24 June 2014

Bought on and Sold on Mutton Street

Bought and sold on Mutton Street
Cab drivers seemed mystified by my desire to go to Chor Bazaar
My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday:

Our columnist takes a historical detour through the antique pleasures of Pila House.

Last Monday I went to Mutton Street. I had spent a week in Mumbai, setting up 'work' meetings that were really an excuse to wander the city as a happy, giddy tourist of the Delhi variety. But one item on my Bombay agenda remained - a trip to Chor Bazaar: several streets' worth of dusty antiques. But at Mumbai Central, cab drivers seemed mystified by my desire to go to Chor Bazaar. Then, gently but firmly, one deposited me on a road lined with hardware shops, saying this was Chor Bazaar and I better find this Mutton Street myself.

I did. Having burrowed into uncarry-able and unaffordable mountains of old things, I settled not unhappily on two 1970s print advertisements. The genuinely non-sleazy shop man took me to an ATM on his scooter, past an old theatre showing a Mithun film, complete with brilliant hand-painted poster. Only on my way out did I realise what I had walked down was called Patthe Bapurao Marg. That was when it finally clicked. I'd been walking on Falkland Road.

From dates.sites, (a must-have compendium for film nerds and Mumbai fans, published by the Cinema City project), I knew that Patthe Bapurao was born a Brahmin, named Shridhar Krishnaji Kulkarni, underwent caste conversion in order to work in tamasha and married a Mahar dancer called Pawala. Among the other impressive acts to his name is a visit to Ambedkar in 1927, when, "flanked by two women dancers dressed in finery", Bapurao offered to contribute the proceedings of eight Tamasha shows to the Mahar Satyagraha Fund, a campaign for the entry of Dalits into temples. Ambedkar rejected the offer on moral grounds.

Bapurao died in poverty in 1941. In 1950, the Marathi director/actor Raja Nene made a highly successful biopic. As one of the central arteries of what was for many years Mumbai's entertainment district, Pila House, it seems only fitting that Falkland Road was renamed Patthe Bapurao Marg. Here's the entry in dates.sites: "Pila House-hybridisation of Play House-a cluster of theatres staging Parsi theatre plays and Tamasha performances - bordered on the east by red light area of Kamathipura (named after the Telugu-speaking community of masons), and on the west by migrant courtesans and other entertainment artists at Congress House (named after the office of the Congress Party nearby-is at its peak at the turn of the century."

While the theatres - the 'play houses' set up in the 1800s - gave the area its name, Falkland Road's association with an even older form of entertainment dates back to the 1700s. That was when brothels first emerged in the area, catering to soldiers.

In an essay called 'F**kland Road' (in another Project Cinema City volume), Bishakha Datta makes the connection explicit. She cites the background note of a (proposed) Union of Entertainment Workers of India that refers to the Arthashastra placing courtesans and sex workers alongside actors, dancers, musicians and bards. The note continues: "It is common knowledge that... sex...work is a form of intimate entertaining communication, involving some very subtle and complex combinations of gesture, language, play and relaxation."

This is, of course, true - though the argument might find few takers in the hypocritical modern world, where even bar dancers are refused their rights as workers.

But even if the cinema-sex equivalence is unlikely to fly with most people, Pila House has plied generations of (mostly) male, (mostly) migrant clients with both. Built before cinema existed, the 'play houses' are some of the last theatres still projecting film prints. They have specialisations, too: Nishat shows Bhojpuri blockbusters, New Roshan devotes itself to Mithun, Silver to sex films.

There was a time when the brothels of Kamathipura not only lived next to cinema, but in Bombay's cinematic imaginary. Realistic depiction was never the point. Even Gulzar's Mausam, or Sudhir Mishra's Chameli can only be called 'good efforts'. But the girls in the cages of Falkland Road were a legendary sight - when I interviewed her a couple of years ago, Deepti Naval described, with alternate shudders of excitement and distaste, her trip in the 80s to see them. Naval ended up spending half the night in a Nepali sex worker's room, and the experience inspired a performance years later.

Naval got me thinking: has any mainstream Hindi film ever let a girl from a "good family" meet a prostitute? Well, very recently. But of course Kangana Ranaut must travel all the way to Amsterdam to hang with an Indian sex worker, and make the startling discovery that she's not an alien. Ironically, just before Queen, Ranaut played a Kamathipura sex worker called Rajjo in a bizarrely retro film also called Rajjo, where the token 'contemporary' event is the brothel torn down by an evil consortium of politicians and builders to build a mall. Small industries have indeed replaced most Kamathipura brothels, with owners cutting their losses and leaving as the buildings they rented become prized real estate.

Whether Kareena was a convincing sex worker or not, at least Reema Kagti shot Talaash in Kamathipura. Rajjo chose to spend 5 crores 'recreating' Pila House on a four-acre-plot in Borivali.

Perhaps the last two films about Kamathipura -- one acts as if the place is already gone, and the other is a ghost movie. No Rani could ever show up to meet a Rajjo. In Falkland Road, there may soon be no more sex workers to meet. Not even the ghosts of them.

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