By Divya Unny Nov. 30, 2017
I’ve spent many nights looking at the shiny shadows of women trying to make a living in the city’s alleys. They made me curious, but stepping into their shoes turned out to be a whole different story.
We stand on the sidewalk, our bodies lit by the street lights that surround us. Six women dressed in sequinned tops, long skirts, shiny bangles, and lips red enough to stop all the evening traffic.
It’s my first day on the job playing Sharanya. Born in a little village in Tamil Nadu to a modest and hardworking set of parents, Sharanya was always the one to brighten up the home with a ready giggle. Her mum, a fisherwoman, would cook fish for her every evening, and she’d steal some away for her father. A happy little household until Sharanya was picked up from a market when she was eight, and shipped off to Chennai. Today, 12 years later, these sidewalks in Mumbai are home.
With one hand on my hip and a cigarette between my lips, I sway from side to side, scanning the space, wondering if I am doing it right. Just then, I see a little white car slowly pulling over to the side of the road. “You’re on,” I think to myself, and just as I start to walk towards it, I hear “CUT!”
“That was too fast,” says the director, ordering for a reset. “She is desperate, but she will never show it.” I don’t know what he means. Sharanya is a sex worker dependent on a client for her next meal. How does she not show desperation?
Our small feature film, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, is about Mumbai’s sex workers fighting for autonomy. A year ago, when Aditya Kriplani offered me the part of a South Indian girl who is trafficked from Chennai, I leapt at it.
Meryl Streep once said, “If I can play the role of a hooker at the age of 60, I’d retire after that. It would complete my experience of being an actor.” She wasn’t wrong. The prostitute, the whore, the sex-worker, the shunned, the hapless, the carefree… Call her what you like, but for an actor there are few characters that come with as much colour and candour as this.
I’m a city girl and I’ve spent too many nights at Juhu Chowpatty looking at the shiny shadows of women trying to make a living in the alleys parallel to the beach. They made me curious, but stepping into their shoes turned out to be a whole different story.
Every evening, we’d dress up to the nines and walk past an overflowing gutter to make it to the street from where “business” happens, but all the unwanted attention would make us severely self-conscious. The attention has the opposite effect on a sex worker – it makes her bolder.
The women stand for long hours, and constantly shift weight from one leg to another to ease the pain. “Make more space between your legs,” the director signalled. Only once I understood this, I got my first real customer. An old man walked over to me and asked me to accompany him for the night. I could have hugged him.
In the course of living Sharanya’s life day in and out, her fight became my own. It wasn’t easy.
Our days turned into nights, and nights into dawn. Mango juice became desi daru and every place from abandoned beer bars, to secluded sidewalks, to the inside of an SUV became our work place. The interiors of a police thana were a common sight.
These were tough alright, but a scene where a co-worker gets brutally beaten up by a cop was the toughest for me. I’d recently read a story of a sex worker who was made to give the police lathi a blowjob. “This happens, everyday near Dombivali where I live madam,” a junior artist told me over chai. It slowly blurred the line between fiction and fact. What we were filming wasn’t just a few scenes on paper. It was life.
As our comfort within the crew grew, so did our honesty toward the subject. One day, a group of young boys walked up to our production assistant and asked how much we’d charge: They’d presumed that a man would negotiate on our behalf. This was especially ironic, considering the film is about fighting the men within the sex-trade system and creating a revolution of sorts.
During the course of shoot I met several women from the area. These were real women coping with life in extremely difficult conditions – these were also the people who were the kindest to us. The mother of two in the slum who always offered us hot tea no matter what time of the night we wrapped up. The young Tamil girl from the chawl who dreamed of becoming a heroine someday and insisted on taking acting tips from me. The schoolgirl who wanted to become a cop and stop crime in her area. There was nothing different between them and Sharanya, or Tikli, or Laxmi, I thought. Everyone was just trying to survive, one day at a time.
In the course of living Sharanya’s life day in and out, her fight became my own. It wasn’t easy. I’d see my team members brutalised and being threatened at every go in the film, and I started to become terribly aware of my surroundings in real life too. I bought a pepper spray that still sits in one of my bag pockets. On one of the days, on my way to the shoot, a cabbie took a shorter route to reach the destination sooner, and I almost attacked him with the spray, until I realised he wasn’t up to anything shady. And although we were performing, for me it was cathartic to pick up a revolver and point it at a man who’d violated my body.
On my drive back home on the last day of the shoot, I noticed someone on Juhu beach. A woman in a blue-sequinned top and maroon lipstick. She was waiting for the night to begin. I waved at her from within my car. She waved back with a smile. “Sharanya is real,” I thought. She always was.
Divya is a Mumbai-based journalist-turned-actor and now director. Some say it's too many hats for that one small head, while she insists there be more.