The Supreme Court, in May 2022, reaffirmed that all citizens of India have the Right to Life and therefore, adults engaging in consensual sex work is legal. But has that changed the way we view sex workers? As with many other things, Malayalam (and other Indian) movies have created a stereotypical image of female sex workers. Movies have conditioned us to think that women who are found outside after sunset, wearing a big red bindi, red lipstick and jasmine flowers on their hair, are sex workers.
Almost all the sex workers depicted in these movies will have cliche backstories too – something along the lines of not having an earning male member in the family and how the character had to become a sex worker to support her debt-ridden family.
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Some of these portrayals seem into the real world and influence the way we think of sex workers, and other related aspects too. For example, I believe one of the reasons why people pounce on a rape victim to ask her why she was out during ‘asamayam’ comes from such ideas. To understand this, let’s have a look at the portrayal of sex workers in Malayalam movies.
Ezhumala poonchola from Spadikam is an unforgettable number. Though it has been around for 26 years since the movie came out, all of us tremble when this song is played. Laila, played by Silk Smitha, invokes goosebumps in 80s and 90s kids. Laila wore a blouse and lungie that exposed her belly and performed a seductive massage. her voice was soft and seducing. And though she was only a part of a small sequence in the movie, it was enough to draw in large crowds into the theatres.
In the movie, Aadu Thoma (Mohanlal) is arrested by the police and they make him walk through the market with Laila just to degrade him. Here, Laila is given the tag “vrithikettaval” and “pezhachaval”, and by associating with her, Aadu Thoma’s name is further soiled.
Kunnummel Shantha (Naran)
According to many Malayalam movies, every village has a sex worker. In Naran, Shantha (Sona Nair) fills this position. Velayudhan (Mohanlal) goes to Shantha’s house every night; to sleep outside and ensure that her patrons are all from the village.
In a scene, Velayudhan says that the first step to making their village better would be for Shantha to leave her line of work. He calls it a sinful business and says it is one of the reasons for the destruction of their village. Later Velaya Nambiar (Madhu), who wants to get Velayudhan to take the ‘right path’, says he should stop sleeping in outside Shantha’s house. The problem with this is that while the men of the village are her patrons, they are completely absolved of their actions and Shantha alone is blamed for the “sin”.
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Shantha, on deeper analysis, is a bold and strong woman who retorts at people who make fun of her and say vulgar things about her. She lives her life without paying much heed to what others say.
Kiran (Geetha) was a prominent character in Mohanlal’s Abhimanyu. Geetha is a sex worker in Kamathipura, Mumbai. In the movie, Hari (Mohanlal) starts having feelings for Geetha and marries her. This move treated the subject in a relatively humane manner and treated the sex worker as a human being with emotions and affection. But this movie too portrayed the sex worker with a bright red bindi and bright clothes.
Devumma \ Devaki (Soothradhran)
In Soothradhran, Devumma (Bindu Paniker) runs a brothel and Hari (Dileep) seeks shelter in this brothel. He falls in love with Shivani (Meera Jasmine), a virgin resident of this brothel. Like Abhimanyu, this movie humanises sex workers and portrays the working of the brothels and the hardships sex workers have to endure.
But the movie sticks to the stereotypical portrayal of sex workers with Devumma always shown wearing round bindis, excessive jewellery, and bright clothes. Also, by having the lead fall for the virgin, the movie adheres to Malayalam cinema’s love for virginity.
In Shutter, Thankam (Sajitha Madathil) states that she would not accept money that she has not worked for. Thereby, the movie tries to show that there is ethics in every line of work. Thankam’s carefree nature, innocence and wisdom of feminity stand out in the movie. But the makers did not, yet again, forget to give the character the sex-worker look – bindi and jasmine flowers.
Sajitha Madathil received the Kerala State Award for Best Second Actress for her performance in the movie.
Vasanthi (Bhaiya Bhaiya)
Vasanthi (Tesni Khan) from Bhaiya Bhaiya was a sex worker. But when she is ‘caught’ with a minister’s son, she has to marry him. Later on, she is used as a political pawn against her husband and is made to contest an election to defeat him. Throughout the movie, Vasanthi is the subject of vulgar jokes, and none of the stereotypes associated with being a sex worker is missed by the makers.
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Vadathala Valsala (Seniors)
Like Laila from Spadikam, Valsala from Seniors only had a cameo in the movie. But in the short span of time that she was on screen, she was called a “koora penn” who came to a men’s hostel to cause harm to the reputation of the hostel and seduce boys. She is objectified both through the item number and the dialogues in the scene that follows the song.
Khadheeja (Kani Kusrthi) from Biriyani was a breath of fresh air. A married woman, forced to live an unambitious life and suppress her desires, Khadeeja chooses to become a sex worker. But even after she quits her line of work, she is haunted by society for her past.
Biriyani showed us the lecherous male gaze and how society treats sex workers. Unlike the movies mentioned earlier, this one came with a clear message and created an awareness among the masses.
Gangubhai (Gangubhai Kathiawadi)
Yes, I know Gangubhai Kathiawadi is not a Malayalam movie. But I believe this movie has played a significant role in trying to change the Indian perception of sex workers. Alia Bhatt mesmerised the audience with her performance. She was able to evoke empathy as Gangubhai, who fought for the right and dignity of her fellow sex workers. While she too is portrayed with a red bindi, the depth of the character gets the audience to look beyond the stereotypical image.
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Movies like Biriyani and Gangubhai Kathiawadi play a vital role in how we perceive sex workers and shed light on how they are people like us too. Hopefully, we’ll have more Malayalam movies that portray sex workers in ways that normalise sex work till we look at it like any other job.
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