‘Rajkahini’: A Moving Film About Sex Workers Who Got Caught In The Middle Of The Partition

By Rohini Banerjee for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a queen or a whore, this is still a man’s world.”

Rajkahini‘— critically acclaimed director Srijit Mukherjee’s latest venture — hits you hard, and right where it should. The first time I watched the film, back in October, when it released in theatres in Bengal, I remember being so deeply affected by it that I couldn’t sleep the whole night. When I watched it for the second time at Delhi’s I View World Film Festival, I found myself equally riveted, equally shaken. The film explores the Partition in a way that’s rarely seen with such poignancy on the big screen—through women’s voices and struggles.

Often, when our history books and popular narratives talk about the Partition, they paint women as the victims — of abuse, rape and violence. They are hardly given a voice or any kind of agency. But ‘Rajkahini‘ flips that narrative entirely, and instead chooses to place its focus, and agency on women — who are seen fighting not just the oppression of the separatist State, but also the forces of patriarchy and stigma.

As one watches the film, what makes the narrative even more powerful is that the women who are at the centre of the narrative are sex workers; doubly marginalized and survivors of both abuse and ostracism. And these women come from diverse backgrounds: they are of both upper and lower castes, of both Hindu and Muslim faith, but most importantly, the connection and community they share comes from a shared history of past trauma and violence. They’re on the fringes of society, and have been abandoned by their respective families, and all they have is each other.

However, disaster strikes when the ‘border’ which separates India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) falls within the brothel they live in, and government officials start putting pressure on the women to evict the premises. In a poignant scene where government representatives come to inform them about their eviction, the feisty Begum Jaan (the madam who’s also the matriarch of the brothel) simply laughs at them, struck by how ridiculous the drawing of these boundaries is. She then talks about how, in the brothel, no one sees any difference between caste, creed or religion—that their community of women is already so ostracized that nobody even cares about asking them whether they are Hindu or Muslim. In such light, a partition means nothing to them.

The film is chock full of such powerful moments—some that shock you, some that awe you, and often, many that bring you close to tears. The officials throw every kind of obstacle in their path, to try to make them abandon the house—but these women refuse to back down. They have nowhere else to go, so they fiercely protect their own land and their own people.

Srijit Mukherjee has always been known to tell the stories that most people wouldn’t think of telling, and this film is yet another feather in his cap. In an interview before the film’s release, he talked about how he became interested in stories of the Partition after watching the teleserial, ‘Tamas‘, and later, through veteran director Ritwik Ghatak’s films. There are also clear references from Saadat Hassan Manto’s works in the film—something that is mentioned even in the opening credits.

Even though the narrative is drawn from his imagination, it seems immensely real and echoes many lesser-known personal accounts of the Partition. There are certain camera techniques which intensify the experience and the relevance of the conversations that the film brings up — especially in the way the interactions between the two Hindu and Muslim government officials (Profullo and Illias) are shown. Whenever the two speak to each other, only one-half of their faces are shown—metaphorically implying that they are ultimately two halves of a whole, two sides of a coin.

The film is not perfect — there are parts where the narrative fumbles and scenes which are too on-the-nose — but it definitely is an important one. This is a film that shows women’s fight against patriarchal subjugation, questions stigmas surrounding sex work, endorses secularism and community, but more than that, it drives home the fact that the fight is not over.

Even decades after the partition, we are still grappling with state pressure and patriarchal pressure, and with the forces of communalism and patriarchy. While this film is definitely a call to arms to raise your voice against social injustice, it’s also a call to rethink and question both our past and present.

Youth Ki Awaaz is the media partner for I View World 2016. For more details, and the screening schedule, click here.

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