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

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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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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