India’s handwritten magazines have long fascinated me. But while researching the subject for a blog, I came across one in particular that stood out. Jugnu is a 32-page monthly magazine that has been written and published by the sex workers of the Chaturbhuj-sthan brothel in Bihar, near the border with Nepal, for the past 10 years.
Home to about 10,000 women and children, the whole area – named after the Chaturbhuj-sthan temple, which is located inside – is essentially one large brothel. Historians believe it was first established during the Moghul era. Prostitution has become a family tradition there – passed down from generation to generation.
Intrigued, I contacted the magazine and as more details emerged about this extraordinary publication and the women behind it, I realised that this story was much bigger than a blog.
The magazine had been set up by a group of sex workers led by one girl – Naseema. Born into Chaturbhuj-sthan, Naseema was abandoned by her mother and raised by a woman she calls her ‘grandmother’. Although not actually related to her, this woman used the money she earned as a prostitute to raise Naseema and send her to school. Naseema became the first girl in the brothel’s 300-or-so-year history to receive an education.
When she returned to Chaturbhuj-sthan it was not to sell her body. With the help of local banks, Naseema established small industries inside the brothel – making candles, matchsticks, bindis and incense – offering many prostitutes an alternative form of employment. And she set about persuading the sex workers to send their children to school. Now almost every child in Chaturbhuj-sthan is in full-time education.
More than 50 former prostitutes now work with Naseema, who taught them how to read and write. As well as running the magazine – which is sold across India and also sent to subscribers elsewhere – Naseema and the other women work to prevent others being trafficked, mainly from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, into prostitution. In the last year alone, they have been able to send at least 20 new girls safely back home.
But their work has brought them many enemies; the most feared being Rani Begum. As chief of the brothel, Begum’s finances have suffered a blow as a result of Naseema’s activities. Her thugs have publicly harassed and beaten Naseema and the other women who work with her. Naseema has also had to fight pimps, as well as some police officers and clerics who were unhappy about her work.
With a clearly identifiable hero, a suitably sinister villain and plenty of action guaranteed as they face off against one another, I felt I had come across a story worthy of a novel. I was hopeful that we could produce a perfect film, but shooting inside a brothel was never going to be easy. I deliberately chose a very small crew of just three people so that we might remain as invisible as possible. We used a Canon 7d camera. Its small size and light weight meant that we were able to move quickly from one place to the next – something that was to prove useful when Begum’s thugs were sent to threaten us.
Before starting the shoot, I met Begum, hoping that this would reduce the likelihood of any problems arising at a later point. About 65 years old, she lives in a huge mansion inside Chaturbhuj-sthan. Polite and courteous, she sought to portray herself as somebody running a kind of welfare institute for destitute girls and referred to her brothel as a ‘social heritage’. A former dancer herself, she stressed that every girl in the brothel is taught classical music and dance.
Begum grew less friendly when I started questioning her about Naseema and her work, but nevertheless promised not to trouble us as long as we filmed indoors. One day, however, while eating lunch, some men came to tell me that Rani Begum wanted us to leave. We eventually had to call the local police to enable us to complete our shoot.
For me, the most emotional scene in the film is when we meet Roma. A 19-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Roma thought she was coming to India to marry a friend of her brother-in-law. She was rescued from the brothel by Naseema and taken to live in a government shelter. But her family still refuses to allow her to return home for fear that she will give them a bad name. We were able to watch the heartfelt telephone conversation between Roma and her family as she pleaded with them to take her back.
And then there is the story of Boha Tola – a red light area in the neighbouring Sitamarhi district that was burnt down when local government officials conspired with villagers to eradicate it. Unofficial sources say that at least 100 women, men and children went missing as a result of the fire. As they were never officially registered by the government, no effort was made to find out what had happened to them.
Naseema and some of the other women recorded the incident on their mobile phones and gave me the footage to use exclusively in the film. They told horrifying tales of gang-rape, children being thrown onto fires and police brutality. Some of the women from Chaturbhuj-sthan went on hunger strike to show their solidarity with the people of Boha Tola, but the hunger strikers and their supporters were all put in prison.