'Tikli and Laxmi Bomb' Review: A riveting treatise on the lives of sex workers

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews
Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb
Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb
Author-director Aditya Kriplani’s Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, which recently won the Best Film Award for Gender Equality at the UK Asian Film Festival, follows the lives of two prostitutes, Laxmi and Putul, living in Mumbai. It earlier won the Best Film Award at the 2018 Berlin Independent Film Festival. The film offers a riveting treatise on the lives of sex workers and it does so without ever trying to judge them. Perhaps, it’s helped by the film’s all-women technical crew. The film reminds one of Shohini Ghosh’s documentary film Tales of the Night Fairies (2002), which endeavors to highlight the struggles and aspirations of the women of DMSC—a collective of thousands of sex workers in West Bengal. It offers a unique feminist perspective on the issues of sex trade and trafficking. And just like Ghosh’s documentary, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb too endeavors to highlight the struggles and aspirations of sex workers. And it does so smartly and without ever being scared, just like its two protagonists. 

Prostitution is often described as the oldest profession in the world. But the society has always looked at prostitutes with contempt. A number of social reformers in the past have emphasized upon the need to rehabilitate prostitutes. But, in the recent times, many champions of women rights have questioned this condescending notion. For, to talk about the rehabilitation of prostitutes is to look down upon their profession. And if we do see prostitution as a profession then unless it is forced on those practicing it what gives us the right to talk about their rehabilitation?

Over the years, several filmmakers around the world have had a lot to say about society’s ostracism of sex workers. Certainly, one can learn a lot about the society’s outlook towards sex workers over the decades from their representation in cinema. But one must also understand that filmmakers, just like other artists and thinkers, while being reflective of the times they live in must also endeavor to influence the general opinion about an issue. In other words, a movie about an important social issue shouldn’t merely present a dramatization of facts and reality but should also offer the filmmaker’s unique perspective. After all, films are not merely documents and can offer so much more.
Giulietta Masina as Cabiria in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
Giulietta Masina as Cabiria in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
In the 1957 Oscar-winning film Nights of Cabiria, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini tells the story of Cabiria—a prostitute living in Rome who endlessly searches for true love. Those around her treat her with contempt but Cabiria is incorruptible; she possesses a heart of gold. The film’s depiction of Cabiria not only elevates her to a position of dignity but also acknowledges her as a woman with agency, capable of taking the fight to a morally corrupt society.

The same year Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt made Pyaasa which tells the story of a lovelorn and jobless poet who eventually settles with a prostitute named Gulabo. In Gulabo we see an intelligent, sensitive and kind hearted woman, not unlike Cabiria. 
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy
English filmmaker John Schlesinger’s 1969 Oscar-winning American film Midnight Cowboy revolves around a young Texan man who travels to New York City with the hope of becoming a prostitute. The film’s bleak outlook towards life in a quintessentially urban American setup is a powerful reminder of the all-pervasive moral decadence with the so called outcasts holding up a mirror to the society. Midnight Cowboy also successfully subverts the general notions of gender associated with prostitution as a profession.

The 1981 Muzaffar Ali-directed Indian film Umrao Jaan may have been seen by many as an ode to Lucknow’s tawaif culture but it achieves so much more than merely worshipping a relic of a lost tradition. The film revolves around a girl named Amiran who is sold into prostitution. Amiran is trained to captivate men and grows up as Umrao Jaan. Forbidden to ever fall in love, she lives by her own rules, never afraid of taking the fight to those who oppose her. In Umrao Jaan, Muzaffar Ali, unlike many Indian films about sex workers, daringly chooses a realistic climax that doesn’t end in Amiran’s rehabilitation. The film couldn’t have been further away from the foolhardy romanticism of Indian mainstream films such as the many adaptations of Devdas or the idealism of Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem (1972). 
Rekha in Umrao Jaan
Rekha in Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan
Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal’s 1983 film Mandi, based on a short story by Pakistani writer Ghulam Abbas, highlights the hypocrisies of a corrupt patriarchal society that looks down upon prostitutes in the name of morality. The same men who visit a brothel to fulfill their physical needs in darkness of the night speak of relocating it in broad daylight.

The 2004 Hindi film Chameli explores the possibility of a platonic friendship between a widower and a street-smart prostitute. The film at first plays to the stereotypes associated with the role of a prostitute in the society but ultimately succeeds in transcending them. 

Srijit Mukherji’s 2015 Bengali film Rajkahini revolves around a brothel which the authorities want to relocate. The film is set in 1948 in the backdrop of the India’s independence from the British rule. When all efforts to relocate the brothel fail, the authorities hire a group of mercenaries to kill the prostitutes in cold blood. The film’s greatest strength is how it offers an insightful take on the lives of the prostitutes without ever attempting to judge them. Rajkahini was later remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan, starring the renowned Indian actress Vidya Balan.    
Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
Mainstream American films over the years such as Klute (1971), Pretty Woman (1990), and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) have also endeavored to break the stereotypes associated with the lives of sex workers, reminding us that the sex workers at the end of the day are humans just like everybody else. But if we talk about the American independent cinema then an important film that comes to mind is Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015). Shot entirely using iPhones, Tangerine revolves around a transgender sex-worker. Early in the film it is revealed that while she was serving a 28-day prison sentence her boyfriend was cheating her with a cisgender woman. Tangerine dares to go beyond the binaries and succeeds in presenting a haunting take on sex-trade subcultures prevalent in present-day urban American society.

Coming back to Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, it is a film of rare sensitivity. Indian cinema has found a new champion of women rights in Aditya Kripalani. He is currently working on his second film Totta Patakha Item Maal which intends to explore the different dimensions of gender equality in greater depth. Here is a filmmaker who is not afraid of going the extra mile for the sake of realism and yet his cinema employs some of the most popular tropes of melodrama, resulting in a heady cocktail of realism and melodrama that is enough to cast a lasting spell on the viewer. Whether the use of jump cuts or the handheld camera every frame of the film oozes with cinephilia. It is difficult to think of another film that presents such a riveting treatise on the lives of sex workers without alienating them or demeaning their profession. The brilliant performances of the film's two leads, Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul aka Tikli, is the film’s major highlight.
A Still from Aditya Kriplani's Tikli and Laxmi Bomb
A Still from Aditya Kriplani's Tikli and Laxmi Bomb
Even today in many countries around the world the legislation revolving around prostitution is usually based on the assumption that sex workers are victims who need rehabilitation and protection from pimps and brothel owners. Also, there is widespread ignorance regarding male and transgender sex workers in the country. It is of paramount importance that politicians and activists starting thinking beyond primitive solutions like rehabilitation and actually fought for securing their legal rights and social inclusion. Perhaps, the first step is to distinguish between coerced prostitution and consensual sex work. As filmmakers continue to make movies about prostitution, it is important that they broke free of the gender binary and represented sex workers as human beings and not as specimens. Therefore, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, just like the other films mentioned above, serve as important reference points.

Rating: 8/10

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Aditya Kriplani Speaks About Tikli and Laxmi Bomb 

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