Q&A with Filmmakers Abeer Khan and Kunal Purohit
In light of the catastrophic impacts of lockdowns on the poor in India, Collateral Global commissioned a short film from the filmmakers Abeer Khan (filmmaker, photographer and co-director) and Kunal Purohit (an independent journalist and co-director) on the plight of sex workers in India. Watch their film here.
Q. Could you tell us about some context of how you made the film?
Kunal: Both Abeer and I have reported on Mumbai’s sex workers, before. Hence, we both had an acute sense of the precarious lives that they led. When the pandemic struck and the lockdown was imposed, their struggles only grew manifold and for many of them, their existence was at stake.
Even then, it was a challenge to make this film as Kamathipura can be a difficult area to report from. Anyone walking around with a camera and a microphone is looked at with distrust, suspicion, and contempt. Convincing the women to share their stories and struggles with us was a challenge. We wanted to understand the multi-pronged effects of the lockdown and the pandemic on the lives of these women and hence, we even interviewed the families of these sex workers. Through this, we even managed to view the struggles through the eyes of their children. Such conversations helped us understand what cannot always be captured in data – the halted childhoods of these children, who were forced to grow up overnight and take up jobs to support their families.
Q. This film focused on Mumbai – is there any data or evidence for situations experienced by sex workers in other major cities around India today?
Kunal: As the pandemic unfolded across the world, we saw sex workers, across the world facing similar struggles – the economic precarity caused by a sudden loss of income, a thin layer of social security at best, and the vulnerability caused by such desperation. In India, these hardships only multiplied. India’s social security structures have traditionally excluded sex workers and as a result, when the pandemic struck and large sections of India’s poor faced hardships, sex workers were rendered even more invisible, before the State. We saw this being repeated across different cities through surveys – in Pune, 85% of sex workers were forced to take up loans only to subsist and often, from brothel owners and managers. Similar was the case in Sonagachi, said to be Asia’s largest red-light area. All this had prompted civil society groups to petition India’s top court with a plea to instruct the State to extend a social security cover, in the form of free food rations, towards sex workers.
Q. Could you describe a little some of the difficulties encountered by the people you interviewed in rebuilding their lives after the lockdowns – why have the impacts of the lockdowns endured beyond the time when they were lifted?
Kunal: Even in the pre-pandemic world, sex workers in Kamathipura, where the film is located, had lived a precarious existence. Their earnings were always meager, enough only to subsist. Costs, from rents to health expenditures, were always high. The sliver of hope for most of them emanated from their children and most sex workers we met said they had prioritised their education over every other non-essential need. This has now changed. The pandemic has pushed most into crippling, unsustainable debts, pushing women to desperate levels in order to earn a livelihood and start repaying these debts. Amidst frequent lockdowns and COVID-induced restrictions, their livelihoods have shrunk considerably. All this has also jeopardised their children’s education—many families have pushed education costs lower down the priority list. The lack of State support, the endless debts, the vulnerabilities induced by these debts, and a grim future for their children have formed a potent cocktail and made it difficult for the sex workers to feel hopeful.
Q. What does data tell us about the condition of migrant workers in Indian cities almost 2 years after the outbreak of the pandemic – has life returned in any way to normal?
Kunal: The lack of adequate data around India’s domestic migrant workers makes it difficult to substantiate patterns, but on the basis of anecdotal evidence, it is clear that most of them have returned to India’s urban centers. However, India’s vast informal sector has suffered immensely during the pandemic and this has had serious repercussions in the incomes of the migrant workers, most of whom are employed in the sector. As many as six million smaller businesses have collapsed, according to government data, so avenues of employment have shrunk. Wages are depressed and workers are, often, working on lower wages than they were before the pandemic, desperate to keep their job.
Q. How important is it to get stories like this into the public domain in telling the complete story of India’s experience of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Kunal: India enforced the largest lockdown in the world–it, effectively, locked down its 1.3 billion people with the exception of essential sectors. It has been revealed, through investigative journalistic endeavours, that the lockdown was announced with little or no consultation. It has now emerged that the lockdown, combined with the pandemic, pushed hundreds of millions into poverty, towards hunger and desperation. Despite this, the lockdown has been advertised as a grand success by the Indian State.
The reality, however, has been vastly different as borne out by stories of the women we met in Kamathipura. The lockdown unleashed a series of devastating effects on their lives, effects that they will have to endure for years to come. Such stories are important because they counter the self-congratulatory praise of the lockdown by the Indian State. They are important also because they bring to light evidence of the havoc caused by the lockdown. Such evidence is critical in order to evaluate the effects of the lockdown, the data of which can be used to decide on the efficacy of such lockdowns in the future.
Q. How some of these effects have, in a real sense, reversed the advances these women had made–from their financial independence to the education of children among others.
Abeer: Women are considered as a second gender and with covid followed by lockdown, women’s position dipped further below. For female students, to migrate and study in a metropolitan city not only provides quality education but an opportunity to draw away from the shackles of sharky homes/villages/towns. Lockdown was a huge setback for females enrolling themselves in city colleges. And a tragedy for women who had fought for their education in big cities, most of the female students were asked to come back home as the colleges no longer functioned. Not able to find a reasonable excuse, several returned back to their families.
Abeer Khan is a filmmaker and photographer based out of Mumbai. Her work can be found on https://www.abeerkhan.com/.
Kunal Purohit is an award-winning independent journalist who reports on issues of human interest and social justice: https://kunalpurohit1.contently.com/.