From Pakeezah to Gangubai Kathiawadi, if one thing that hasn’t changed much, it is the romanticisation of sex workers in Bollywood!
In fact, with every new film, their portrayal has more been played with ― from slotting them best-composed item numbers to showing their life revolving around the male protagonist ― sex workers in Bollywood are either shown as the face of women’s power ― the one who controls her life herself and choose to live on her own terms or a complete damsel in distress ― who has a heart of pure gold and needs a man for her rescue!
Of course, there have been a few films that reflected a darker side of the lives in brothels and did try to portray sex workers as who they are. Still, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that somewhere, in the mise-en-scene, their story got twisted and lost!
With the representation of women as a whole, the depiction of sex workers in Hindi cinema is also very limited and dichotomous in nature. Women in sex work are shown as either the ones who are greedy for money, have no self-respect, the vamps, or the ones who are, though, in the business but are chaste at heart. These are fallen women yet not fallen.International Journal of Modern Agriculture
Sex workers: the damsel in distress
When not limited to item numbers, sex workers are often shown as the ‘abla naari’ who undoubtedly wants to get rid of her condition but needs a man to rescue her.
In movies like Laga Chunari Mein Daag, the protagonist is shown not being able to get rid of her old life despite gaining financial independence and acceptance from her family until the hero of the film accepts her and pulls her out of her misery.
I mean, wasn’t the woman gutsy enough to make a better decision of her own life?
The domestication of sex workers
In another film, Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, the protagonist is shown as a good-hearted sex worker who is paid a big amount to be a surrogate mother to an elite couple. Halfway through the movie, she undergoes some makeup, wardrobe changes and falls in love with the hero. That’s it! Now her whole life revolves around a man and her child ― just like a typical portrayal of an Indian woman.
While I am not against the prioritisation of family and children, is it necessary to domestify a sex worker to get her some praise? Is it necessary for her to wear a saree, bangles and have a ache gharane ka pati to get some respect in society?
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke was neither the first nor the last film to do so.
The selfless and sacrificial one
Another category of sex workers that’s often depicted in movies ― the one who seduces all but loves one only to leave him in the climax for the morally accepted heroine.
There has been a number of movies, like Ishaqzaade, that have done the same with the side characters. These characters are hailed by the audience for the transformation of their heart.
But why is she shown undermining herself because of her profession?
The inferiorization of sex workers
As mentioned earlier, these characters are shown in movies like Pakeezah and Devdas, where being a sex worker is a curse and the woman is nothing but a walking corpse. She is subjected to insults, considered impure and doesn’t deserve respect, basic rights to her lives or the tag of a woman as chalked by the society.
But she does get acceptance sometimes ― in some movies ― when the hero decides to accept her and give her his name and status.
Why is it that a woman is only validated when it comes from a man?
Sex workers in Bollywood: the common picture
What do you imagine while picturing a sex worker? A woman wearing a short dress or a bright saree, probably with a dark lipstick or chewing paan and with heavy kohl in eyes ― standing somewhere in the alleys of the red light area.
I won’t say Bollywood failed, but it could not justify the lives of sex workers completely either. While most of the films aim at drawing viewers’ attention from their item numbers, others go with the traditional way ― the way of domestication, inferiorization or validation.
Sex workers in Bollywood are either completely glorified or are shown as humans with no identity of their own.
It is interesting to note that in most of the Hindi films on prostitution, the women as prostitutes are shown as a leftover of the men. Either they are betrayed or misled, or widowed. It seems women are pushed into prostitution because of men, and then, only men can rescue them from this darkness.International Journal of Modern Agriculture
People say that movies reflect the time we live in, but this is definitely not what the community of sex workers live in. The post-pandemic world has changed a lot for sex workers, and the pandemic hit them as much as any other vulnerable community we can think of.
It’s high time that filmmakers start considering every bit before depicting a sex worker in their movies ― ensuring that what they portray could help these marginalised communities in any possible way!