Indian sex workers reach wide audience with documentary play

August 2008 -

The lives of sex workers have been a subject of much scrutiny in popular culture in India – as often out of genuine sympathy as sordid titillation. But seldom have the sex workers themselves had any control over their portrayal. Most often, elite artists – writers, directors, actors – interpret their lives for the mainstream audience. In March 2008, the Hindi play My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, which chronicles 24-hours in a prostitution neighbourhood, has broken new ground. Sex workers from the town of Sangli form the cast of the play and have been intimately involved with all aspects of the production. The play has been performed in elite venues in four metropolitan cities of India receiving much appreciation from the mainstream theatre audience.


Scene from My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife

The production is a joint effort by the sex workers association Vamp and two ngo's: Sangram and Point of View. According to Bishakha Datta of Point of View, the play was always meant to be performed before mainstream audience and not just social workers as is often the case with such efforts. The idea was to bring the middle classes into direct contact with the sex workers. "The middle classes often set the agenda for public policy and debate", she remarks. "Yet, their opinions are formed entirely without any interaction with the women concerned." Through this play the sex workers can directly present their viewpoint to the audience. As performers they are placed in a subtle position of power vis-à-vis the audience, Datta points out

However, in order to gain the appreciation of a wider audience, the play had to be of a certain standard. Thus, the ngo's roped in noted theatre personality Sushma Deshpande to direct the play. For months, Deshpande worked with the sex workers to teach them the nuances of acting – body language, characterisation, stage composition, voice and pitch modulation. Touchingly, Deshpande sometimes found the sex workers feeling shy of coming across as too sexual on stage.

Producing the play has also helped the prostitutes examine their lives and relationships. For example, lonely sex workers often form relationships with men who exploit them for money. Deshpande found many of her cast members discontinuing such manipulative relationships. According to Datta, the play has also helped them gain self-esteem. "Because of the stigma attached to their work, they seldom interact with the middle and upper classes of society", she says. "But to this aidience watch their play, laugh with them, appreciate their work has helped them gain self respect."