“Hashim Saheb to jante hain, ki hum hunar aur mehnat se kalakar hain, par kismat ne hume kichchhad mein patak diya” – Rukmini Bai

Rarely do you witness such a dignified and humanised outlook on sex work in times as early as the 1980s. While the debate of legalization of sex work has been long standing in India, with people debating whether sex work deserves it’s legalization because sex workers deserve to be acknowledged and accepted, or not, Shyam Benegal in 1982/83 did something different and effortless. He humanised and demystified them.

The women who are inhabitants of the decades old kotha, which lies in the heart of a small Telangana town in the film Mandi are neither victims nor defenseless.

They are people who relentlessly defend their right to do their job, fight off the prying eyes of lustful men, don’t back away before putting up a fight if they are touched without their consent and staunchly command to be adressed with respect. They spend their time training in classical music and dancing which nourishes their creativity to the fullest while also wholeheartedly sometimes stating that even sex work is another art form for them. Often referring to themselves as “kalaakars” they further their work through clients they meet during their music and dance “mehfils“.

The brothel is run by Rukmini Bai, helmed by Shabana Azmi, who is also the matriarch. She single-handedly runs the brothel, protects and looks after the brothel women as a mother figure. She empathizeswith them when they are sad, looks after them tirelessly when they are ill and chides them if they do wrong.

While watching a deaf and mute Phoolmani being sold off by her husband Shrikant less than a week after marriage is painful and disturbing to watch, it is Rukmini Bai who  holds her in her arms, craddles her, manages calms her down and further reasons with her, while also sympathising with her plight.

To these women, sex work isn’t blood, guts or gore. While it is a disturbing and unfortunate turn of events that led them there, they have fully accepted it as a way of life, with a majority of them voluntarily choosing to stick to this profession by choice, despite being offered a way out in several junctuers. In the end of the day, it’s their daily source of bread and butter.

They have to earn their livelihood and can’t afford to feel victimised.

Rukmini raises as her own, Zeenat (played beautifully by the late Smita Patil), the daughter of one of the former sex workers that passed away after giving birth to her. Zeenat is the only virgin in the brothel, as Rukmini Bai refuses to push her into the business and instead makes her primarily focus on mastering singing and music.

Their relationship also transcends business and work. Zeenat is always adressed as Rukmini’s “dear one” and “beti”. With several simple gestures and acts of love, Shyam Benegal completely humanises the women and their bond. Rukmini, often stressed, comes up to Zeenat’s room  asks Zeenat to sing for her, and they sometimes even cuddle intimately together.

This story highlights the plight of the inhabitants of the kotha, their relationship with each other and every day life in the most respectful, simple and human way possible. When Rukmini Bai ruthlessly questioning why the society always humiliates and points fingers at them instead of the men who seek their services is surprising and refreshingly feminist, in a world where several film pieces have only used sex workers in their narrative with an intent of over-sexualisation, objectification and to further commodify them.

One of the most realistic, yet hard hitting aspects of the women and their dynamic is the fact that their acts of looking out for each other and caregiving, will not let you romanticise and dub it as “sisterhood”. You get forced to disband that belief almost as soon as you begin to harbour it.

To all the women, it all boils down to “survival of the fittest” and “each woman for herself”.

This can even be witness in the two women that share the closest, most vulnerable bond in the kotha. Rukmani refuses to let any man close to Zeenat and shields her from any lurker who lusts after her. Adore and care often builds up to overprotectiveness and possessiveness. It is implied in several instances that through all this, she is somewhere only waiting for the best and highest bidder for Zeenat.

Zeenat with her childlike innocence and glee, also makes you realise that she can also be a very difficult shade of grey. She isn’t necessarily as childlike and innocent as she pretends to be. She is as curious as the next person her age, about the outside world, her sexuality and often longs for a getaway car to her freedom. She always carries quitely, a tinge of caluclated and cunning with her adolescent curiosity and facade of naivity. Zeenat is almost fully aware of the world outside the walls Rukmini almost refuses to let her out of.

Rukmini Bai’s pet parrot is a metaphorical representation of Zeenat. Both being compared to a caged golden bird, where despite both being Rukmini’s prized possession, are fully deserving of the opportunity to taste freedom/their freedom and can’t afford to live life caged away from the world outside, for the rest of eternity.

This black comedy boldly highlights with sensitivity and respect, the women and their demand for the freedom to  express their sexuality, with slapstick and whimsical comedy deeply embedded in its narrative. It also makes you laugh as much as it shocks you as it also leaves behind a bitter aftertaste of how harsh, unpredictable and selfish reality is.

With a powerful cast including people like the late Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Naseeruddin Shah, Soni Razdan, Ratna Pathak Shah, the late Om and Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda etc., there is hardly anyone in this film that doesn’t stand out while beautifully, elaborately and carefully carrying out their part, regardless of how elaborately complex, or simple their characters are or how minimal their screen time is.

Mandi is full of powerful performances by its cast members. It’s bitter take on realism, brutal honesty and it’s ability to bring out laughter in the most serious scenes is refreshing. It is also heavily laced with grim truths about human nature and bitter honesty while it explores the play of politics and power, hence making it a must watch.”

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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