Commercial sex workers in cinema usually appear to titillate and serve as symbols of vice. If at all the character has an arc beyond that, it is typically a sob story that justifies why and how the woman became a sex worker and her desire to turn over a new leaf. There have been very few films like IV Sasi's Avalude Ravukkal where a sex worker has not only been unapologetic about what she does, but also considers herself deserving of love and dignity despite what her job.
Vidya Balan's Begum Jaan, a remake of Rajkahini, which told the story of a brothel caught in the partition, was slammed by many critics for its melodrama. Nevertheless, it's one of the rare films to have looked at commercial sex work from within by having them as the central protagonists - however unsatisfactory it might have proven to be.
Aditya Kripalani's Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is distinct in tone from all these films - it's the story of a start-up, a business dream. The product is sex work but the premise makes it quite different from the usual films we've seen on the subject.
It all starts with Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty), a young Bengali woman who joins the streets of Mumbai as a sex worker. From the beginning, she has the air of the rebel. She wants to know why things are the way they are - why do they have to pay middlemen their cuts, why do they have to give the cops money when they harass them anyway? Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande), a senior in the job, tries to brush her questions away...because she knows what can happen when they are asked. However, Putul does not give up.
In one scene, she is sitting at a restaurant in a jazzy red top and announcing to her fellow sex workers that she's wearing red because red is the colour of revolution. Not all of them look convinced, but they are moved nevertheless by this strange hot-headed woman who has built a reputation with her knife. In another scene, Putul is being brutally raped, but even then, she manages to exert some agency in deciding in what position she will be raped - because it makes a difference to her.
While the camera doesn't romanticise sex work - there are many instances when we're shown just what kind of brutal abuse and danger the women are subjected to - it does not, at any point, turn exploitative. Finding that balance is hard to do in a film like this but Tikli and Laxmi Bomb pulls it off.
In an earlier interview to TNM, Aditya has spoken about how he used to pay sex workers to share their experiences with him so he could write the book on which the film is based. You see this reflected in the kind of detail that plays out in the plot. When the sex workers need to organise money quickly, an inventive Putul comes up with an idea that makes you grin - the idea, which can be quite gross to watch when executed literally on screen - is presented as a glorious relay race on the beach, with the smiling women running with a rare freedom.
The business ideas and tricks that the women come up with make for the best parts in the film. The villains, who are all nasty, sleazy men, are unfortunately too one-note to leave an impression. Take corporator Shinde. We're introduced to him when he's 'auditioning' bar dancers. It's too obvious and divides the film all too clearly into the good girls vs the bad boys. There are no grey characters and this makes the screenplay predictable.
Among the sex workers, there's enough diversity - from a Saranya to a Tsamchoe - but except Laxmi and Tikli, the characters of the rest are under-developed. Not that we need to hear why they became sex workers, just that it would have been rewarding to see what sort of people they are. I got the sense that Aditya relied more on their clothing and sense of style to create characters than write them. I was also wondering why there were no trans women in the group - was it to avoid the stereotyping?
The unconventional camera angles often jolt you into seeing the film from within, rather than from the outside. I found the background score unsettling - at times I felt it just didn't go with what was being shown on screen. Take that chase scene with Laxmi and Putul, the music almost sounds adventurous rather than dangerous. But then, I was wondering if this is because I expected the score to go with all the stories of sex workers we've seen so far. If the scene had been from an average film about a start-up, the score would have been quite suitable. And that is what Tilki and Laxmi Bomb is, a start-up story, however bizarre it might seem.
The film is currently in the festival circuit and the makers hope for a theatrical release soon.