“Why should selling one’s own body be illegal?”: Arunaraje Patil
Manipal: Filmmaker Arunaraje Patil deliberated various topics like child prostitution, commercialization of sex workers, women-centric cinema and challenges faced by women in the film industry alongside her autobiography ‘Freedom: My Story’ with Dr. Meera Baindur at the Gangubai Hangal Auditorium on the final day of Manipal International Literature and Arts Platform (MILAP).
Aruna started off with emphasizing that her autobiography isn’t just about herself but is rather an amalgamation of the experiences she had during her films and documentaries and her relationships with other people in her life.
Reading out an excerpt on red light areas from her book she described the depravity of human beings which she witnessed in the devadasi ceremony at the Yellamma Temple in Saundatti, Karnataka while working with T. S. Ranga for the movie ‘Giddh’. She elaborated on the misery of girls as young as ten or twelve who were offered to the goddess and were told to serve any man who approached them for sex and then go door-to-door begging for alms. “These girls were often spotted by pimps who would sell them at Kamathipura, the red light area in Bombay which is only ten hours away from Saundatti and would have no chance of escape”, she stated. Aruna highlighted that the patriarchy, feudalism and rigid caste system that prevailed in the region asserted a girl child as a poor man’s least valued asset.
The making of the movies ‘Giddh’ and ‘Rihaee’ urged her to visit Kamathipura which was considered highly unsafe for women. Aruna recalls, “Adamant as I was when I went in, I ensured that I was allowed to interact with commercial sex workers. It was daunting and the living conditions were terrible; I wouldn’t even touch the banisters while climbing the steep steps but when I began shooting in the 6 by 4 cubicles all the snobbery vanished over time.”
In her detailed description of Kamathipura, Aruna also mentioned the vicious cycle of forced sex, gambling, and hidden tunnels to other buildings designed to escape police raids. She also stated instances when the family would disown minors when they were rescued from brothels, thereby indirectly pushing them back into prostitution.
Being the first woman film technician and despite having a gold medal from FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), Aruna’s work was often scrutinized and challenged by the male-dominated film industry. “Men hated taking orders from women, there might be a few exceptions now”, she smiled. The press too was difficult on her at times, and she recollected that when a reporter had asked her if an actor like Vinod Khanna actually took orders from ‘a shit of a girl’ like her, she had cheekily replied, “Go and ask Vinod Khanna”.
Speaking in favour of legalizing sex workers, she added “Why is selling your brain, your skills, and your talents considered superior to selling your body? People are selling their body parts (kidneys while they’re still alive), women sell their wombs so why come so heavily on women who sell their bodies willingly to feed their children?” She also stated that if a woman chose prostitution as a career, she’d consider it as valid as her own choice of filmmaking, emphasizing that sex trafficking and child prostitution are rampant as pimps and middlemen abduct and exploit girls illegally and outside of law’s purview.
Aruna articulated that men making women-centric films still have a lingering male gaze in them; they do not portray the nuances of a woman appropriately. “Hindi films especially are highly superficial, they make a pretense of making women-centric films whereas they barely keep anything related to women authentic”, she remarked. She went on to applaud Perumal Murugan for aptly capturing a woman’s nuances in his works.
Narrating the time she was summoned by the Central Board of Film Certification for a rape scene in one of her movies, Aruna said she had protested saying that rape wasn’t meant for titillation or entertainment but to disturb and shake up the audience. Her scene had only sound and no visuals of the rape as she’d displayed it through the expressions of a girl who sees it happening and ultimately collapses. Therefore, the committee had to pass it without any cuts. “I had to work several times harder to prove my worth and making difficult films is a transformative process, every person or place moves and irks you.”
On his thoughts about the session, Prof. Unni Krishnan K from School of Communication said, “Bold, frank and moving experience of Arunaraje! Her experience with emotions was very visible and direct. It was an eye-opener to the world of prostitutes, their problems, and concerns.”
Drawing the session to an end on a thoughtful note, the filmmaker spoke on people shying away from displaying women’s natural processes and retorted, “If there can be condom ads why can’t there be a sanitary napkin ad.”
Edited by Soumyajit Saha
Featured image by Ishveena Paliwal