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Why Thai women adore Kanku Pie

Updated on: 29 November,2022 07:17 AM IST  |  Mumbai
C Y Gopinath |

It took me a while to realise that in a country where a ‘b’ is pronounced like a ‘p’, and a ‘g’ like a ‘k’, a Kanku Pie is much more serious than just something exotic to eat

Why Thai women adore Kanku Pie

Former Miss Universe Thailand Chalita Suansane dressed in a white saree create a Gangubai-inspired look. Pic/Instagram

C Y GopinathThe first time a Thai asked me what I thought about Kanku Pie, I replied honestly that it was not one of the pies I was familiar with. I had views on apple pie, pumpkin pie and custard pie, but Kanku was a new one.

I may be forgiven for this small misunderstanding. Thais have strange phonetic rules when they transliterate words from English to Thai. The relevant rule in this case was that when Thais see a ‘b’, they pronounce it like a hard ‘p’. Similarly, when they see a ‘g’, they say it like a hard ‘k’.

Once I had figured this out, the mystery of Kanku Pie solved itself easily, becoming—well, Gangubai. Yes, the movie with Alia Bhatt as the mafia queen of Kamathipura. 

In Thailand, she becomes ‘Kankupai’, the gorgeous, supercool sex worker queen who puts men in their place and gets exactly what she wants every time.

The film was released in Thailand on February 25 and became a sensation, spreading through social media shares. Low-slung white hipster sarees and blouses began sashaying down sidewalks. Oversized dark glasses were in, as recreated ‘looks’ and scenes from Gangubai began storming Instagram and TikTok, garnering millions of views. 

An awestruck Alia Bhatt shared a video of Rachaya Noppakaroon, a Thai transgender model, recreating the Dholida dance.

Others who went full Gangubai included popular Thai actress Cindy Sirinya Bishop; former Miss Universe Thailand Chalita Suansane; and even an octogenarian grandmother whose take on Gangubai went instantly viral.

Gangubai began streaming on Netflix on April 26 and stayed on the Top 10 list of films in Thailand for seven weeks. 

One self-styled Indian-Thai social scientist pontificated in Bangkok’s Masala magazine that Gangubai had “acted as a catalyst in helping Thai women relate to the sex workers’ industry in India. . .Indo-Thai women are ultimately working through a lens of shared solidarity. . . where refusal of their rights is just a global upshot”.

Erudite poppycock.

Is Gangubai really a hit in Thailand because, like India, it has a thriving sex industry? Did a Bollywood song-and-dance megahit really stir a social awakening in another country?

I’ve done my homework. The first myth is that all of Thailand is like all of Mumbai’s Kamathipura and that Thai women are ‘easy’. As proof, you might be shown sweating, grossly overweight white foreigners with pacemakers in Bermuda shorts waddling through city streets with fetching young Thai women. He looks very retired, she is attentive, managing to look cheerful though she’s definitely bored. They’re holding hands like teenage lovers. And it’s all paid for—by agreement, they’re both getting exactly what they want from this.

But Thailand is not a nation of sluts. It’s a country of crushed young women and single mothers crippled by little schooling, living in extreme poverty with aging parents to look after and children they hardly get to see. Hair styling, nail care, a spectrum of massages from therapeutic to soapy—these are the vocations they can reach with a little training. And yes, for the more desperate, sex work, a $6.4-billion industry that provides 3 per cent of Thailand’s GDP.

The second myth is that American soldiers started the sex industry here during the Vietnam war when they visited Thailand for R&R—Rest and Recreation (though some believed ‘Intoxication and Intercourse’ might have been a better description). Americans did create demand and poor women did migrate to Bangkok from rural towns to fill that need, but transactional sex in Thailand goes back centuries, when kings had concubines and women were tradable. It was even legal and taxable once. 

Of late, sex work has become somewhat gentrified. A woman could say she was a freelancer and hang on to some dignity. COVID-19 robbed millions of their livelihoods, but it also increased the lines of evening ‘freelancers’ on Sukhumvit. Behind their lipstick and mascara, though, here are women with their backs to the wall, trying to look as pretty as they can because their appearance is all they have the power to control.

Then along comes Gangubai, drop-dead gorgeous, trash-talking, fearless, every man’s nemesis—and what a dancer!

Gangubai wasn’t a hit because it echoed the shared pain of Indian and Thai women with their bodies on sale. I think it made women feel good about themselves, no matter what they did for a living. If you couldn’t be Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai and rule the world, you could at least try to dress like her and do the Dholida.

The last time I came from India to Thailand, I had to carry six ghagra cholis in my suitcase. One was for a young woman who clips my toenails; another was for my 62-year-old hairdresser of many years; two were for men, one Thai and one Laotian, who thought this would win them points with their Thai ladies.

And one was for a high-ranking Thai woman in the United Nations who swore me to secrecy.

You can reach C Y Gopinath at
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