Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag : Prostitution & Purity

Is prostitution as justifiable a means of earning one’s income as any other? Or is it the loss of ‘honour’, a loss that can never be reclaimed? I saw the latest Rani Mukherjee-Konkona Sen blockbuster, ‘Lagaa Chunari mein daag’ yesterday, and came away with the impression that it tries to address both possibilities without really making up its mind in the end. (Some spoilers may follow)

The plot is simple. Two sisters, a cultured family in Benares, fallen on bad times. Elder sister (Rani Mukherjee playing ‘Vibha’) makes it to the big bad world of Mumbai, and other avenues failing, ends up as an “escort”, making big money and paying up for reversing the family’s fortunes.

This is Bollywood ofcourse, where even poverty is picture perfect, so how could prostitution be any different? I would actually not be too harsh on this, though other reviewers have been scathing about the film’s rose-tinted depiction of prostitution. Yes, Vibha is shown rolling in money, she visits her clients at high end hotels, they even escort her back to her car politely and she wears Manish Malhotra saris. There is no soliciting on dark roads here, no abuse from drunk clients, no bargaining over rates. But then, one doesn’t really expect a Bollywood movie to get into these things.

For starters, what was interesting was that Vibha chooses this route. Even in the first instance, where she gets duped by a man offering her a job in return for sex, she still chooses to spend the night with him, she doesn’t choose to walk away and look for another job the next day. This itself is a bit of a first in Bollywood – how can the virtuous heroine possibly choose to trade her body for favours?

There are as many feminist positions on prostitution today as there are definitions of feminism itself. Personally I feel prostitution in itself need not be considered any more evil than other trades. We sell our minds everyday, don’t we, when we work for someone else? Why then should an individual not sell his or her body? In reality, ofcourse, at its best, prostitution reflects the imbalance of a world where women sell and men buy, because women are prized for their bodies (read glamour/beauty) more than anything else. At its worst, its often a sordid world of coerced sex and organised crime, notwithstanding the few Vibhas or Belle de Jour’s.

The movie decided not to concern itself with these issues. However, one must give it credit for portraying prostitutes (even though of the high end variety) as worthwhile human beings like everyone else. The heroine does feel terrible guilt for taking up such a course of work, but then, would a small town Indian girl really not feel sullied with such work however glamorous it may be? To that extent, I thought Vibha’s reactions to “losing her purity” were understandable, even if we, the enlightened audience, wish that virginity were not equated with purity.

While the heroine feels “impure”, the reactions of the family was the most interesting bit of the movie for me. The mother (Jaya Bachchan) was a bit of a shocker – she tacitly allows the daughter to continue working in this manner, despite her conservativeness. In that sense, she is perhaps the most hypocritical character in the movie – she cannot help judging her daughter for her fall from grace, at the same time, the money is most useful and she will not refuse it. But this again is not unheard of in real life. And probably more realistic than any number of other similar movies where the prostitute is cast out by her own family for her ‘shameful’ activities, even if these have fed the family. The completely supportive attitude of the other family members when they come to know of her work, was a relief.

Finally, it was good to learn that Bollywood can even deviate from the classic formula, where the only acceptable end for a prostitute was death or eternal loneliness. Here Vibha finds companionship in a man who loves her knowing fully well her occupation. This is probably a first for a mainstream movie. While salvation still has to come in the form of a man, atleast the ending did not preclude ‘normalcy’. To that extent, it is a breaking down of barriers where the prostitute and the ‘pure’ were parallel lines moving into infinity, their destinies having no point of intersection.

(For an alternative scathing review, read Anindita Sengupta’s piece at UltraViolet; Theoretically I agree with a lot of what she says, but then, she doesn’t take the conventions of a Bollywood movie into account, whereas I would say that the movie does a decent job, within those confines. Its not the most insightful look at prostitution, but it is a step foward.)