"Did you think real sex workers were like the ones in 'Devdas' and 'Umrao Jaan'?" says Kareena Kapoor (playing sex worker) in Sudhir Mishra's 'Chameli', to the hero Rahul Bose. Kapoor plays a foul-mouthed young woman, who is cynical about relationships but knows how to invest her hard-earned money for a secure future. Chameli is far removed from the Chandramukhi of all three versions of 'Devdas', the one who sacrifices everything for one of her customers. There is neither the pathos of Waheeda Rehman in 'Pyaasa', nor grace and charm of Rekha ('Umrao Jaan') in Kapoor's Chameli.
The sex workers of films like 'Chameli' and the earlier 'Chandni Bar' are certainly very different from their counterparts in 'Devdas', 'Pyaasa', 'Pakeezah' or 'Umrao Jaan'.
In a recent interview with a newspaper, Kapoor said: "My role as Chameli made me realize one thing - sex workers should not be treated differently. They are as human as you and me; they have the same emotions like any other woman. Destiny has made them sex workers and made me an actor - that's the only difference. They sleep around to make a living, I get paid to act and entertain, and journalists like you get paid to write. It's a job for them, as much as it is for us."
Similarly, Tabu in 'Chandni Bar' is not just an entertainment girl: she works hard to educate her children, like any other single mother would do. For her, the sexy dances inside the club become a routine job, which gives her income and security. More than concentrating on her sweet and sacrificing nature, the film focuses on the everyday exploitation she undergoes.
Then there is Monisha Koirala in 'Market' - a sex worker who tries to rehabilitate other sex workers. Koirala said about her film, which she herself produced: "I wanted a positive ending, to give hope to women. If the film has a negative ending, my work for NGOs would be crap!"
The exploitation of sex workers was often glossed over in earlier films, by painting the heroines as gorgeous, somewhat tragic figures, often skilled in dance and poetry. These were women of taste and style who were adored by men. And often they sacrificed their lives for these men.
On screen sex workers today however, are shown living a harsh reality - they pepper their speech with swear words and appear to have no taste. However, they are shown braving the rough world despite their poverty and insecurities.
In fact, Kapoor's Chameli also exhibits an in-your-face sexuality rarely seen in films. She sees men as customers, not as admirers or soul mates. She doesn't believe in self-sacrifice and tries to protect her interests. In short, Chameli is a survivor.
Undoubtedly, the life of a sex worker has been a popular theme in Hindi cinema since the 1930s. Some of the earlier films portraying sex workers were set in stylish and sometimes ostentatious brothels with genteel courtesans and courteous customers. Recent films dwell more on the sleaze, and they have mostly mafia dons or violent and corrupt men as customers.
Playing a sex worker's role has been a serious and often a learning experience for many Bollywood actresses. Besides, Sharmila Tagore ('Mausam'), Rekha ('Umrao Jaan') and Tabu ('Chandni Bar') have won national awards for such roles. Vyjantimala still considers her role of Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy's 'Devdas' as one of her best; and Shabana Azmi has often won accolades for her portrayal of the woman of the street.
When Kapoor accepted the role of Chameli, there were no surprises. It was natural for a star to attempt to be an actress, and playing hooker was the time-tested route. Kapoor said about her choice of role in another interview: "Yes it's quite a drastic change (playing Chameli), but if I don't do diverse roles I won't qualify as a true actress. An actress of high caliber like Rekha ji had done 'Umrao Jaan' much later in her career. For an actress of my age, with a set image, I had to do a lot of thinking before giving a go-ahead for the role. All I know is that I desperately...desperately tried to be different..."
Despite the dissimilarities, Chameli - in some ways - is still close to the characters she denounces as 'filmi'. Like most sex workers of earlier films, Chameli has a golden heart. Like Pushpa (played by Tagore) in 'Amar Prem', who despite suffering abuse and exploitation continues to be caring. Chameli takes on the responsibility of a young boy. She gives him money for attending school and lectures him about the perils of smoking. Since it is too late for her to escape her situation, she hopes to give the boy a chance of getting out. One wonders if the filmmaker has done this to add a forced touch of nobility to the otherwise stigmatized profession.
Chameli may have moved the face of the stereotypical sex worker, but in terms of realistic portrayal it still falls somewhat short. What comes to mind as comparison, is the struggle presented by Rehana Sultan in B R Ishara's 'Chetna'. In this film, Sultan found it difficult to be a wife after being a sex worker for some years. She is also shown as an alcoholic struggling to give up the habit and eventually, when she fails to do so, she commits suicide.
At another level, star heroines - up until now - are unlikely to be made to do what Azmi did in Shyam Benegal's 'Mandi' - play a ruthless madam who wants the sex trade to flourish. Both Sultan and Azmi did not have "golden hearts".
One wonders then, if it is the burden of social guilt that makes even modern directors push these stereotypes in their new characterization of sex workers.