Like most of Bhansali’s films, the Alia Bhatt-starrer unfolds within a self-contained world whose feel and feeling are amplified by the production design.

The film, set in the 1950s and 1960s, explores Gangubai’s battle to gain respectability for sex workers. Gangubai’s unapologetic attitude carries over to the sets, which radiate defiant pride and gritty beauty.

Over the decades, better-considered Hindi films about prostitution have paid close attention to the design and dynamics of the brothel. Films about classic tawaif culture, such as Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan, portray the kotha as an island of sophistication, the equivalent of a lotus in a pool of muck. Recent productions such as Mausam, Sadak, Chameli, Talaash and Ascharyachakit! highlight both the exploitative conditions of sex work and the camaraderie between sex workers.

Chameli (2004). Courtesy Pritish Nandy Communications.

Typical elements of brothel design include fraying pin-ups on the walls that comment on the distance between reality and fantasy. Trunks peep out from beneath overused beds, telling us about journeys that may never be made. Garments and underclothing are strung across anything that will hold them. The lighting is as lurid as the painted faces.

Some movies have attempted to give the brothel a makeover in keeping with their themes. In Shammi Kapoor’s Manoranjan, the bordello is free of double standards and filled with fun times. Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade depicts the brothel as a place of refuge for star-crossed lovers. It has artsy murals and fairy lights.

Ishaqzaade (2012). Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Abhishek Varman’s Partition-themed Kalank goes into outlandish territory. Part of the film takes place in Lahore’s red-light quarter of Heera Mandi.

The main location is Bahaar Begum’s mansion, which appears to have been built on top on a river. The canals that transport visitors to Bahaar Begum run through her abode. The hall where she gives performances resembles a ballroom and has a ceiling-to-floor chandelier.

Bahaar Begum even has a swing that miraculously floats above one of the canals, giving no indication of how she managed to make her way onto it.

Kalank (2019). Courtesy Dharma Productions/Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment.

Kalank’s sets always look like sets, as lifeless as the movie itself. But here are some films in which the imagined world of the brothel complements the filmmaker’s intention.

Gangubai Kathiawadi: Seat of power

“Both realism and glamour” is how production designers Amit Ray and Subrata Chakraborty described the meticulously designed sets of Gangubai Kathiawadi in an interview with The Kamathipura of Gangubai Kathiawadi hums with activity and movement.

The brothels are nestled between shops, cafes and the cinema. Women crowd entrances and windows, beckoning potential customers. The interiors are discreetly pretty. This sex work district is more convincing than its phantasmagorical cousins in Bhansali’s Devdas and Saawariya.

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Courtesy Bhansali Productions/Pen Studios.

Gangubai arrives at the brothel as a young woman tricked into the trade by her boyfriend. After her madam’s death, Gangubai assumes charge of her workplace. Her newfound power is reflected in the room she has to herself on the top floor.

Carefully placed props and personalised touches – a framed photo of Gangubai’s favourite actor Dev Anand, for instance – reveal how Gangubai has refashioned the space in her own image. It’s here that she perches in her chair, stretches out on her bed, and flirts with her new lover.

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Courtesy Bhansali Productions/Pen Studios.

Gangubai’s influence extends beyond the brothel. Bhansali has a tendency to place his leads in the exact centre of the frame. This means that in several scenes of Gangubai marching through Kamathipura, its streets and buildings seem to bend to her indomitable will.

Salaam Bombay!: The real deal

In Mira Nair’s realistic Salaam Bombay! (1988), there’s no glamour. Nair’s debut feature was filmed entirely on location in the squalid streets and “cages”, as the brothels of Mumbai’s Kamathipura and the neighbouring Falkland Road are known.

Salaam Bombay! follows the intersecting lives of the runaway Chaipau, the sex worker Rekha and her daughter Manju, and Rekha’s pimp and Manju’s father Baba. Chaipau’s job as a tea seller frequently takes him to a brothel that is an extension of the street – seething with humanity and yet inhuman.

Salaam Bombay! (1988). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Rekha’s brothel barely has any natural light. Inside, furniture jostles with humans for space. Production design Mitch Epstein reveals Rekha’s attempts to give Manju the semblance of a normal life. The walls in Rekha’s room are painted in hot colours. A decorative lamp glows in a corner.

Salaam Bombay!, the book by Nair and co-screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala about the making of the film, recalls Nair’s impressions of Kamathipura: “The brothels themselves were tiny, little rooms, painted the inimitable peacock green-blue, lined with bright handpainted colour photographs of the girls…. Outside the world is teeming.”

Salaam Bombay! (1988). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Nair sought permission to shoot at Kamathipura from a union of 16 brothel owners, whom she called “bejewelled Madames”. She promised them she would shoot only during the mornings for six days.

Salaam Bombay! was screened for the sex workers and their employers at Alexandra cinema in Mumbai Central – an apt location, given Alexandra’s proximity to Kamathipura. “I was told this would be a film but this is true, this is true,” one of the madams told Nair after the screening.

Salaam Bombay! (1988). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Mandi: Satire central

Shyam Benegal’s sly satire Mandi (1983) anticipated some of Gangubai Kathiawadi’s themes. Gangubai appears to have descended directly from the kinky-haired and sharp-tongued madam Rukminibai in Mandi. The brothel in Benegal’s film is similarly the target of moral outrage and gentrification. (The film also stars Alia Bhatt’s mother, Soni Razdan, as a sex worker.)

Rukminibai and her unruly posse operate from a two-storeyed house in a bustling neighbourhood. This brothel jangles with the competing energies and chaotic hilarity unleashed by Rukminibai and her employees.

Mandi (1983). Courtesy Blaze Entertainment.

As she tackles imagined woes and rank hypocrisy, Rukminibai darts about in a frenzy, infecting the place with her volatility. When forced to move to another location, Rukminibai momentarily droops but then regains her purpose. Her new brothel soon resembles the old in its manic messiness.

Production designer Nitish Roy’s cheerfully tawdry detailing includes racy wall art and brightly patterned bedsheets and curtains. Customers tend to their business in rooms spilling over with randomly placed objects.

Mandi (1983). Courtesy Blaze Entertainment.

The makeshift brothel is clearly a step down from the elegant kothas of yore. Roy justly won a National Film Award for his efforts.

Pakeezah: The gilded cage

Mandi is a depiction of the degeneration of courtesan culture. In a bygone era, the kotha and its resident tawaifs were “valued by nawabs as such as a place to be tutored in cultured behaviour, refined manners, and the arts of music and dance, as a place to be exposed to the company and bodies of women”, Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen write in Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

The book about the depiction of Islamic culture and history in Hindi films devotes many pages to the cinematic representation of tawaifs. Somewhere at the top of the list of iconic tawaif films is Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972).

Pakeezah (1972). Courtesy Mahal Pictures/Sangeeta Enterprises.

Released barely two months before lead actress Meena Kumari’s death, Pakeezah provides a bridge between the classical tawaif drama and contemporary films about prostitution.

Sahebjaan is a dancer at the Bazaar-e-Husn (Market of Beauty) in Lucknow. It’s aptly named. Amrohi, set designer NB Kulkarni and cinematographer Josef Wirsching visualise the neighbourhood as an open-air arcade where courtesans are the main items on display.

The three-dimensional sets include colour-coded houses that line either side of a buzzing street. Women can be seen dancing on the terraces and through large windows.

Pakeezah (1972). Courtesy Mahal Pictures/Sangeeta Enterprises.

Sahejbaan’s performances, delivered in a space that opens out onto the street, are mirrored by other performances in brothels. In the song Inhi Logon Ne, even as Sahebjaan teasingly cautions against facile moralising about her tribe, a brawl between bouncers and customers rages in the background. Sahebjaan and the other dancers continue to twirl about.

The film’s set-piece is Gulabi Mahal, the pink-hued mansion that Sahebjaan’s benefactor later buys for her in Delhi. This is a far more exclusive setting, with high walls to keep out the riff-raff, a driveway, marble floors, indoor canals that lead to Sahebjaan’s luxurious quarters, and chandeliers that Amrohi is said to have imported from Belgium.

Pakeezah (1972). Courtesy Mahal Pictures/Sangeeta Enterprises.

Yet, Gulabi Mahal is a gilded cage for Sahebjaan, who has fallen in love with a man beyond her station. As Sahebjaan lets her hair down in a massive receptacle of water and re-reads her admirer’s missive to her, she resembles the imprisoned bird that has been gifted to her. Its cage is golden too.

Amar Prem: Heartbreak Hotel

The Kolkata brothel in Shakti Samanta’s 1972 blockbuster is nothing out of the ordinary. Shanti Dass’s production design is a typical collection of white bolsters for clients, rooms with photographs of movie stars, and a corner for various gods.

Yet, this is no commonplace brothel. It’s where the sad-eyed prostitute Pushpa charms the alcoholic Anand Babu with her golden voice. It’s where Anand Babu escapes the loneliness of a bad marriage. And it’s a second home for the neighbour’s cute son, who captures Pushpa’s heart.

Amar Prem (1972). Courtesy Shakti Films.

Many of Amar Prem’s iconic scenes, including Anand Babu’s “I hate tears” declaration, take place in the brothel. Samanta imbues a collection of wooden sets with intense suffering, aching loss and unrequited feeling. As Pushpa and Anand grieve for the lives they may never have, the brothel is transformed into Heartbreak Hotel.

Amar Prem (1972). Courtesy Shakti Films.

Dev.D: Wish fulfillment

Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas has inspired many films in several languages. Most versions focus on the aristocrat Devdas, who, after losing his childhood love Paro, seeks refuge with the courtesan Chandramukhi and drinks himself to death.

Among the most well-known adaptations is Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955). The brothel is a simple set with barely any props. The chief object of beauty is Chandramukhi herself, played by Vyjayanthimala.

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s gaudy Devdas (2002), Chandramukhi’s lair is drenched in soft-focus lighting and decorated with curtains made of silk and glass. There’s little to distinguish the sets for Chandramukhi’s brothel, Devdas’s ancestral mansion and the home of Paro’s in-laws.

Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009) upends its source material in every possible way. Dev.D shifts the action to Paharganj in East Delhi. In one of its many seedy hotels crawling with backpacking tourists and pleasure seekers, a stoned/drunk Dev runs into Chanda and feels right at home.

Dev.D (2009). Courtesy UTV Films.

Sukant Panigrahy’s brothel is a multi-hued fantasy zone, cluttered with kitschy objects and devices that help customers retreat from reality. Since Chanda’s services including role playing, her boudoir is stuffed with wigs and costumes.

The curtains are crimson and the feather boas shocking pink. Anything is possible here, which is probably why Dev finds himself falling out of love with Paro and realising that he has more in common with the feisty Chanda.

Dev.D (2009). Courtesy UTV Films.

Pleasure palace: Utsav

Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984) is set in the fourth century in ancient Ujjaiyini (present-day Ujjain). The playfully erotic film follows the entanglement of the renowned courtesan Vasantasena with the impoverished Charudutt.

Production designers Nachiket and Jayoo Patwardhan dress up Vasantasena’s brothel with tasteful artefacts and wall art. Marigold garlands are laid out along the pathways.

The walls and the pillars are painted with earthy colours. In this welcoming pleasure palace, the Kama Sutra author Vatsayana has ample opportunity to expand his list of sexual positions (28 at last count).

Utsav (1984). Courtesy Film-Valas.

Also read:

‘Realism as well as glamour’ in the world of ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

Think Begum Jaan is tough? Meet Rukmini Bai from Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’

‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ review: Brassy Alia Bhatt dominates this saga set in a Mumbai brothel