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Sex, truth, and videotape

Bishakha Datta's film, In the Flesh, urges us to fight stereotypes and see sex workers as ordinary human beings.

"WHEN ACTRESSES in films show sex, it's okay. Then why are we considered bad? Don't we have a right to earn our livelihood? Are we not women?" asks Shabana angrily, a sex worker featured in the documentary In the Flesh, directed by Bishakha Datta. Shabana's statement points to the stigma attached to sex work, to the different ways in which society perceives different spheres of work. In the Flesh was recently screened in Bangalore by Point of View, an NGO from Mumbai, Vimochana and Asian Women Human Rights Council (AWHRC), Bangalore, and Sangram, Sangli. The film is an exploration of the lives of three sex workers — Shabana, Uma, and Bhaskar. Shabana is a street-smart woman in her late 20s, who works on the highways outside Mumbai. Uma is an aging former theatre actress who has stopped sex work, but still lives in the brothel in Kolkata where she earlier worked. And Bhaskar is a hijra in his early 20s who also works in Kolkata.

In the Flesh depicts the everyday dealings of the sex workers with the world.

Shot One: Bhaskar sticks to the rules of the trade even when he falls in love with a client: "But I never ever ask whether they love me. Because, if I do, my customer will not remain a customer... he will use love to walk away without paying... "

Shot Two: Shabana has to cajole a stubborn client to use a condom. She is smart enough to ensure that the client does not go away. She, in fact, gets him to use a condom for the fear of contracting AIDS. Contrary to notions that sex workers spread AIDS, she actively participates in protecting herself and the customers.

Shot Three: Uma comes up with an innovative way off warding of men who harass her on the road. She ties a bunch of keys to her sari and rotates it as she moves along, in a show of self-control.

Shot Four: Shabana has to deal with the Shiv Sena MLA at Nippani who prevented her and 30 other prostitutes from holding meetings to spread awareness on AIDS. Chased out of their homes, Shabana complains to the police. They refuse to file the complaint and, in turn, threaten to rape her. Uma is now fighting with the help of Sangram, an NGO working with sex workers, to be able to go back home.

Bishakha Datta sets out to show that sex workers are human beings just like everybody else. She says: "Prostitution is visible to us, but women in prostitution are invisible. They are just a faceless mass. We never think of them as individual human beings like us with individual views, desires, and complicated existences." The film captures them in their everydayness — their joys, anxieties, quirks, and sense of humour. The film, placed in a larger context, is among the series of recent documentary films such as Kirtana Kumar's Guhya and Madhushree Datta's Scribbles on Akka which try to redress the earlier depictions (in the 1980s and early 1990s) of sex as being only oppressive to women. Sexuality, in the more recent studies and films on the subject, seen through the woman's point of view, addresses questions of "pleasure" and "choice". If sex workers were predominantly seen as victims forced into sex work because of poverty and trafficking, recent attempts show them as "agential" in terms of making choices or in finding ways in which they negotiate a patriarchal society. Though some of these attempts problematically glorify the lives of these women without inquiring into the social conditions in which they are placed, others (including In the Flesh) make more complex the way in which we understand experiences of women and hijras in relation to sex work. Drawing on the feminist methodology of mapping hitherto unheard voices in history, Bishakha Datta wants the documentary not to be "a voice-over" for the sex workers, but one which shows them expressing themselves. Both Bishakha Datta's direction and Ranu Ghosh's camera give the participant women and hijra their due without any intrusion. But they also self-consciously bring to the audience their role as mediators, through clips which draw attention to the fact of "shooting" itself.

Through the inclusion of Bhaskar, the film, for the first time, brings into view a hijra in a context where discussions on sex work largely revolves around women. It thus inaugurates the question of how gender and sexual identities are interwoven with questions of sexuality and work choice. However, the film does not adequately dwell on the difference between what constitutes sex work for a woman and for a hijra. Don't women and hijras face different problems just as women and men in the same profession face entirely different problems? What are the differences in the nature of choice of sex work for a woman and a hijra? Does the act of coming out as a hijra necessarily mean getting into sex work for earning a living? As Bhaskar says, his discovery of being a hijra, through a friend, was also the moment of initiation into sex work. Also, the last shot of the film shows Uma walking beside her bhadralok lover with her arm on his shoulder, which is closest to a "legitimate" relationship. Does the frame suggest a vision towards the formation of such a relationship? If so, what does it imply in a film trying to move beyond these very categories? Bishakha Datta, however, says sex workers loved the ending, for it showed how they too have support. For her, personally, to get Uma to agree to film the lover marked the deepest layer of understanding the two had come to share, and was the culmination of the filmmaking journey. She embarked on the project when, as part of Point of View, she was involved in making a report for Sangram on its work with sex workers over the last 10 years. "In that process, I, for the first time, started meeting women in prostitution on a day-to-day level. It is then that our stereotypes break. Initially, even I thought that `women in prostitution' is a very exotic category. But when I interacted with them, I found they are just ordinary women really." And this prompted her to make the film and edit, along with Priya Jhaveri, a book, Unzipped, which profiles three women and two men in sex work. The film is part of efforts by Point of View, which uses the media to promote the points of view of women, usually overlooked or dismissed. In The Flesh asks us to begin to see, like its maker, the "women" in "women in prostitution".


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