May 25, 2020
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Degrees Of Despair

A movie on sex workers rubs some the wrong way

Degrees Of Despair
Shankar Das/Drikindia
Degrees Of Despair
There's a point in his career where an otherwise intrepid filmmaker has to pause before he leaps. It is usually when a subject dealing with a sensitive issue disturbs his creative stillness. He has to make a choice. Make documentaries that win polite praise but no one sees, or risk a commercial venture that is daringly original but can, surely, spark a row—as has happened with Buddhadev Dasgupta, prize-winning director of films like Bagh Bahadur, Tahader Katha and Charachar.

The auteur finds himself at the centre of an unwanted controversy over his latest Swarna Kamal winner, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (The Tale of a Naughty Girl), which deals with the lives and struggles of sex workers trying to find a place in a society that does not accept them. Made last year and released this August 15, it's running well in three Calcutta halls and doing good business abroad.

However, activists of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an ngo that has done good work among the city's sex workers in recent times, are highly critical of the movie. It's a rage in retrospect. They themselves helped in the shoot, in Purulia district, at specific locations, with suggestions on the way sex workers dress and talk. Their objection now: sex workers have been portrayed in a poor light. They are outraged specifically by an episode where Rajani, a sex worker (played by Rituparna Sengupta), offers her daughter for "sale" to a rich customer.

"No sex worker ever does that. While they are forced to adopt prostitution for survival, women always ensure that their children are educated and looked after, so that they do not suffer (like them). This is a universal truth we social workers have learnt during our interaction with them," says Mrinal Dutta, director, Durbar. They were not at all aware, he asserts, that Dasgupta would opt for such an "angle". "If only they had discussed the story with us, we could have helped with concrete instances of how women have pauperised themselves to educate their children, even died."

Durbar dashed off strong letters of protest to local papers. Its spokespersons talked to the electronic media. And a controversy took shape. Dasgupta is surprised. "The story is set in the late '60s, in a suburban locale and does not generalise about sex workers. The film relates only an episode in a composite tale. Surely the pressures of conservatism against prostitution were much more in the rural areas and suburbs three decades ago, the exploitation more acute? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that even today, unless they change their identities, children of sex workers find it difficult to get admitted to schools, all over the country. And it is the same in Europe, I can give you specific instances of Basle and other cities. In any case, it's fiction we are dealing with, not facts. Though I welcome the efforts made by Durbar."

The original story, Akasher Chand Ebang Ekti Janala (The Moon and a Window), was written by novelist Prafulla Roy, whose works have also provided themes for other Dasgupta films. It was published around 15 years ago in a Bengali Puja annual, wherein the controversial episode was related. Roy fails to understand why anyone should object to what he has written, using arguments similar to Dasgupta's. "The story is set around 1969, when man first went to the moon. Using an allegory, I suggested that while such wonders of science were taking place, for our deprived women, a dignified life remained as distant as the moon."

Film critic Swapan Kumar Ghosh thinks the issue is being blown out of proportion. "Surely Roy and Dasgupta have their rights as to what to write or shoot? I think people are overreacting. The film is very good, being shown at 26 festivals, besides winning the Swarna Kamal."

So what's the story here? Has Dasgupta gone a bit too far? Or is Durbar transgressing its rights as a voluntary organisation and encroaching upon the sacred space of artistic freedom—even freedom of expression? Read between the lines. Or go see the movie. It's all about choice.
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