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Unshackling Sultana

Sadiya Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan in a still from Kali Salwar.

Sadiya Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan in a still from Kali Salwar.  

By shifting focus to the macro, Kali Salwar ceases to be a sex worker’s story

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

—John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Episode 2

This gaze, the internal and external, of both the man and woman, informs our daily interactions and defines the narratives we build. It shapes the work we do and the art we make; the art throwing a new light on the narratives we have built for ourselves, forcing us to shift our perspective by tilting the camera angle, hoping, in the process, we all end up making more sense of the world.

Saadat Hasan Manto made sense of the world through a sharp observation of social interactions, examining power structures from the perspective of the marginalised, especially the sex worker. He humanised her and empowered her in his stories. Fareeda Mehta, in Kali Salwar (2002), her adaptation of Manto’s short story, takes this compassion and adds a poetic lyricism, sculpting and lensing her characters such that imperceptible shifts open up a completely new stratum of exploring, of looking.

Ways of seeing

What are the various ways we are accustomed to seeing a sex worker and courtesan? First, she is an object. Second, she is a sexual object who uses her guile and coquetry to survive a male-dominated world. Third, she is a victim, of circumstances, of society, of birth, fate, or herself. Our most memorable cinematic impressions come from these broad classifications that include her perceived victimhood, courage and golden-heartedness as favourite tropes. Be it Chandramukhi, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan or Begum Jaan, we objectify her as we watch her being objectified, we victimise her as we watch her being victimised. We think we are cheering her courage and purity but by viewing her in this light, we empathise with her victimhood, not her, thus managing to maintain a safe distance.

But we watch Sultana in Kali Salwar with the same empathy and warmth with which we watch Charulata. The compassionate gaze of Ray on a housewife finds a strikingly similar note in a sex worker’s world as the film opens with Sultana at her window, just like Charulata, looking out into the urban landscape seemingly caught between the chaos of the criss-crossing railway lines in the background and the unseemly noises filling up the foreground.


We see so much more of her in her home life when we see her alone. Her aloneness is intimate, silence and speech both signalling an interiority she herself doesn’t feel accustomed to—or ready for—in this strange, urban land (she has migrated from Muzaffarpur to Mumbai). Very soon, she transforms from a coquettish sex worker looking for her next ‘passenger’ (as she calls them) to a vulnerable, small town person displaced in Mumbai: she realises that in this city of dreams she is but one in a million.

This particular shift is unique to the film. In the original story, Sultana moves to Delhi and is a symbol of the condition of marginalised women. Kali Salwar broadens this compass first by setting it in Mumbai, a landscape of complexity, and then by incorporating other Manto stories (‘Hatak’, ‘Mohammad Bhai’, ‘Babu Gopinath’), giving it a broader canvas and comprehensive vision, examining the woman condition within the human condition. It universalises her situation, appropriately positioning her displacement as a bigger dilemma than the shame of her profession, unshackling Sultana from the needless narrative burden of having to redeem herself from a sex worker to woman, for a fitting end. By shifting focus to the macro it stops being a sex worker’s story and becomes everyone’s, she is suddenly a part of a group rather than an individual standing alone to be examined.

Within this larger identification we see her multiple facets; in her disappointments with her lover and pimp Khudabaksh, her friendship with the self-aware Anwari and the wise but withering Sugandhi (from Manto’s ‘Hatak’). The knowing smile on Sultana’s face when Sugandhi says, with noticeable ease, she agreed to ‘keep’ her lover (while letting him believe he keeps her), is a silent acknowledgement of who really calls the shots. It is not often we see disempowered women so quietly aware of their own victimisation but with enough gumption to run their own life anyway.

Silent dignity

Perhaps, it is this silent dignity accorded to the portrayal of the sex worker that makes its lyrical sensuality uniquely aesthetic, easy to divest from the squalor of its setting and relish for its own sake. In popular imagination, the sensualised portrayal has well-suited the courtesan and nautch girl (Umrao Jaan, Devdas) with the sex worker receiving the raw end of the stick.

While Umrao and Chandramukhi must play the role of the sensuous tease, Kajli in Mausam and Rekha in Salaam Bombay must be abuse-spitting and edgy. Their passions and expressions must have the abandon of having gone over the edge, never of enjoying herself playing this game.

Not Sultana though. She does not question her work or her authority over her own self. Her archaic, layered clothing of rich texture and vibrant colours not only makes her look like the object of desire she dreams herself to be but also declares her spirited and abundant sensuality without sexualising her. She is lit as a character and captured like a human being not an object. It is poverty that distresses her, not her profession.

The film ends in as much ambivalence as Charulata did and with as much compassion. When Sultana meets Mukhtar in the end their empowerment has dissolved, and all they can do is partake in a moment of silent piety together because their loss is shared too. The sex worker may have been shorn of her ‘izzat’ in popular terms; here her dignity is restored, simply by giving back her agency while taking back our own gaze.

In his time, Manto was largely vilified for his choice of subject, the sex worker who he portrayed with her integrity intact. Since then, in what seems like a certain self-absolution of the male gaze, popular art forms continue to be drawn to her, trying to redefine her but with the same chauvinism that created her. Mehta, just like Manto does not redefine her but simply shifts the gaze with which we see her, redefining the older narratives instead, with an artful play of exaggeration and abbreviation, forcing us to question what we look at in a sex worker. And , maybe, understand where we all exist on this great gender giant wheel.

A moonlighter in fiction and non-fiction for a decade, the writer is currently enrolled in an adventure sports course called film editing at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2020 11:48:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/unshackling-sultana/article18437382.ece

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