A long history of misrepresentation: Depictions of sex workers in Malayalam cinema

Nalini Jameela, a sex worker, writes about the stereotypical portrayal of her profession in Malayalam cinema.
A long history of misrepresentation: Depictions of sex workers in Malayalam cinema
A long history of misrepresentation: Depictions of sex workers in Malayalam cinema
Written by:

Aradhya Kurup

Nalini Jameela is a sex worker and author of the best-seller The Autobiography of a Sex Worker. The book sent shockwaves through the conservative Malayali society. Known for her candour, she tells us exactly what is wrong with the portrayal of sex workers in Malayalam cinema.

In cinema, the sex worker is always pitted against the virtuous and pious woman - the self-effacing ideal woman; the perfect wife, mother and daughter. They serve no familial function and fulfil neither the domestic role of nurturance nor any reproductive roles usually assigned to women. Instead, the sex worker’s social and economic value lies in their provision of a sexual service to men.

I can only think of two films that have given some dignity to the sex-worker—Shutter (2012) and Chuvanna Sandhyakal (1975). The former has more to do with the actress who essayed it—Sajitha Madathil. And Anu Mol was equally good in the Tamil version. She empathises with us. In Shutter, even though they try to normalise it, yet there still was a scene where they tried to lend a classist division to the sex worker. In one scene, when Vinay Forrt suggests seeking out a sex worker waiting at a bus stop, Lal’s character denigrates the idea with the remark that they are low class and his taste is more high society. Chuvanna Sandhyakal, despite being quite a few decades old, is a realistic, non-judgemental take on a sex worker's life.

In cinema, sex workers are depicted as a disease, even terrorists are shown with more tolerance. When they talk about terrorists, there are empathetic backstories; this is not the case with a sex worker. The sex worker is always garishly dressed—big bindis, ugly red lipsticks, heavy eye make-up, paan chewing, lascivious women. And they seem to have no redeeming qualities either.

In most films, our names are emphasised like they are spitting out some venom. “Thevidichi” is one of the most offensive ways to call us and they keep at it, especially the old generation of filmmakers. Any woman who has multiple partners, who strays from her marriage is called this name. What about the men? Why are they not allotted such names? Are they not an equal partner?

Our filmmakers are keen on exploring the devadasis, as maybe they have a mysticism attached to them. They do extensive research on their customs, traditions and history but when it comes to sketching an ordinary sex worker, they don’t even bother with basic homework.  If they had explored further, they would have realised that the bond between a sex worker and her children are very strong, as they are the only constant in their lives. However, such emotional sides of their character are seldom shown.

They showcase the red-light area in cities, projecting the brothel Madame as a powerful force, but the minute they shift to a village, they are considered as outcasts.

Avalude Ravukal (1978), despite its cult status, remains a crude representation of this profession. In Ozhimuri (2012), there are hints about the matriarch being a promiscuous woman, but thanks to Shwetha Menon’s powerful performance, it looked almost dignified. Rathinirvedam (1978) is very ironic—only the woman is bitten by the snake for daring to indulge in premarital sex.

I don’t think we were shown in a realistic light in Padmarajan’s Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil (1986) (about three men who visit a brothel and eventually turn their saviours during a crisis).

Pradeep Nair’s Oridam (2004) is the quest of a sex-worker to find a place in the society. Though it starts progressively, they end it by showing her back on the streets.

Thoovanathumbikal’s (1987) Clara, despite her mystic allure and beauty, knows where she stands in the society. She dutifully makes way for the homely Radha to wed the hero Jayakrishnan.

Rugmini (1989) touches on issues like loneliness, child prostitution and how sex workers are constantly maligned when they step into the outside world. But eventually, they are also shown being thrown into the streets.

Kanyaka in Trivandrum Lodge (2012) is unapologetic, blunt and crass. She is rather business-like and brazen about her preferences and loathes sympathy. Though she coats her misery with humour, there are scenes that hint that being seen with her is a shame.

In Uthara (2002), Lal is heard saying that he is not used to calling them by their names, he would rather have called them as ‘prostitutes’.

Soothradharan (2001), though it exaggerates about the finances of the brothel owners, still stands out for showing the brothel Madame (Bindu Panicker) in a kind light. Quite unlike most other films where the Madame is just a cruel, greedy figure.

I have lost count of the number of films where they show the sex worker being thrown money. Like they throw crumbs at a stray dog.  We are mostly shown as living in inhuman conditions. Or else they would just rudely slap the money on their hands.

For the record, every sex worker isn’t depressed, unhappy and living a life of self-pity. For many, this is just a job.

Instead of constantly judging the sex worker, why are there very few films that show the realities of being trafficked, child abuse, the meagre wages and the importance of demanding protected sex?

We are just sexual commodities and there is always a moral judgement or lesson in every film. That only makes us look even worse. Recently Manilal took a documentary and featured me in one of the segments. He named it Pranayame (Romance). That’s the closest that any filmmaker has come to romanticising us.

This article was originally published on Fullpicture.in. The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

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