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Sex workers in Hindi films often fall under the stereotype of having a heart of gold and needing male characters to rescue them. A look at this trope.
In a scene from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 remake of Devdas, the protagonist says to Chanrdamukhi, a courtesan: “…it is downright shameful to dance in front of men like this. You are a woman Chandramukhi, recognize yourself. A woman is a mother, a sister, a wife, a friend. When she is nothing, she is a prostitute.”
According to Devdas, the sex worker is no woman at all, just because she doesn’t adhere to the domestic role of a woman chalked by the society.
In the 1971 film, Pakeezah, the protagonist who is a courtesan compares the lives of women like her to living corpses. “Hamara yeh bazaar ek kabristan hai … aaisi auraton ka jinki roohen mar jaati hai … aur jism zinda rehte hai”.
Devdas or Pakeezah aren’t the only films like this, sex workers in Hindi films have been always stereotyped as the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold’ who requires a man to rescue her, and save a few exceptions, the tradition still continues.
Starting from the 1950s to the present day, Bollywood’s exploration of the character has been extensive in movies. A lot of these films dealt with the society’s hypocrisy towards dealing with these women, and denying them their basic respect or the right to live life as per their will. Movies like Amar Prem and Mausam, are some such examples.
Then there are movies like Pakeezah and Muqaddar ka Sikandar that show how such women are left unfulfilled because they are unable to get the man of their desire. The grittiness of the life of sex workers in Hindi films is also shown in movies like Sadak, Chandni Bar, and Lakshmi, which highlight their doomed existences.
However, as we see below, leaving aside a few, sex workers in Hindi films are women who are waiting to be saved, or women who have no agency of their own.
In most cases, these women are shown to either smoke and/or chew paan, they must dress in a garish manner, they must frequently use swear words, they are unable to escape their identities, they live in seedy brothels where they are surrounded by suspicious looking characters, they are impure and can never be like other ‘respectable’ women or aspire to be a mother or a wife, society doesn’t accept them, and their lives are similar to those of lifeless corpses. The only way out for them, according to most Hindi movies, is to be rescued by a man.
There is also a film called Zinda Laash made by Point of View, that shows how the sex worker in Hindi movies is stereotyped, and not regarded as a regular human being.
In the 1975 film, Mausam, Sharmila Tagore plays the role of a sex worker. There is a scene which shows the deep rooted bias against such women, when the cook who himself doesn’t belong to the upper echeleons of the society, refuses to eat food that is prepared by Tagore.
In this movie, an old Sanjiv Kumar goes about ‘reforming’ the ‘prostitute’ Sharmila Tagore and the dinstinction between the clothings or mannerisms of a ‘regular’ woman and a sex worker has been starkly depicted.
In another Sharmila starrer, Amar Prem (1972), the treatment of the sex worker is more or less similar. Here, Pushpa (played by Tagore) is a village belle who’d been sold into prostitution against her will. Pushpa finds a lover in one of her regular clients, Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna). She is also very affectionate towards her neighbour’s young son, Nandu. The movie portrays the biases against sex workers in Indian society when Nandu is constantly scolded by his stepmother for visiting Pushpa. The movie also portrays how dissatisfied people from ‘respectable’ parts of the society sometimes find solace at a sex worker’s place.
The fact that Pushpa dresses up like a married woman and considers Anand babu and Nandu to be like her husband and son respectively, shows how the film tries to put Pushpa’s character in a certain stereotypical mold (that of a regular housewife) to make her acceptable to the audience. However, the movie also depicts society’s hypccrisy by showing how the soil from a prostitute’s garden is taken to sculpt the Durga idol for Durga Puja.
Things changed little over the years. Preity Zinta starrer Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001) is a similar story of making a ‘good girl’ out of a sex worker. In the movie, Zinta is paid a huge sum of money to be a surrogate mother for a rich but childless couple. Zinta, who is an erstwhile streetwalker, undergoes some makeover and grooming which might feel very similar to Julia Roberts starrer Pretty Woman.
So, after this session, she becomes this Adarsh Bhartiya Nari whose life’s dreams revolve around a husband and a child.
It is not wrong to dream of such things. However, to show that domestication is the only way out for such ‘wild’ women is what is the problem with such movies.
Take the case of Laga Chunari Mein Daag (2007) for example. Firstly, the title itself seems to have a connotation of shame. As if, there’s a stain in the woman’s character because of her profession as a high class escort. The movie does show the acceptance of the protagonist by her family in the end.
However, the question still remains, that why did she need redemption in the form of being ‘rescued’ from her old life by a man?
Couldn’t she just opt for a different profession and live life on her own terms now after she gained financial empowerment?
How can we have a post like this without any mention of Rekha who brought to life the courtesan with a heart of gold in so many movies – Umrao Jaan, Mukaddar ka Sikandar, etc. who often seems to find her ‘redemption’ in being associated with the protagonist.
The ancient / historical courtesans like Amrapali (Vyjayanthi Mala – who, while finding her support in Bindusaar, abdicates everything to become a Buddhist monk, however), Anarkali (Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam – who prefers to die for her love of a man, rather than live her life free), Vasantasena (Rekha in Utsav, who reflects the relative freedom of thought and social status that sex workers were supposed to have in ancient, pre-middle ages India, yet she looks for succour in Charudutt, a man.)
The problem with most of the above mentioned films is that they never show that a sex worker can also come to the profession by her own choice. She can also exercise her agency regarding whom she wishes to sleep with. Like Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, “I say who, I say when.” This portrayal is seldom seen in Hindi movies (though in the earlier mentioned Mausam, Sharmila Tagore’s character did seem to have the agency to choose her clients.)
In Mandi (1983), a social worker, Shanta Devi protests against a brothel run by Rukmini Bai (played by Shabana Azmi). The neighbourhood joins Shanta Devi’s protests and soon the brothel has to be shifted miles away to a deserted location.
The film aptly portrays the society’s hypocrisy when it comes to sex workers. The once barren land flourishes with the relocation of the brothel.
Another movie that might stand out among the lot is Neha Dupia starrer Julie (2004). For a change, Dhupia’s character in this movie opts for the profession rather than being forced into it by some evil character. The movie then goes on to show that she falls in love with a rich man and then they both go on a reality TV show to challenge society’s views on sex workers. This is a nice take where her boyfriend defends her professional choice rather than acting like the rescuer.
Kareena starrer Chameli (2004) seems to be one of those rare movies where the character of a prostitute was sensitively portrayed even though Kareena’s outward mannerisms did depend on stereotypical tropes such as chewing pan and using swear words.
The love story that is shown to be subtly budding between Rahul Roy and her wasn’t based on Roy’s desire to rescue her from her ‘suffering’. It was portrayed like a love between equals. And that is where I feel this movie does justice towards showing the character as a living, breathing, ordinary and vulnerable human being and not some low life in constant need of pity and rescuing.
The 2017 film, Begum Jaan did try showing that sex workers can also exert their agencies albeit within limitations. The ending compared the women in the brothel to Rani Padmavati and her group of princesses who’d bravely jumped into the fire for their honour. The film makes a good point about sex workers having agencies over their bodies and fighting for the sake of their beliefs.
In another 2017 flick, Anarkali of Aarah, Anarkali, a performer of erotic songs, is seen to fight tooth and nail to get justice against a powerful man who molests her. This film again shows how a woman’s agency or consent matters irrespective of her profession.
As we can see from the analysis above, though things are changing gradually, a lot is left to be desired when it comes to the depiction of sex workers in Hindi films. What film makers need to understand is that there have been ENOUGH movies that have pandered to stereotypes and that have shown them to be these damsels in distress in need of rescuing.
Why can’t have sex workers in Hindi films depicted as ordinary humans like any other, with dreams and desires of their own?
Why can’t they be shown to be choosing this porfession and exercising more agency?
Even if they came to the trade against their will, why can’t they be their own saviours, too, instead of waiting for a man to save them?
And even if they fall in love, why can’t it be a relationship between equals rather than one between a rescuer and a rescued?
It is high time that filmmakers start pondering on these questions to make more sensitive movies involving sex workers in Bollywood.
Images source YouTube
Header image: a still from the movie Umrao Jaan
Kasturi’s debut novel, forthcoming in early 2021, had won the novel pitch competition by Half Baked Beans Publishers.
She won the Runner Up Position in the Orange Flower Awards 2021 for Short Fiction.
Her read more...
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