Despite cultural conservatism and frequent censor board rows, Bollywood’s love affair with the brothel mise-en-scene remains ever-growing and unquestioned. Fevicol Se– which sees Kareena Kapoor in a brothel seducing a drunk Salman Khan- is a party playlist staple that sees every aunty, uncle and child alike ready to bust the hook step.
The representation of the ‘sex worker’ stigma in Bollywood is real and rampant. In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s Ghagra, women of the brothel speak broken English for comedic effect and joke about not knowing the fathers of their children. This version of the Bollywood sex worker is sleazy yet seductive. She performs item numbers altruistically and engages in flirtatious games with the film’s hero. She embodies the advice of Vatsyayana, the author of the Kama Sutra– “you must disguise your love of money as natural desire for the man himself. Prove to him that he, not his money, inspires your divine lust by always seeming selflessly devoted.” Pimps and johns on the other hand, are merely passive victims to the sex worker’s sexual charm and the male condition.
The Bollywood sex worker’s reactionary counterpart is the Bollywood ‘sex worker’ as the main lead. This time, she is not doing a three-minute cameo, but the protagonist decked out in Sabyasachi. She rolls up her sleeves and sits wide legged, demanding not laughs, but respect from the audience. The brothel is her palace.
“My Body, My House. My Country, My Rules” and “Lived as Whores, Fought as Queens” are the taglines plastered on the poster of 2017’s Begum Jaan. Our protagonist is an experienced brothel madame, sold into prostitution after becoming widowed. In one scene, Begum Jaan slaps one of her workers for refusing sex with a client. In another, a young woman who seeks refuge in the Begum’s kotha after falling victim to rape, is forced to sleep with a Raja in exchange for his protection.
While the film does a good job at rectifying traditional Bollywood stereotypes and humanising women by placing them at the front and centre of their own story, another issue comes to the fore: a contradictory narrative surrounding female power and autonomy. With nowhere else to go except their ostracising families, the women allow themselves to be immolated by fire inside their brothel. What is ultimately the tale of an exploited community protecting their only source of livelihood is branded to the masses as the face of female power.
Somewhere in-between lies the courtesan as represented in Umrao Jaan and Devdas, who perform mujra and wow the hero with their ‘not like other sex workers’ beauty and grace. In the former, we see Aishwarya Rai landing her place as a courtesan. Despite her proximity to the trade, her treatment is much different to that of Kareena’s in Fevicol. She is not scantily clad nor being swarmed by men, her high class and esteemed clientele seemingly protecting her these conventions. Even in modern examples such as 2012’s Dil Mera Muft Ka, Bollywood courtesans continue to uphold an air of wealth and power. According to Saad Khan, director of a 2020 documentary following the lives of mujra dancers, the current reality of the profession is very different. “It has evolved into a hyper-sexualised form of dance to suit the demands of its new clientele – working class males.”
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming directorial release follows the true story of Gangubai Kathiawadi, a woman sold into the red-light district of Kamathipura at 16, later becoming the owner of a brothel.
The real Kathiawadi was as resilient woman and activist, but as evidenced in her renowned speech at Azad Maidan, her fight was not one born out of girlbosshood or a desire to engage in selfless feminist praxis. It was one of a victim, and a desperation to live at the hands of male violence. Owning a brothel is often the only alternate career option available to women who are forced to join the trade, subsequently furthering the cycle of intergenerational sex work.
Although it is said Kathiawadi honoured the consent of her workers—under a system of capitalism and patriarchy the parameters surrounding consent are murky. In present Kamathipura, sex workers are struggling for food and shelter amidst COVID-19 restrictions. When the alternative is being unable to pay rent or feed your children, the choice to perform sex work is no choice at all, though the neoliberal portrayal of sex work by the film fraternity paints a far more distorted picture.
Founder of the anti-trafficking NGO Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta, has observed this shifting narrative. “In India, the term ‘sex worker’ was literally invented in front of our eyes,” she told NewStatesman in a 2017 interview. “There was no poor woman or girl [in India] who thought that ‘sex’ and ‘work’ should go together”. If Bhansali’s next is to engage in an honest and progressive portrayal of women, it should take care to avoid romanticising the sacrifices of one of India’s most vulnerable communities, while taking a stance against misogynistic stereotyping inflicted on sex workers.
Brothels themselves are also far from the lavish affairs boasted in item songs. In 2020, the Delhi Commission for Women noted that ‘inhumane conditions’ including a shortage of food and personal hygiene permeated the red-light district of GB road- one of India’s largest.
In a country of devoted cinephiles, fiction cannot be separated from material reality. As women in sex work continue to bear the brunt of social and economic changes induced by the pandemic, it is now more than ever crucial for mass media to foster social responsibility towards these marginalised communities.