Gharwalis and Pimps: Zinda Laash, representations of sex workers in Bollywood
Duration: 00:11:19; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 14.485; Saturation: 0.110; Lightness: 0.267; Volume: 0.218; Cuts per Minute: 12.192; Words per Minute: 59.637
Summary: Bollywood has indeed traversed an entire range of characterizations when it comes to depictions of gharwalis and pimps, as it has in the depiction of sex workers themselves. The clips here show some of that diversity. One can see a difference between the older films like Amar Prem and the newer films like Julie and Chameli. There is a divide on rural (Market) and urban (Chameli, Julie) characterizations.Two interesting cases are Sadak where the pimp is transgender and Umrao Jaan, where the brothel madam is not really a gharwali or a pimp, but definitely a more refined Urdu speaking, classical character - as the film itself is a historical. Mandi can be classified as art or middle cinema. This collection of clips shows that women in prostitution have been a popular concern with film makers across all Bollywood genres (commercial, art house, historical, B-grade).
One common thread is definitely that in most of these films the women are shown entering prostitution through deceit, with the gharwalis (whether good or evil) in compliance with the deception. Julie is a notable exception where she enters the profession as a personal choice.With the exception of Sadak and Chameli, all female patrons of the brothels are referred too as Aunty and the brothel itself is often seen as a place where helpless women live together to serve the economic interests of the matriarch. Mostly, these gharwalis are also not entirely black or white characters, they are seen as both kind and manipulative in their dealings with the sex workers. In contrast most of the women entering prostitution as portrayed as innocent, creating a duality of the good/bad woman in the representations of the sex worker and the gharwali. Except in Mandi, there has been little effort to see these brothels as independent economic units, run on matriarchal codes, where the birth of a girl is more welcome than that of a boy.
Pimp: 'Sir, do you want anything? Sir, totally solid girls, of all regions, Bengal, Nepal. Whatever you say, she'll do. Full satisfaction, fixed rate. There's no reason to be afraid sir. We have doctor's certificate.'
Aman: 'I said I don't want anything!'
Pimp: 'Speak with your mouth, why use your hands??'
Second guy: 'Have you gone mad? What are you doing? We have come here to look for Chameli, have you forgotten?'
Pimp: 'That's what I am doing. Where did that whore go?'
This clip is from the film Chameli (dir: Sudhir Mishra, 2003). The narrative of this film is an one night encounter between an investment banker and a prostitute, who are stranded together in south Bombay on a very rainy night. Chameli is a fresh take on the usual cliched oppressed sex worker narrative of mainstream Bollywood cinema. Though Chameli shares certain typical characteristics of the prostitute in Hindi cinema, like smoking and swearing profusely, she is not somebody who is sorry about her profession. She's spunky, has loads of attitude, is a strong character and in her interactions with the different sections of society, like the rich investment banker, the police, her pimp, the orphan boy she has adopted, she is a substantial person and hardly ever sees herself as a downtrodden shameful woman.
Amar Prem (dir: Shakti Samanta, 1972)is about Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is a village girl who is sold to a brothel by her unscrupulous uncle. She then finds a regular patron in a unhappy, alcoholic businessman Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna). Love blossoms between them, and Pushpa is also very attached to her neighbour's young son, Nandu. Amar Prem appears to be an attempt towards highlighting the common prejudices against sex workers in society, hence Nandu is constantly and brutally reprimanded by his step mother for visiting Pushpa's house. Also interwoven in the narrative is the unhappiness of characters who live in so called respectable sections of society, and how they ultimately end up finding refuge in Pushpa. However, Pushpa appears as a typical Hindu wife and mother in her relationships with both Anand Babu and Nandu, which can be seen both as an attempt to humanize the sex worker and also an attempt to ultimately domesticate her.
I have told you girls so many times to watch lots of films. This is not a time for traditional music, people like film songs. But all of you have become lazy!
Nepal babu! After so many days?
I had gone to my village for a few days. Come, come Pushpa, come inside.
Who is this?
Pushpa. She's from our village. Bad times have fallen upon her.
Poor thing! Come in daughter.
Go on, don't be scared. It for unfortunate girls like you that Aunty has opened this place.
Yes, my child. This is my music centre. A lot of girls learn singing and dancing here. Does she know how to sing?
Yes aunty. She sings as well as a koel. Her father was a big musician. He only taught her how to sing.
Let masterji come, he'll only be able to say, how good her singing is.
Okay aunty, I am off. When should I come again?
Come after a week.
Will I stay here, Nepal uncle?
Yes yes, if you think of aunty as your mother, if you listen to her and keep her happy, all your sorrows will disappear. Don't be scared, I'll keep visiting. Aunty, take her.
Come my child, think of this as your own house.
Julie (dir: Deepak Shivdasani, 2004)in some ways manages to raise some pertinent questions about double standards exercised towards sex workers in Indian society. Julie is your average innocent heroine who after getting ditched by two opportunistic lovers, suddenly decides that her true identity lies in being a sex worker. Here is where the plot falters deeply, however it is only after a rich tycoon falls in love with her, that the couple comes together on a reality TV show to challenge some of the perceptions about prostitutes. Her boyfriend pertinently questions why prostitutes must always be kept at the level of patronizing charity and never really brought within the fold of marriage and family. By ultimately standing by his girlfriend, despite her profession, staunchly defending their decision to get married, Julie is an otherwise fresh take on the ultimate plight of the sex worker. Also interesting about this film is the fact that Julie is a Catholic girl from Goa. The connotations of this are clear: making it easier to build a character who openly mixes with boys, wears skimpy clothes and sleeps with her boyfriends before marriage. Otherwise this film is remembered more for a number of so called bold scenes by the ex Miss India, Neha Dhupia.
Now in all the things that I have told you, one thing is common. Our bodies. Everybody wants our bodies, in different ways, somebody whistles, somebody catcalls, somebody tries to get friendly, somebody claims love, somebody fulfills all the marriage vows and goes on to rape every night. So it is the same story, everybody wants our bodies.
How are you?
This is my wife.
Nice wife. Where is she from?
Mumbai. Love marriage, we just got back today.
Come near me my child.
Go on, she is my aunt.
Nice, she's nice. Here's a betel leaf. It's a good omen.
What's your name?
Wow. In Telugu Neelu means water. Life cannot go on without water. Very good.
Aunty, I cannot take Neelu home yet. Can she stay with you for a few days? I have to first make my parents understand.
Of course, there is nothing to ask here. This is also your house.
Market (dir: Prakash Shaw, 2003), revolves around the life of a young Muslim girl from Hyderabad, Muskaan Bano (Manisha Koirala) who is married off at the age of 15 to a Dubai based sheikh. He divorces her after raping her for seven days, and her father dies fighting for justice for his daughter. The film takes a seven year leap, and Muskaan is now in a brothel in Hyderabad. She then moves to Mumbai, and is transformed from a small town prostitute to a high class call girl with the help of a couple of friends. She then goes to Dubai, locates the sheikh, who was responsible for ruining her life, and plans revenge. The plot is trite, and somehow implies that young girls from a lower section of society must always be forcefully driven into prostitution. They rarely have any other avenues of livelihood.
Sadak (dir: Mahesh Bhatt, 1999)is the story of a traumatized young man (Sanjay Dutt)who is unable to get over the death of his sister, who had become a prostitute and died while trying to run away from her profession. He meets a girl (Pooja Bhatt) who is later sold off to a pimp, an evil transgender character called Maharani. One day Sanjay Dutt visits the brothel and seeing Pooja Bhatt there, memories of his sister's plight come flooding back to him. His sole aim in life becomes rescuing Pooja out of the evil world of prostitution. It is a completely negative portrayal of prostitution, all the characters associated with it are shown to be seedy and evil. It falls within the pattern of the boy-girl-villain love story of the typical Hindi film.
Wow! What a beauty. What a body, what a face. See, I have goosebumps! What a creation of nature. Don't be scared darling, I won't do anything, I cannot do anything. Do you know why? Because I am half man and half woman. See, no beauty, no looks, all I have are my brains. They are awesome - that's why I serve men and deal in women. I am the king of the flesh trade, and my name is Queen (Maharani).
This is the girl? Come here my child. Sit.
How much do you think we'll get?
Whatever we get, half yours, half mine.
Okay, so whatever I said, that's final. Where's the other girl?
She has been kept by Begum sahab for his house.
Really? For how much?
If she was beautiful, even I would have given that much.
Even this one is pretty.
Hussaini, bring the money.
Hussaini, for 250 rupees, this girl doesn't seem to be expensive.
Expensive? I would say cheap madam!
Not so cheap either. Well, anyway, she has an innocent face.
Umrao Jaan (dir: Muzaffar Ali, 1981) is one of the most famous films to have ever been made in Bombay cinema. It is based on the Urdu novel by the same name written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, about Umrao Jaan, the famous courtesan of Lucknow. It is a period film, and tries to evoke the forgotten era of Muslim high culture in Lucknow. Umrao Jaan is no common prostitute, but a woman of great beauty, talents, and fame. The story revolves around a young girl Amiraan (Rekha) who is kidnapped by her neighbour and sold to a brothel. These in 1840s Lucknow, were not just brothels but centres of learning etiquette (adab), young girls were trained in all aspects of culture as well ways of pleasure. Amiraan grows up to be Umrao Jaan, much sought after. Two doomed love affairs with her patrons, and the British takeover of Lucknow that forces her to flee the city, leaves her in the end a defeated and sad woman, who curses her profession. It is because she is a courtesan that she is not taken back by her family, from whom she was separated years ago. It is interesting to note that Umrao Jaan also falls within the genre of Hindi cinema that can be called the Muslim Social.
Mirza Hadi Ruswa
Srikant,who have you brought? Look here once.
Remembered us after many days?
So I can't sit at home and do business.
Why don't you try?
Come come, Srikant, had you become a hermit?
What's her name?
Phoolmani. (Flower + money)
When did you get married?
Just a week back.
Don't you miss your mother?
Then how would she get here?
Is the dowry due?
No, not at all.
Does she know the difference between a mule and a horse?
Only the rider will know the difference.
Does she know how to sing?
She will learn.
Go show her the room. You also go with her.
Mandi (dir Shyam Benegal, 1983)revolves around a brothel run by Rukmini Bai (Shabana Azmi). Shanta Devi, a local social worker rallies against the brothel and its inhabitants taking a moral stand, and soon everyone in the area jumps on the bandwagon. The politicians offer to put up an alternative residence for the brothel, except this place is miles away, isolated from the city, near the dargah of Baba Karak Shah. Ironically, things take a turn for the better as this attracts a lot of people and the patronage of the brothel increases. The film is an interesting exploration of the double standards and hypocrisy that underlines societal attitudes towards prostitution. The local social worker in her nurse's costume, out to purify the city, is a caricature that is used to highlight this. Also, it is ironical that a barren land turns into a flourishing town when a brothel is relocated there.