Reflections on the spatial politics of sex work in documentary film

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MUCH has been said on prostitution in relation to the law, and in relation to the gendering of discourses of protection and morality. The current hegemonic register of the discourse on prostitution produces sexual commerce as an instantiation of human trafficking, regardless of consent. This way of thinking about prostitution marginalizes the question of livelihood, while reifying violence and harm. As a result, the persistence of sex work as a livelihood strategy, and the numerous people who live from it, has been subsumed under a narrative of force.

In this short piece, I suggest that in addition to a historically recursive and Orientalist conflation of women and girls with victim subjectivity, this rhetorical sleight of hand has been achieved through the spatialized production of the idea that sexual commerce is always sequestered and hidden away. The argument against sexual commerce has a visual rhetoric, in which the streets and dark alleyways of urban brothels lead to unimagined night-time horrors. This rhetoric, found in a spate of contemporary documentary and feature films set in India, has significant impact on building a generalized common sense that prostitution here is, in and of itself, harmful and should be eradicated.

The new filmic discourse on prostitution in India turns on the idea that literally visualizing sexual commerce would mean laying it bare. Elsewhere,1 I have argued that we may identify films like Born Into Brothels (2004) as constituting part of a sub-genre of documentary films on Indian prostitution, a sub-genre in which prostitution is seen as a human rights violation from which children, in particular, need to be rescued. This sub-genre is being met with resistance from filmmakers who are using a different narrative of sexual commerce altogether in order to produce a counter narrative to that of prostitution-as-harm. The body of work being produced within this counter narrative both addresses the effects of conflating prostitution and trafficking for sex workers living and working in red light districts, while centring on the question of livelihood, and argues that the state, and police in particular, are often a more egregious source of harm than are pimps, madams or clients of sexual services, or the commoditization of sex per se.

The uses of space in documentary films on sexual commerce collectively serve as an allegory for the debate on the role of harm in prostitution. The complexities of the debate on prostitution may be summarized as a disagreement on whether the commoditization of sex per se is harmful, or whether harm is more properly located in the regulatory regimes used to suppress or, now, attempts to eradicate sexual commerce. The former position conflates prostitution and harm, while the latter argues that harm is not a universal referent for prostitution per se, while attempting to account for structural harms sex workers experience, including those produced by their criminalization. The debate is illustrated in four films on sexual commerce in India, produced over the past decade, that I discuss here. The debate is illustrated in differences in the uses of space in each set of films, two made from the hegemonic perspective on prostitution-as-violence, and two that critique this perspective in no uncertain terms.

Born Into Brothels, made in 2004 and officially released in the U.S., though not in India, begins as a film about children of sex workers in one of Calcutta’s main red light districts, Sonagachi. What starts as a story about impoverished Indian children taking photographs in their homes and neighbourhood quickly becomes a rescue narrative about children who are vulnerable to the depredations of prostitution. The use of red filters in outdoor shots of the red light district, which is almost always shown at night, the juxtaposition of images of rats, bare light bulbs, and women applying make-up in slow motion, conveys the danger that lurks in the dark.

The most striking feature of these images is that they convey a sense of enclosure, of constraint, and of a profound lack of options. If the alleyways and dark spaces of the red light district are presented as the world of the children of sex workers, the scenes of the children out in the city, in cars, and on the streets away from their neighbourhoods, are depicted as spaces of light, of being accompanied by the filmmakers who are working to free them from the red light district.

Born Into Brothels was influential in the West insofar as the film was apprehended as an expert text, one that confirms the familiar truth of prostitution, and gender, in India. The discourse of prostitution in India that Born Into Brothels disseminates reappears in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the fictional feature film adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q&A. Slumdog’s several plotlines read as a catalogue of iconic western tropes of 21st century Indian-ness, including Bollywood glamour, real estate and street-begging mafias, police torture, prostitution, and the triumph of luck and hard work. If Slumdog is a repository of what is ‘known’ about India in mainstream filmic terms, then prostitution necessarily serves as an essential element of the catalogue.

The plotline of prostitution in Slumdog culminates, as in Born Into Brothels, in a climactic rescue scene. In Born Into Brothels, the rescue image is that of the children being driven to their new homes at boarding school, away from the red light district. In Slumdog, the heroes burst through a locked door in a wild-West style rescue. They find their friend, the potential victim of prostitution, wearing a gaudy sari and make-up, being taught how to sing and dance in a dimly lit room by a gangster-cum-pimp. This imagery of the backroom, where women sell sexual services to male clients, and befall unspeakable horrors away from public view, is one that recurs in both documentary and fictionalized accounts of prostitution.

Slumdog’s depiction of this backroom recalls Mary Ellen Mark’s much earlier depiction of the same space, in her photo essay of one of Mumbai’s red light districts, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (1981). Slumdog recalls this photo essay almost literally in the prostitution storyline, including a shot from above of the brothel. The camera skims across the tops of makeshift partitions between the beds where sex workers entertain clients, finally resting for a few extra seconds on a topless couple whose heads disappear into the shadows at the edge of the frame. We are left with an image of copulating bodies, faceless and headless, as if gazing upon a diorama, the ceiling cut away for a better view. This final image in the shot is almost identical in its framing to that of a widely disseminated image in Falkland Road, of a topless young woman, gazing up at the camera from a flowered bed sheet, surrounded on three sides by the saturated aqua-green walls of her compartment.

Construed broadly, films that mobilize a counter narrative to this powerful visual discourse present sexual commerce as a contested issue, in which the narratives of people who sell sexual services must be central to any policy or any juridical intervention on the issue, and in which prostitution and harm must be disaggregated. This is in contrast to the films I discuss above, which instrumentalize prostitution in order to reify a long-standing belief that women are in mortal danger when they sell sexual services, a belief in which the referent seems to be women’s safety, but turns out to be the preservation of a social status quo in which women’s sexuality is sequestered within monogamous marriage.

In other words, films that support the hegemonic narrative of sex work, like the broader discourse on prostitution from which they emerge, articulate a set of concerns that ultimately reify the preservation of normative ‘society’, rather than centring on the safety of individual women and girls. The small but growing number of films on sexual commerce in India that disavow this internationally hegemonic perspective position of sexual commerce lie squarely within the discursive contexts of livelihood and activism. These films also aim to situate sexual commerce within a broad interpretation of the physical environments in which sex workers and their families live and work.

Tales of the Night Fairies (2007), made by Shohini Ghosh and funded by Mama Cash, set out to describe the debate on sex work in India from a rights-based perspective. Interviews with sex workers in Sonagachi discuss the politics of sexual commerce, including the organizational contexts in which these politics are deployed. Interviews with women who work as sex workers and serve as activists in the sex workers’ rights movement are embedded within images of outreach workers speaking with sex workers throughout Calcutta. The film is thus replete with numerous shots of city streets, sex workers working as peer educators, strolling through the lanes of Sonagachi and other red light districts during the day, of interviews conducted near tram lines, city landmarks and terraces, of conversations on the Hooghly River, and of the organizing spaces of the sex workers’ rights movement in Calcutta. Rather than showing a world of night terrors, Tales depicts women living in a city that is very much their own. This notion culminates in a scene on a barge on the Hooghly, in view of the famous Hooghly bridge, in which the filmmaker and Mala, one of the film’s main protagonists and informants, sing a classic Hindi film song, ‘Chingari Koyi Bhadake’, laughing as they trail off key.

The more recent We Are Foot Soldiers (2011), made for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, is a more didactic response to Born Into Brothels. It discusses a relatively recent initiative to organize the children of sex workers in Calcutta’s red light districts, and includes a densely informative set of interviews with young people discussing the complexities of negotiating school admissions and job interviews as children of sex workers. Like Tales, We Are Foot Soldiers conveys a sense of the city, with all of the interviews showing people living and working in their home spaces, in the offices of their organization, and on balconies overlooking apartment complexes and shops nearby.

‘Space is divided up into designated (signified, specialized) areas and into areas that are prohibited (into one group or another). It is further subdivided into spaces for work and spaces for leisure, and into daytime and night-time spaces. The body, sex and pleasure are often accorded no existence, either mental or social, until after dark, when the prohibitions that obtain during the day, during "normal" activity, are lifted’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Politics of Space, p. 319).

The discourse on prostitution in India articulates a set of positions on the relationship between sex work and harm, and on the proper response of the state in regulating these harms. The discourse has found purchase in a range of conversations, about development, gender, and, as I have described here, space.

Historically, prostitution and space have been co-constitutive of Indian cities, with urban spaces defined in relation to the licit and illicit activities that take place there. The centrality of prostitution to the production of urban zones, and urbanism itself, in the mid and late nineteenth centuries, is subject to a growing body of work on cities and space. Animating this body of work is the idea drawing on the late nineteenth century colonialist ideal that prostitution could be sequestered within a marked geographic zone, an area demarcated by a set of city streets, and thus regulated as a necessary social evil. This spatialized ideal has been reasserted in the contemporary moment as the need to act upon these zones through increased brothel raids in order to rescue sex workers as part of a broader strategy to ban and eradicate prostitution.

In the filmic discourse of prostitution in India, the street verges on being articulated as an ethic, in which light and dark, outside and inside, serve as tropes for truth and lies, for safety and harm. If Lefebvre’s assertion that, ‘The body, sex and pleasure are often accorded no existence, either mental or social, until after dark, when the prohibitions that obtain during the day, during "normal" activity, are lifted,’ references the male-bodied client of sex and pleasure, we may ask how a discourse of prostitution that centres on the bodies of its purveyors would be articulated, and how, in its filmic and theoretical instantiations, it would appear upon, and reimagine, the city street.

Svati P. Shah



1. Svati Shah, ‘Brothels and Big Screen Rescues: Producing the Idea of "Prostitution in India" Through Documentary Film’, Interventions. International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, forthcoming 2013.