Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Saheli Sangh (Part II of II)
"I was feeling so helpless and so angry, I was pushing him away, scratching him with my nails but he slapped me and then he started beating me and at the end he raped me. That is when I realized what this was and what I had to do... I was crying and screaming that I want to go back home but he told me, if you don’t entertain a man like this you will never go home, you will die."
Budhwar Peth Interviewee #2, HIV positive
"This isn't enough for a film, Brayden," my friend flatly declared, after hearing the interviewee’s words read aloud to him. "We know all about this problem–we already know these women exist.
"You need something more."
His words sucker-punched me right in the pretensions, just when I thought the revelations I had to tell him about sex trafficking in India would knock him out. Shouldn't sharing first-hand accounts from actual victims move him in the same way it had moved my cherished American social consciousness? Shouldn’t these real-life stories be the grist from which amazing films are made? Shouldn't their tales be met with more than a shrug?
When I look back at it now, though, I feel ridiculous; did I really think I would be able to tell India something it did not know about itself? My Indian classmate's reaction served as the wake-up call I didn't know I needed...and yet it still took me a long time thereafter to accept that I had been dreaming, and to understand where he was coming from. I was a naïf in this culture–yet there I was growing upset that a native was not reacting as I did.
Jean Piaget, considered the father of the study of children's cognitive development, famously defined maturity in kids as the age when they can start to perceive points of view other than their own. Before reaching that stage, Piaget contended that children are extremely egocentric creatures who naturally assume that everybody else sees, hears, and feels exactly as they do. Piaget based much of his conclusions on his observations of children's speech, which they deploy only for their own purposes, never to enquire about others, even when they're in a group. In this world, children are really talking to themselves.
That's as good a description as it gets for the ex-pat, born wide-eyed in another culture. If I had done a story about the brothel women of old Pune, perhaps other naïfs would have found it as moving as I did. Indians, on the other hand, might have looked at it as we look at a ten-year old writing about dragons, fairies, and castles of old Europe. It's not that my Indian friend was unmoved by the interview excerpts I read out to him; only the most callous bastard could fail to empathize with prostitutes describing how they were stolen from their villages as teenage girls and literally sold into brothel work. But it was a story he had known of since he had become sexually aware as a teenager–and one that had played out countless times before in Indian films I had not yet seen, nor would have fully understood even if I had. Any basic Google search for Bollywood and prostitution will yield up films such as Umrao Jaan, Chandni Bar, Chameli, or Mandi, films as well-known in India as Pretty Woman is in the United States, and ones with a commensurate amount of “social consciousness.” Nobody watches Julia Roberts as a hooker and leaves the theater wanting to save all the street-walkers.
As I would go through film school in Pune, I would learn about the on-screen depictions of the red-light district in India. I would also learn more about my own country, and thanks to the great Preston Sturges, I could see how American film directors wanting to make a difference come across on celluloid:
Sullivan: I'm going out on the road to find out what it's like to be poor and needy and then I'm going to make a picture about it.
Butler: If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?
Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. I believe quite properly, sir.
The butler from Sullivan's Travels serves as a reality check for the young movie director, just as my Indian classmate was for me at the beginning of film school. Yet it's a difficult thing for Americans to accept, because we think of ourselves as difference-makers–and we often are, for good or ill. For the past century, from making the world "safe for democracy" to holding ourselves up as "the indispensable nation," we have never shied from the spotlight or the belief that we can change things. But there are limits to that kind of thinking, and a short student film on the evils of sex trafficking in India was not going to revolutionize Indian society, no matter how much I wanted the despicable practice of sex trafficking to end.
Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer, recently said that “the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all,” and her latest book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, paints a minutely detailed picture of the human spirit in the dredges of a Bombay slum. Yet had I tried to construct a film around the lives of sex workers in Pune’s red-light district, I fear it would have clumsily veered towards preachy propaganda–and would have been no more compelling than if I had just ripped a headline from the newspaper. Journalism and social studies are perhaps the more appropriate spheres for the kind of light that needs be shone on society’s ills. But the most important thing a creative work should do is capture a feeling.
I came to Saheli in 2008 through a young woman who had made her bones working with disadvantaged and oppressed communities in the developing world–across Africa, southeast Asia, and India. Her master’s degree work in Pune had led her to the women of Budhwar Peth, and she later shared that research with me in the hopes that I might be able to make something worthwhile. Armed with interviews from women being forced to prostitute themselves, I thought I had found a film worth making. But what I really had was character study, and access to part of the world of which I had never before known. Their culture in old Pune would become the noir milieu for Breakdown, and their stories would become the background for Janki, the trafficked tamasha dancer forced to gyrate on the stage.
Yet I still wanted to honor the information I had been entrusted with in a way that was more substantial than a short feature. I ended up using the research to make a short promotional documentary about Saheli, which I hoped would serve as my small contribution to the important work the organization is doing there in Budhwar Peth. But for my final student film in India, I would need something more personal to my own experience, which is the primary goal of artistic expression. I would need, too, an Indian collaborator who could take the naiveté off–and help shape my ideas of this culture into something more mature. Thankfully, working in film means never having to talk only to yourself, and that others can point out the blind spots staring straight at you. All you have to do is learn to see things a little more like they do.