Tales of The Night Fairies
US Premiere at
the 3rd San Francisco Sex
Film and Video Festival
presented by Good Vibrations and COYOTE
May 23- 26th, 2003
AWID's 9th International Forum on Women's Rights and Development
at Guadalajara, Mexico.
Film Festival in Rome
Warning Signs: a conference of Women Living Under Muslim Laws in London
Another World Festival in Hyderabad
Ladyfest, Bristol, UK on August
Worker Arts Festival in Arizona, Novembr 9th.
Mix Festival in New York
For US (NTSC) distribution and higher resolution images, email
firstname.lastname@example.org . Please contact the maker Shohini Ghosh to order
your copies, for other distribution and for info: Click to contact Shohini Ghosh.
TALES OF THE NIGHT FAIRIES
(Bengali/English Subtitles/ 74 min/ 2002)
Script & Direction: SHOHINI GHOSH
Camera Sabeena Gadihoke/Editing Shohini Ghosh & Shikha Sen/Produced with
Support from the Centre for Feminist Legal Research (Delhi) & MAMACASH (Amsterdam)
Read More about
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), India and
Manifesto: Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Calcutta
Five sexworkers - four women and one man - along with the filmmaker/narrator
embark on a journey of storytelling. Tales of the Night Fairies explores
the power of collective organizing and resistance while reflecting upon
contemporary debates around sexwork. The simultaneously expansive and labyrinthine
city of Calcutta forms the backdrop for the personal and musical journeys
The film attempts to represent the struggles and aspirations of thousands
of sexworkers who constitute the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committe
or the Durbar Women's Collaborative Committee) an initiative that emerged
from the Shonagachi HIV/AIDS Intervention Project. A collective of men,
women and transgendered sexworkers, DMSC demands decriminalization of adult
sex work and the right to form a trade union.
Tales of the Night Fairies (74-min) was completed in November 2002 and had
its first public screening in January 28, 2003. It was first screened at
the AWID's 9th International Forum on Women's Rights and Development at
Guadalajara, Mexico. Thereafter it has been screened at the Asian Film Festival
in Rome where it was part of a special focus on Calcutta. It was screened
at "Warning Signs" a conference of Women Living Under Muslim Laws in London
and recently at Another World Festival in Hyderabad. The film continues
to be screened for different institutions and groups across the country.
THE MAKING OF TALES OF THE NIGHT FAIRIES
The Tales of the Night Fairies(1) is a 74 min documentary about the struggles
of the women of DMSC, a collective of about 60, 000 sex workers in West
Bengal, India who have come together to fight for their legal and social
rights. One of their demands is that they should be recognised as labourers
and allowed to form a trade union.
The DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanyay Committee or the Durbar Women's Collaborative
Committee), that emerged from the work of The Shonagachi HIV/AIDS Intervention
Project (SHIP), is the organisation that spearheads the movement.(2) Through
the stories of five sex workers (four women and one man) working in the
different red-light areas of Calcutta and the journey of the filmmaker/narrator,
the documentary attempts to make a feminist intervention in the divisive
and contested debate around the issues of trafficking and sex work.
The Shonagachi red light district comprises of five neighboring red light
areas: Shonagachi, Rambagan, Sethbagan, Jorabagan and Rabindra Sarani. Shonagachi
is one of the oldest and largest 'red-light' districts of Calcutta. An estimated
5000 sex workers reside in about 400 brothels in this area and this number
increases every year. About 25,0000 'flying sex workers' operate in and
around this area. An estimated 24,000 clients visit Shonagachi every day.
The DMSC came into existence when, while working with the projects of SHIP
(Shonagachi HIV Intervention Programme), the sex workers of the area felt
the need to create a platform for themselves. Run entirely by sex workers
and their children, the DMSC today runs about 33 health clinics all over
West Bengal, a cooperative banking system called Usha Multipurpose Co-operative
Society Ltd., a cultural troupe called Komol Gandhar and Shaathi Shongothon
(Companions Collective) comprising of regular clients. Most importantly,
DMSC has set up Self-Regulatory Boards in order to ensure that minor girls
and unwilling adults are not brought into the trade.
The women of DMSC are fighting to amend and finally repeal the Immoral Trafficking
in Women Prevention Act, 1956 (PITA) and various provisions in the Indian
Penal Code of 1897 (IPC) that criminalize sex work. The existing legislation
in India is based on the assumption that all women in sex work are victims
who need rehabilitation and protection from pimps, brothel owners and traffickers.
Sex workers rights groups, both nationally and internationally, have challenged
the idea that sex work is inherently violent and that all the women in the
industry are exclusively victims. These groups have focused on the fact
that the violence that sex workers encounter is partly the denial of legal
rights and partly the stigma that the community carries. DMSC argues that
sex workers are entitled to the same legal rights as any other person who
is involved in other 'socially acceptable' forms of labour. Critical to
the work of DMSC is the understanding that distinctions must be made between
"trafficking" that implies forced and coerced prostitution and consensual
sex work. This idea will form the major thematic concern in the film.
The documentary attempts to understand and uncover the conjunction of impulses
that has created a dynamic organization like DMSC. It suggests that the
organizing impulse emerges not from top-down developmental attempts but
through the lived experiences of the sex workers and their needs to create
a platform. As will emerge from the narratives of the women, the role of
SHIP as catalyst is unarguably central. However, the documentary will emphasize
how the women themselves have catalyzed their own struggles for rights.
Impelled by various individual and collective reasons the women of DMSC
have forged a collective identity and precipitated the process of their
own empowerment. Through heterogeneous and multiple threads of individual
narratives and stories, the documentary attempts to recuperate this collective
1. Shikha Das (Shonagachi): As the daughter of a sex worker in Shonagachi
Shikha Das grew up hating her mother's profession. When she was old enough
to go to school her mother arranged for her to stay with relatives away
from the brothels. While accepting generous financial assistance from her
mother, Shikha's relatives treated her indifferently. She missed her mother
and craved to be with her. But her mother was adamant that she should not
be anywhere near the brothels. In school, she felt humiliated and small
when her friends demanded to know who her father was or why her mother never
visited her. All this made her curse her mother for bringing her into the
Shikha's mother devoted her life to giving her daughters a good life. Having
got her elder daughter married and settled she insisted that Shikha educate
herself. However, Shikha left school to marry a "no-gooder". (In the documentary
Shikha looks back on her life and remarks, "When in love, even a wretch
seems beautiful.") Despite trying hard to be a good wife, mother and bread-earner
her marriage broke as her husband became increasingly abusive. She left
him and eventually started living with another man who also turned out to
be exploitative and abusive. Through both her marriages she worked in various
capacities in the unorganized sector in order to bring up her two children.
Finally, by pretending to be a sex worker she found employment with SHIP.
It was while working in SHIP that Shikha made the decision to join the profession.
Currently, she is both a sex worker and one of DMSC's most dynamic members.
Her daughter is now nine years old and studies in a boarding house. "What
would you like her to do when she grows up?" I ask her. "I want to educate
her so that she has many more choices in life than I have had" says Shikha,
"But it, after considering all her options she still wants to become a sex
worker, I will respect her choice. After all, I no longer feel that this
profession is small." Unfortunately, this sequence had to be left out of
the final cut.
2. Sadhana Mukherjee (Rambagan): When Sadhana heard about the health project
that SHIP had begun in the red-light area she was entirely skeptical. She
was convinced that it was a scam that would only end up fleecing the sex
workers. When she saw other sex workers join the organization she was dismissive
of them saying that they were compensating for their inability to procure
clients. However, she enjoyed an independent reputation in Rambagan as a
woman who always fought for justice and took no nonsense from others. The
local thugs and extortionists were wary of her, even scared.
It was while Sadhana was leading a local resistance against a particularly
oppressive local extortionist called 'Lattu' that she started networking
with the sex workers in Shonagachi who had begun to work for SHIP. The organizing
of the sex workers at this juncture eventually led to the founding of the
DMSC. Through the story of her life, Sadhana addresses the core debates
in the film including issues of 'coming out' to the family and fighting
the social stigma of being a sex worker.
3. Uma Mondol (Bowbazaar): Bespectacled, gray-haired and in her mid-sixties,
Uma Mondol is a regular figure outside the Bowabazar Health Clinic. She
sits with her flip charts and in her inimitable style explains the dangers
STD/HIV to customers. She also hollers at regular clients in the area, reminding
them to get their medical check-ups done on time. During the early days
of DMSC most sex workers, except Uma, would be embarrassed to use the large
flipcharts with their sexually explicit pictures. "From the start, I've
been rather shameless", says Uma who decided to first educate all the shopkeepers
in her area. Witty and humorous, Uma has an extraordinary gift for poetry.
Many of her experiences and memories have been recorded in verse.
4. Mala Singh (Khidirpur): Mala also did not want to have much to do with
DMSC during the early days. Then one day three Nepal women were brutally
attacked in her area and she strongly felt the need for collective organization.
In trying to mobilize against the lumpinization of the area, Mala began
to network with women of SHIP and DMSC. An admirer of Sadhana Mukherjee,
Mala says that she has never wanted to distribute condoms and that till
date she has done almost everything except door-to-door marketing of condoms.
For the last four years Mala has held important office positions in DMSC.
Through various humorous anecdotes, Mala makes insightful observations around
the debates on sex work.
5. Nitai Giri (Bowbazar) Nitai Giri is the only male sex worker protagonist
in my film. I had initially set out to make a film only on women sex workers
when Nitai started appearing in my frames. This began to happen so frequently
that I could not ignore him any longer. Nitai became inducted into DMSC
through the persistent efforts of Uma Mondol in Bowbazar. Initially, Nitai
and his friends were skeptical of SHIP would drive the peer educators away
saying that they were a bunch of frauds. Uma befriended them and eventually
convinced them about the relevance and utility of the Health program. Now
Nitai, along with several other male sex workers are peer educators in the
Bowbazar area. Nitai's inclusion in into the documentary allows the exploration
of certain critical issues around sex work and queerness. "Look at the way
I look", says Nitai in the documentary, "I have long hair, long nails -
what other work would people accept me in." Nitai is a cross-dresser whose
most passionate involvement is with Komol Gandhar, the cultural wing of
6. The Filmmaker/Narrator as Protagonist: I am a peripheral protagonist
in the film. My personalized narration relies on anecdotal retellings of
childhood memories and experiences of shooting the film. My childhood memories
of forbidden areas, notions of the good and bad women and my own discomfort
with heteronormativity and notions of normalcy inform the soundtrack. I
negotiate both pleasurably and uneasily the "respectable" and "immoral"
spaces within the city. I straddle both and belong to neither.
THE CITY OF CALCUTTA
Calcutta is the inescapable backdrop for the human protagonists and eventually
a protagonist in the film. Conventionally, sex workers have always been
relegated to the invisible boundaries of red-light areas. In Tales of the
Night Fairies, I have tried to visually confound borders between red-light
areas and the rest of the city just as I have tried to erase the distinctions,
albeit imaginary and/or constructed, between the bodies of sex workers and
non-sex workers. I have tried to place the protagonists against the expanse
of the larger city in a filmic gesture suggesting the reclamation of the
city by the sex worker. The central protagonists move out of red-light areas
to stake their claim on the rest of the city. I have shot the brothel area
in the same way that I have shot other non-red-light areas of the city.
I have self-consciously drawn parallels between the two opposing spaces.
While maintaining the "authenticity" of actual protagonists and locations
I have attempted to use lighting and framing in a way that moves away from
certain traditions of documentary realism that has frequently been deployed
to represent the lives of the less fortunate.
A major sequence in the documentary represents the holding of the three-day
Millennium Milan Mela (The Millennium Carnival Meet) conceived, organized
and hosted by the sex workers of the DMSC. The Mela (that can be translated
as both 'fair'/fairground and carnival) was held in Calcutta's Salt Lake
Stadium, a prominent and popular venue. The mela was attended by a large
number of sex workers from the Asia Pacific region, ordinary citizens and
members of the city's intelligentsia. The events included seminars, workshops,
cultural programmes, games and open fora on contested issues around gender
and sexuality. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the city, a
public event saw such a visible participation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual
and Transgendered people.
The mela regularly punctuates the narrative of the film. In the documentary,
the mela provides the only space where members of stigmatized communities
and those of so-called "respectable society" meet. The events captured on
camera are a visual testimony of the organizing power and the political
activism of the sex workers. They also represent a visual space that is
affirmative, public and celebratory. At another level the 'mela' transcends
its physical and geographical space. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed
out that traditionally, the `bazaar' or the `mela' is "that unenclosed,
exposed and interstitial `outside' which acts as a meeting point of several
communities".(3) As a space that allows for encounters with strangers who,
as Chakrabarty argues, have always been seen as "suspect and potentially
dangerous" the 'mela' facilitates negotiations around familiarity and unfamiliarity
and trust and mistrust.
Musical memories frequently shape our intangible associations with people
and places. Therefore, the 'found' music that informs the soundtrack of
Tales of the Night Fairies constitutes one more layering of directorial
interpretation. In the 70's many of us grew up with the popular Puja songs
of R.D. Burman and the fusion music of Ananda Shankar. The credits open
to Ananda Shankar's Walking On while my memories of growing up with the
streets of Calcutta are evoked through the R.D. Burman and Asha Bhonsle
duet "Jayre Jayre" ("As time flows unstoppably, my heart escapes uncontrollably...").
At the end of the film the song reappears but in the newer re-mixed version
that became popular in the 90's.
Each time, I return to Calcutta there is always new music adding rhythm
to the city. Bhoomi's "Pocha Kaka" ('Rotten Uncle') is one such composition.
The words and music somehow attached themselves to Dipti di and Sadhana
di in the film. It may have all started with my cameraperson insisting that
we shoot Sadhana di's routine of going to the fish market. The lyrics from
Pocha Kaka ("There's no returning home without catching the fish") becomes
a gesture towards the Bengali culinary obsession with fish.
To my mind, the most beautiful woman in the film is Nitai. Therefore, the
songs associated with conventional femininity become his. Salil Chowdhury's
musical tribute to Tagore's 'dark skinned woman' and the tawaif (courtesan)
song from the feature film Sahib Bibi Ghulam become musical motifs for Nitai.
The 70's film Amar Prem was made from a Bengali original starring Uttam
Kumar. It's a romantic love story about a married man's relationship with
a prostitute. We grew up in Calcutta loving both films. As Mala and I float
down the Hooghly River on a boat we sing the popular song "Chingari" from
Amar Prem. I wonder whether anyone from my generation has ever sat on a
boat on the Hooghly and not sung this song.
If Nitai articulates my idea of conventional femininity, Shikha embodies
my idea of the beloved who waits endlessly for her lover. She is introduced
by a song in which Radha exhorts the bee to go and tell Krishna that her
body burns in desire and anguish because she so longs for him. The song
is sung by the singer Dilruba from my beloved Bangladesh.
The opening and closing song "Who Chali" ("There she goes...) is a re-working
of the hit song "Mai Chali" ("Here I go") from the 60's film Padosan. The
song is about metaphoric ventures into labyrinthine lanes where the looters
of love are waiting to make their kill. What better song than this to express
the pleasures and dangers of unpredictable sexual encounters?
Shohini Ghosh, April 2003, New Delhi
Shohini Ghosh is Reader, Video and Television Production at the Mass Communication
Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia (Jamia University), New Delhi. As
Visiting Associate Professor (1990-1996) at the Department of Communication,
Cornell University, USA, she has taught courses on Gender, Media and Representation
and Video for Development and Social Intervention. She has conducted training
workshops on gender and the media for different organizations in India and
Bangladesh including UNICEF, Dhaka. Ghosh works in the area of film and
television culture. She has worked and published on issues of speech and
censorship, sex work and sexuality. Between April-June 2001, Ghosh was given
a Visiting Fellowship at the Globalization Project, Centre for International
Studies, University of Chicago, to work on her project on Indian Media in
Ghosh has extensive production experience as director/producer of educational
films for the University Grants Commission (UGC) countrywide classroom,
and as an independent documentary filmmaker. She is also founder member
of Mediastorm Collective, India's first all women documentary production
collective which received The Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Work
among Women Media Professionals in 1992. Tales of the Nightfairies (2002)
is her first independent film.
1 The title is taken from the play Raat Porider Katha or the Tales of the
Night Fairies conceived, produced and performed by the women of DMSC.
2 The Bengali word Durbaar means indomitable or unstoppable.
3 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "Open Space/Public Space: Garbage, Modernity and
India", South Asia vol xiv, no.1, 1991