New film focuses on prostitution as family trade in India

By Krittivas Mukherjee
June 18, 2007

Mumbai - A new film will examine a centuries-old tradition among some underprivileged Indian communities where girls in the family become prostitutes, with their brothers and fathers acting as pimps.

Mostly restricted to a few male-dominated ethnic groups in central and southern India, this custom means women sell themselves to support the family while the men drink and gamble in between soliciting clients for their daughters and sisters.

One such community is the Banjaras, living on the arid plains of central India, where the eldest daughter of the family is introduced into prostitution - often when she turns 12 - with bizarre fanfare.

The mother dresses up the daughter for her first client while the father negotiates the best price for her virginity.

"Rivaaz", or tradition, tells the story of a teenage girl who is to follow the age-old custom and become a prostitute. But her mother protests, triggering anger in a community living off their womenfolk.

"Family-based prostitution exists in more than 300 districts in India," Ashok Nanda, the director of the Hindi-language film, said.

"It is so incredible that I did not believe this is true. Then I saw a UNICEF report and read up on this."

While certain communities like the Banjaras see family-based prostitution as "god's will", other groups coerce their women into the flesh trade as a form of bonded labour to pay off debts taken from moneylenders.

In this system, the prostitute generally works without pay for a year or longer in order to repay a debt.

Since Indian law prohibits prostitution, the bizarre tradition is unregulated by authorities, and more than 90 percent of these pre-teen prostitutes become pregnant. Many others are infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

Although communities practising family-based prostitution outwardly revere their women as they are breadwinners, less beautiful women are often tortured and discriminated against because they cannot command good prices from clients.

In "Rivaaz", one of the girls, played by Bollywood actress Meghna Naidu, is ugly and hated by her family. The film also stars well-known art-house actress Deepti Naval as the protesting mother.

"This whole business is so repulsive and unbelievable that my actors at first refused to agree this can happen," Nanda said. "Again I had to show them reports."

The film will be screened at the New York film festival next month and will open in India in September.

"'Rivaaz' is a film against exploitation," said Naval.

"It is a film about dignity, about hope of women who are traded in the name of tradition."

Reuters


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