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Wish Upon a Star: How Kolkata’s sex workers are training for the spotlight

Sex workers in Kolkata respond to a new workshop with gusto. It doesn’t teach them how to make papad, but primes them for a career in TV.

Written by Premankur Biswas | Kolkata | Updated: March 20, 2016 1:57:12 pm
Actors Prepare: Actor Srila Mukherjee at the training sessions for sex workers. (Express photo by Partha Paul) Actors Prepare: Actor Srila Mukherjee at the training sessions for sex workers. The three-month workshop is a result of a study conducted by the West Bengal government along with Durbar. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Rakhi Udia stands up and clears her throat. All eyes in that 12 ft by 12 ft terrace room in north Kolkata’s Nilmoni Sarkar Street are on the 35-year-old woman.

Rakhi clears her throat and starts reciting: “Shalil, tumi kemon achho? Kheyecho shokal theke? (How are you my body, have you nourished yourself since morning?)”.

Mita Mukherjee, advocacy officer of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, shakes her head in mock-anger. “The word is shorir not sholil,” she says, chiding Rakhi for mispronouncing the Bengali word for body.

Peals of laughter reverberate throughout the room. The 20-odd participants of West Bengal government’s Swawlamban Special acting-cum-grooming course don’t let go of the opportunity to tease Rakhi. “As if you guys are doing any better,” scolds Mukherjee. For the past two weeks, Rakhi and 26 other participants have been going through a schedule of voice-training and grooming. “We have to start with the very basic training. Some of them have never even been to school,” says Mukherjee.

The workshop, which will give about 30 sex workers and children of sex workers the opportunity to train under professional television actors and audition for television shows, is unlike any other rehabilitation scheme offered by the state government in one of Asia’s largest red-light areas. “Most rehabilitation schemes involve women making pickles or papad. Obviously, they aren’t as popular or successful,” says Mukherjee.

The three-month workshop is a result of a study conducted by the West Bengal government along with Durbar. “Our research showed that sex workers have an affinity for the film and television industry. They want to be a part of it. Which is why we have got professional actors, filmmakers and technicians involved in this three-month training programme,” says Sashi Panja, state women development and social empowerment minister, who launched the programme at Sonagachi.

Kali Das, 47, always wanted to be a “film star”. “As a kid, I would watch Rekha’s films in my hometown, Malda, and copy her dance moves,” she says. But life had different plans for Kali. By the time she was in her twenties, she found herself in Sonagachi. “I have no major regrets in my life, I did what I had to do for a living. But my dream of being an actor remained unfulfilled,” said Kali.

Today, she is the most enthusiastic participant of the emoting exercise. A line from a poem, talking about how women are objectified in a patriarchal society, is to be read with some fervour. While many younger members of the workshop are shy about emoting, Kali doesn’t hold back.

She strides forward with confidence to the front of the class and recites the line about her body and its emancipation: “Awnek holo shorir ebar je kota din achcho/ Swatej haway ektu na hoy nijer jonno bacho (You have suffered a lot, my body/For the remaining few days, in the open air, live for yourself).” The women in the room cheer lustily. Mukherjee, who praises Kali’s emotionally charged delivery, also warns her about getting carried away. “Acting is also about holding back. You shouldn’t overact,” she says.

Historically, women from the red-light districts were frontrunners in acting in plays and films. A strict hierarchy was maintained among Indian women in “public life”, and most stage artistes of the early 20th century were from the red-light areas around old Kolkata’s Chitpur locality, says Daminee Basu, 33, who completed her PhD in cultural anthropology at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata in 2011. “The lowest rung was that of khanaki, who was mainly engaged in sex work. Then, there was the kaneez, who was involved in serving people and doing menial jobs. Then came the baiji, who would entertain clients by singing and dancing. After them, of course, was the jaan, the highest level. These women would also graduate to stage and films,” she says.

Till about the 1950s, women from Sonagachi would work in Tollygunj studios.“When I started my career, we had many co-actors from the red-light district. We never even thought about their background. But slowly, they began to disappear. The acting profession too became gentrified,” says noted Bengali actress Madhabi Mukhopadhyay who launched the workshop.

The project was a brainchild of Leena Gangopadhyay, a television producer, who has ensured that the participants will get the chance to audition for her shows. The idea is to make this a long-term endeavour. “For that we need more funds and more television production production houses taking interest,” says Swati Chakraborty from GOAL India, a NGO that is organising the the workshop along with the West Bengal government and Durbar.

Sudeshna Dhar*, 22, whose mother was a sex worker, is the quietest member of the workshop today. Yet, there is a self-assurance about her. She breezes through the dialogue delivery exercise and sings tunefully in the voice-training exercise. “After completing my graduation, I wanted to enrol myself in an acting course but I couldn’t afford one. They cost over a lakh,” says Dhar.

Though her education was funded by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, she has always faced discrimination for being a sex worker’s child. “In my school, I had a special seat because no one wanted to sit with me. No one in my college knows that I am a sex worker’s daughter. I am always scared that my identity will hamper my career. But this initiative will give me the freedom to pursue a career,” says Dhar.

The last segment of the day is “beauty treatment”. Rakhi takes out her pen to note down her diet. When the dietician says that she will have to reduce her rice intake by half, she shakes her head in disbelief. “I can’t stop eating rice. So what if I am not stick thin, can’t I be a heroine too?” she asks.
(*Name changed on request)

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