By Saif Ahmad Khan:
“Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay” (1981) is a much-acclaimed work of American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. The book, published by New York-based Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, consists of images taken by Mark, of street prostitutes and brothels between October 1978 and January 1979 at Falkland Road in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. In her introduction to the book, Mark describes Falkland Road as “an area famous for the cage-like houses in which some of the women live”. She mentions that the prostitutes operating from Falkland Road varied in age. While some were merely 11 years old, other madams were as old as 65. She also mentions that most customers who came visiting the place belonged to the “lower class” and were aged between 13 to 75.
In the beginning of 1968, when Mark first visited India, she made several attempts at documenting the lives of prostitutes at Falkland Road, but her repeated attempts over a period of 10 years were met with “hostility” and “aggression”. However, starting October 1978, Mark succeeded at capturing Falkland Road as she desired. In her afterword, Mark writes, “Today, no magazine would sponsor a project like Falkland Road.”
The first thought which one might infer from the photographs while giving them a cursory look could be that of intimacy which Mark achieved in regards to her subject. In several images, Mark has actually photographed prostitutes while they were in the process of intercourse with their customers. In one photograph of Asha with her customer, which Mark has taken from above and which gives the view of two small rooms separated by a partition, she has photographed the bare back of a man. On seeing this, one would naturally wonder how Mark could gain access to such intimate moments. The answer to this lies in the fact that during her stay at Falkland Road, Mark developed close relationships with many madams, prostitutes and transvestites. Her rapport with Saroja, a madam, was probably the strongest as she had given Mark a touching farewell by presenting her with a garland of flowers.
Another important feature of Mark’s work is that Falkland Road was an attempt to document the personal lives of these women, instead of merely photographing their sexual lives. This becomes evident on seeing the versatile nature of the images wherein the women could be seen doing things like applying makeup and sweeping the floor. There is an image of a street prostitute smoking at Olympia Cafe, Asha, with her friend Mumtaz at a photo studio, and Madam Pulabai with a baby belonging to one of her girls. The presence of personal and non-sexually explicit photographs in Mark’s work indicates that she wanted to cover Falkland Road in a wholesome manner and not portray it solely in voyeuristic ways.
The naked portraits which Mark has captured arouse a sense of concern instead of sexual stimulation. For instance, the portraits of 15-year-old Munni and 13-year-old Putla, gives one a peep into the dark lives of these young girls. In Munni’s photograph, the white background behind the subject, with black greasy stains, in a way represents the cruel nature of the trade and place which she has inevitably become a part of. Similarly, one cannot help but observe the wounds on Putla’s arms, which reflect the abuse and violence which women in brothels face. The captions to both the images are identical with Mark first making a mention of their age and then going onto talk about the places where they came from. These captions encapsulate the tumultuous journey of these women at such a young age.
Mark’s Falkland Road also depicts the dilemmas of the transvestites. There is a portrait of a transvestite lying in bed with her truck driver boyfriend, but the caption of the photograph mentions how the driver’s wife came to know about the same which resulted in a furore at the brothel. Mark has photographed another transvestite named Ibrahim holding a long wig in his hand and apparently getting geared up for the day. However, she mentions that though Ibrahim keeps switching between being dressed up as a man or a woman, when he pays a visit to the mosque, he always dresses up as a man. The subtle messages which are given out by means of these captions tend to reflect the dilemmas which transvestites encounter at Falkland Road. While the place has indeed given them a sense of belonging and livelihood, it has restricted their freedom in the sense that people around still do not accept transvestites at religious places or them getting into relationships.
Mark has employed varying styles while writing the captions to the photographs. Some of the photographs have been aptly described by Mark using the knowledge which she acquired at Falkland Road, whereas some others simply quote the subject. There is also a large presence of photo captions which are a confluence of both the former and the latter. To conclude, we can say that Falkland Road is a masterly piece of work because of its honest portrayal of life at Mumbai’s notorious red light area. Whether such a hard-hitting piece of work could ever be reproduced is a thing which even Mark doubts as she wonders whether the prostitutes at Falkland Road today would refrain from getting clicked because they are afraid of the sensational nature of the media. Speaking in relation to the same, Mark states, “Would they (prostitutes) ask for money (to be photographed)? They never did before.”
(This article was originally written as part of an academic exercise at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia)
Mark, ME. (2014) Mary Ellen Mark — Exposure [Accessed 17 August, 2014]
Mark, ME. (2014) Mary Ellen Mark — Falkland Road [Accessed 17 August, 2014]