No Children in Film Noir
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Saheli Sangh (Part I of II)
If "clever outs" from Maharashtran culture are there for the taking all across Pune, then "difficult ins" need to be sought out and pursued. And in my time here, there's been no more "difficult in" than Saheli sangh, a sex workers union in the middle of the old city's red light district, on the other side of the river. I had once thought that prostitution looked like the stilettos and barely-there skirts of the free agents that troll for tourists in Waikiki–trashier versions of Julia Roberts' street walker in Pretty Woman. But I was ignorant; there's nothing "pretty" about women trafficked into sex slavery, or the children they birth and raise under those conditions.
It was those children that first kept me coming back to Saheli, every Sunday for my first two-and-a-half years in Pune. The Saheli offices were closed on that day, so it was often just me with some twenty-five kids that loved hanging off of me like I was a tree. I was happy to oblige them, even though their caretaker nanny generally disapproved of hugging. Kids just have a natural instinct to climb on things, which they couldn't exercise within the four walls of the Saheli crèche.
Still, they were at least secure in that place, and not squaloring in the surrounding brothels. I loved playing games with them, teaching them English, or showing them VCD's of popular Hindi-language children's programs like My Friend Ganesha. Sometimes, friends would join on visits to the crèche and help to chaperone the children on outings, like to the zoo or to the park or even just the harrowing journey down the street to get some sugar cane juice. Wherever we were, their smiles reminded me that childhood doesn't care where you come from, and that the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin count for nothing against a single child growing up without a father figure. Yet these children seemed blissfully unaware of the circumstances of their birth, existing in the same state of grace that keeps kids climbing trees and jungle gyms in any corner of the globe.
Their mothers of course had different stories to tell, and as "fallen women" they occupied a peculiar contradiction within the conservative caste-based society encasing the old city, keeping everything in its given place. Over the next few years, I contacted Rohini Sahni and studied her collection of scholars' essays in Prostitution and Beyond: An Analysis of Sex Work in India. I read about The Dancing Girls of Lahore, Louise Brown's recounting of the past, faded glories of the subcontinent's courtesans, and their descent from renowned tawaifs of the high nautch dancing culture into vulgar, forgotten prostitution. I met often with a husband and wife pair of activist lawyers at Pune's Human Rights & Law Defenders, who counseled me on the plight of sex workers all across India, from solicitors at roadside dabbas to modern-day devdasis, plying their trade from a temple. I grew less ignorant.
But none of that data collection could compare to the privilege of witnessing the warm touch that Saheli provided to the women of Budhwar Peth. I would soon come to learn first-hand accounts of their personal journeys from the village to this sad station of life, and of the men who tricked, kidnapped, drugged, sold, bound, beat, and raped them into submitting to this fate. And I would come to marvel at their undying spirit, and the female capacity to bear such unjust burdens.
These trafficked women enduring at the margins of Pune gave me a template for what later became our film's captive tamasha dancer; when it came time to write the story of Breakdown, Janki was the first character I started with, not the American. But in choosing to make a genre film, I realized that I could not make her a mother. As Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush put it in their fantastic book Alternative Scriptwriting, "There are no children in film noir. Married couples have no children. Children represent hope and there is no hope in any relationship, nor in the future."
That was how it was for many of the women in the red-light area; it was their children that kept them going. Like any parent whose dreams had been betrayed by life, the mothers of Budhwar Peth were determined to spare their children the cruelties that they themselves had endured–and to provide some kind of better life to the next generation. With little formal or vocational education, they continued in the world's oldest profession because it was the only livelihood they knew. And because they knew they could not go home again.
The children of Saheli's crèche would someday no doubt come to know about their origins. Perhaps they would learn to walk in love, as their mothers loved them. Or perhaps they would resent their mothers' offerings, for placing upon them an undue burden of redemption. I contemplated these things for several years every Sunday morning, aware of what these children represented in the face of their mothers' great sacrifices and prayerful for the light of a changing world, which could one day seek forgiveness for the darkness it visited on their formative years. Studying their faces, I was sure of only one thing: if not unto us, the kingdom of heaven should truly belong to such as these.