Chetna (1970) was a landmark film in the annals of Hindi cinema for its boldness. The film’s poster read: “I don’t think every woman is a prostitute, but I do think that every prostitute is a woman. And being a woman, she is as much a human being as a man. She has needs too... And desires.” Director Abdul Majith’s upcoming Tamil film, Torchlight, is on similar lines. The film, starring Sadha, Riythvika, is set for release this Friday after a protracted battle with the censor board. “I have the dubious distinction of releasing a film with 87 cuts. But the audience will still be able to follow the course of events,” says the filmmaker.
Torchlight, set in the 80s and 90s, is about the travails of sex workers. Majith says he researched the subject for around three months before going into production. “Through various contacts, we found and spoke with sex workers in places like Salem, Namakkal, Nellai and nearby places. The women opened up once they were convinced of the purpose of our visit. It was moving to hear their stories,” he says, adding that the film gets its name from the torchlight used by these women when scouting for customers among truck drivers and helpers on the highways.
“Will you believe that the butts of the cigarettes are used as lipstick and poisonous seeds quashed to brush up eyelashes? The men they solicit are often drunk, and sometimes, they make as little as ten rupees per customer.”
This is Majith’s seventh film, and the director says he always wanted to bring to light the suffering of sex workers. “They have various compelling reasons — to meet the expenses of a crippled husband or to educate their children.” He decided to video his conversations with family members, which came in handy during the censor ordeal. “I had to move to the Mumbai censor board after it got rejected in Chennai. It was sad to see even the women members of the censor board not sympathising with the pain of these women. They did not understand my intentions.”
Though he really wanted to, the director says they could not film the project entirely on the streets and had to resort to sets for some portions. “Due to the period setting, we had to ensure that mobile phones, for instance, were not visible in any frames.”
After several established names backed out of the project, the filmmaker turned to Sadha to play the lead. “She had her reservations, but was convinced once she realised the script was drawn from well-researched facts. It is no exaggeration to say that she lived the role. Riythvika, too, drew inspiration from her and was spot on with her act.”
Majith wants his film to reach out to a larger audience in order to throw light on the plight of hapless sex workers. Given the ‘A’ certificate tag and the subject, he is aware that drawing women to the theatre will be a huge task. “But I believe that when the audience watches it, they will understand where I’m coming from. Sex workers are beyond judgement which is what I have tried to say in around two hours.”