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Changing face of sex-workers in Bollywood

By Priyanka Khanna, IANS

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From the pathos of Waheeda Rahman in "Pyaasa" to the mystic of Rekha in "Umrao Jaan" and now the boldness of Neha Dhupia in "Julie" -- the portrayal of sex-workers in Hindi cinema has undergone numerous changes.

The on-screen persona of Manisha Koirala in "Market" or of Tabu in "Chandni Bar" is poles apart from that of the good-hearted courtesans of "Pakeezah", "Umrao Jaan", "Amar Prem" or of Chandramukhi of all three versions of "Devdas".

The depiction of flesh trade in films today is also different from that in "Mandi", "Bazaar", "Sadak" or "Chetna" of the bygone era.

Shoma A. Chatterji, author of "Woman: A Study of the Portrayal of Women in Indian Cinema", says patriarchy and markets have always dictated how sex-workers and the politics of prostitution are projected in the Hindi film industry.

"Julie", slated for release July 23, is based on the life of an upmarket sex-worker by the same name -- a genre that has been attempted in several Hindi films.

The film is grabbing attention for the former Miss India's steamy scenes. Priyanshu Chatterjee and Sanjay Kapoor are her co-stars.

"It ('Julie') is the journey of an innocent girl whom circumstances lead into becoming a highly emotional woman. Professionally, she is a sex worker," says 23 year-old Neha, who is one film old.

The film, directed by Deepak Shivdasani, who made "Pehchaan", "Baaghi" and the commercial dud "Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke", is based on the sensitive subject of flesh trade but the excessive skin show in promos have raised doubts about its intent.

Though Deepak and Neha are quick to note that the movie delivers a strong social message and is not a semi-porn film, their claims seem hallow going by the promos.

Not so long ago, "Jagoo" turned the real life tragedy of rape of a physically challenged minor into rape of the cause by showing the rape scenes over and over.

Then "Girlfriend" dealt a severe blow to the cause of gay groups by portraying a lesbian as mentally deranged and now "Julie" threatens to turn film on a serious subject that the UN calls "trade in human misery" into a sleaze flick.

There are two million women sex workers in India with most coerced into the trade by abduction or deception.

An estimated two in five sex workers are below 18 years of age. Those involved in the sex trade are demanding the legalisation of the profession. But such serious issues never find mention in our Hindi films.

Only Madhur Bhandarkar came close to confronting the issues of prostitution and AIDS in "Chandni Bar".

Actress-turned-filmmaker Revathy, who is making a film on prostitution, seems set to follow in Madhur's footstep. She says her film hopes to promote the message of safe sex instead of sermonising to people against prostitution.

"I met many commercial sex workers. Spoke at length with them. I realise now that there is no point in telling them to not get involved in it," says Revathy.

"Instead, you should tell them to practice safe sex. At least that way, you can prevent HIV from spreading.

"Today's youth feel monogamy is a farce. When commercial sex workers are available for as low as Rs.50, promiscuity has become rampant. It is better to stress on safe sex right now."

Former Miss World turned screen diva Aishwarya Rai will also essay the role of a sex worker in "Chaos", to be directed by French director Coline Serreau and co-starring Hollywood actress Meryl Streep.

The film is about a sex worker and a woman trying to find freedom from a selfish husband and a ruthless pimp and is likely to be completed next year. Until then, we will have to bear with watching a whole lot of Neha in Deepak's version of the life of a sex worker.


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