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Mystelle Brabbée on India’s Modern Day Courtesans

December 1, 2006

When Mystelle Brabbée first heard about the Bachara community, of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, she was immediately intrigued. The community had a tradition of prostitution, associated with classical palace courtesans, and the eldest daughters who followed it were greatly revered. Seduced by the idea of a matriarchal society that esteems rather than shames women for their sexuality, Brabbée set out in 1995 to document this community. “I was very committed to this film,” Brabbée said at a recent Journalists’ Luncheon at the Women’s Media Center. “But I was somewhat naïve.” Over the following nine years, during which Brabbée produced, directed and often filmed Highway Courtesans, her first documentary feature, a rather different picture emerged. The award-winning film has been shown at more than 30 film festivals around the world since its release last year. It has also informed policymakers, including a group promoting use of the female condom in Africa, says Brabbée, also longstanding artistic director of the Nantucket Film Festival. Highway Courtesans follows the story of Guddi Chauhan, a young Bachara woman who is born into—and begins to challenge—her life of sanctioned prostitution. Somewhat different from the other girls, Guddi approached Brabbée three years into filming, wanting to become involved. Seventeen years old, she had already spent two years working as a khilawadi (“one who plays”), catering, like other Bachara sex workers, largely to truck drivers stopping at the roadside. However, she was better educated than most, having studied to tenth grade where some leave at fifth. As Guddi began to share parts of her life with the crew, Brabbée learned that Guddi was unable to have children, an important source of support in older age and of social status—many of the women take pride in having children with men of a higher caste. Slowly, Guddi revealed how unhappy she was. “She was looking for any possible out,” says Brabbée. “I think her education gave her confidence to want to explore other options.” One possibility was marriage, and Guddi had a secret boyfriend, Sagar. Yet marriage is a rare occurrence for Bachara girls, Brabbée explains. Their economic importance to their families is underscored by a unique reversal of the dowry system—a potential groom pays a large amount to compensate the family for the bride’s lost earnings. Bachara women face immense family and economic pressure to enter prostitution—Guddi did so by arriving home to find a customer waiting in the family kitchen—with all the risks and social denigration the life entails. Their main source of clientele, truck drivers, are a major carrier group in India of HIV/AIDS. One recent study estimated that almost 40% of truckers may be HIV positive. Yet the women themselves generally refuse to be tested for HIV, says Brabbée, noting that they do however use condoms and carefully select which men will father their children. At the same time, Bachara khilawadi arguably have more agency than many sex workers in choosing their clients and their working conditions. If a potential customer is drunk, or refuses to wear a condom, Brabbée says, they can refuse to serve them. This is a far cry from Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red light district, which Guddi visits in the film, her first trip and a 24-hour train ride away from home. Here, Guddi hears about women sold into forced prostitution, whose clients are chosen for them. “The street itself was filthy . . . I would never want to return to that street,” she says, shocked by the living and working conditions she witnesses. While not the idealized community Brabbée had envisaged, Bachara society is effectively matriarchal by default, she says, since men are largely absent. “The women are really the backbone of the community,” she says. In many ways, Brabbée points out, Guddi confounds stereotypes of poor Indian women, particularly as a breadwinner on whom her brothers and parents are economically dependent. “The men are so reliant on their sisters,” she notes, because there are few economic opportunities for men or for women. The film shows Guddi taking control of her life and starting to break with Bachara and gender traditions. When in the film we see her boyfriend verbally abuse and insult her—threatening at one point to knock her teeth out—she more than holds her own. “He failed eighth grade and he’s telling me to shut up!” she wryly quips. “Guddi is very much a hero to me,” says Brabbée. “The film in some ways is a celebration of Guddi—and of the Bachara community.” Highway Courtesans has its theatrical premiere at the Quad Cinema in New York City, December 1-7. Further screenings will take place in Santa Fe, Chicago and other cities to be announced.