The poster for “Raag - The Music of Life.” (Proton Communications photo)

MUMBAI—The UNGASS-NACO India Progress Report of 2010 estimated there are 1.26 million sex workers in India. Now in 2021, the numbers might be significantly higher.

The trailer of the film “Raag – The Music of Life” promises a real and raw insight into the world of human trafficking and how commercially sexually-exploited women do not get even a dignified death. Dignity is basically the idea that every human has the right to be valued and treated equally. As singer Aretha Franklin put it in her famous R & B song, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T … All I’m askin’/is for a little respect.” After the horrors of the Second World War, the United Nations in 1948 created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

However, there are two facets of the story – one side of the sex work battle condemns prostitution as a human rights abuse and an attack on the dignity of human beings, while the other states sex work is a legitimate occupation, in which a person exchanges sexual acts for money.

Criminalization exposes commercial sex workers (CSW) to abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, such as police officers. Human Rights Activists have documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them.

It has been cited in multiple research journals that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault and murder, by attackers who see sex workers as easy targets because they are stigmatized and unlikely to receive help from the police. Criminalization also forces sex workers to work in unsafe locations to avoid the police.

Speaking on the subject, the producer of the film, Piyush Mundhada said, “The CSWs face a lot of discrimination and violence. They also do not have access to medical facilities and timely treatment – thus many of them succumb to STDs. Many of them do not go to hospitals fearing being stigmatized. Also, there is a challenge with regards to documentation as the trafficked women do not have any identity proofs with themselves.”

Often treated as less than human in life, there has been little dignity in death for the sex workers. Their bodies are frequently tossed into unmarked graves or dumped in the river or buried in the mud, and many a time burnt electrically inside the brothel. The burials would usually take place at night without any formal prayers.

Mundhada adds, “The web of laws makes CSW vulnerable to police action. Imagine if this trade was legalized in totality—there could have been the rehabilitation of the CSWs then and re-trafficking could be prevented. As a filmmaker, we have given this food for thought to the audiences through a portrayal of the grim situations of the human trafficking victims. These victims aren’t any less humans than anyone else, and it’s high time we treat them with dignity and give them the respect every human being deserves. If we could change the lives of even a few, we would consider ourselves to be successful.”

“Raag – The Music of Life” features Rajpal Yadav essaying the central role. The story of the film follows a girl from the Bedia community from the hinterlands of Central India, that is, the Bundelkhand region. The community traditionally depends on prostitution and trafficking for a living. It celebrates the birth of a girl- child, as she will soon become a bread-winner.

The Bedias trace their roots to the times of “Ramayan.” It is said that at the birth of the twins Luv and Kush, Lord Indra had sent his celestial dancers (apsaras) down on earth to dance and celebrate. The apsaras started living on earth and their generations slowly started performing the “Rai,” a traditional folk dance by girls at temples; and on auspicious occasions at the house of rich and influential people, who considered it a status symbol.

Their major patrons were the feudal lords, and when this ‘zamindari‘system was abolished, they lost their patrons. Over time, due to economic reasons, the community took up prostitution. What began as something very pious soon became a reason for people to frown at the community.

Mundhada says, “We did a lot of research on the community and our data is backed up with established secondary data sources, including International University Journals on CSEW (Commercially Sexually-Exploited Women). Apart from the girls being forced into the trade at a very young age, they face exploitation in the form of getting injected with the growth hormone, oxytocin. Also, STDs are rampant and these girls are victims of violence too at the hands of their customers. It is almost impossible to get them willing to opt out when the parents themselves are pimps – and it can be done only through education. And we have showcased the same in our film.”

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud or coercion. These trafficking rings prey on the poor and illiterate and often are hand-in-glove with the law enforcement officials.

Says Mundhada, “Of course, it is very difficult to understand why you want your own daughter or wife to sleep with others. However, for the Bedia community, women are just considered a commodity to exploit and earn money. The most important tool to stop this heinous act is education. Girls must go to school, and we have made a small effort through this film for the same. Saroj Khan-ji had brought this story to us and the subject was very close to her heart; we will be forever grateful to the noble soul for the same.”

The film has released in around 150 screens in India.

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