In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.
Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.
Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.
But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.
In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.
Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.
Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.