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The first film exercise you do in a film school is for some reason universally called Continuity. That’s a breaking-in of sorts for everybody. For the first time you get to hold the mirror to yourself. You play multiple roles in each other’s “film”, see the rushes hooting in a community projection, then go solo to edit your precious to another tight schedule. Everybody is curious how everybody else’s cutie is shaping. You seek and offer true or false compliments.

In my days continuities were indeed shot on film. A 200 feet roll of 35mm B&W actual celluloid footage, with a separate optical sound track—optical, not yet magnetic, mind you! Naturally everything passed through the laboratory. You paced up and down like an anxious father as your shots were being ‘delivered’ inside. You prayed power didn’t fail you in mid-bath. Eventually all kinds of surprises awaited everybody at the end. Killer subjects often got lost, bad scripts turned up looking rather good; successful films were directly ‘taali-maar’ while intellectuals had to threaten you with Eisenstein or Bazin under the wisdom tree—or around late-night drinks. Actors were the most clueless in all this. What was there to discuss, they openly wondered, if they were lost as overexposed, out-of-focus, or shot in unflattering angles? Their long cultivated directors often turned out to be butchers.

A Nepali batch mate of ours, actor Timilsinha pursued no such designs and decided just to be available—smiling—as picked. Or even allotted. He ended up part-picked part-allotted in Vishu’s continuity and was grateful for being there as one in a crowd of 6 characters over a total of 90 seconds on the big screen. He went hugely sentimental for his first ever ‘break’ and even cried. One evening after the great festival of continuity screenings was over, four of us found ourselves loafing around Laxmi Road when I suddenly sensed Timilsinha had steered us there on purpose. He wanted to treat his ‘first’ director to an evening with prostitutes while indulging Nirad and I as future investments!

Both Nirad and I were stumped. Our first concern was that we didn’t want to be thought as unmanly. Rather there was this compelling ‘academic’ consideration to ever-widen our range of experiences as successful directors. But wasn’t this ‘input’ coming along a little too early in the syllabus? When it became clear that the Director and Actor actually meant business, we decided to tag along and go until really, really uncomfortable. As matters proceeded, it became a competition between Nirad and I to outlast each other. We were both burning with curiosity about what went on behind those bars and here was an opportunity flung right into our laps without even asking.

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Laxmi Road to Pune is like Chandni Chowk to Delhi. A central marketplace with busy shops on front and godown cum residential units in a network of lanes at the back. And everything dipped in history! Its entire 3-4 kilometres length is sectioned off as this or that ‘peth’—market—and is named after the day of week that the bazar specialising in those commodities would be active. If that be so, I wonder what went for Pune’s brothel district to be called Budhwar Peth, the Wednesday Market.

Timilsinha led us expertly from lane to lane, stopping under dark patches and disappearing inside cutout gates, then returning disappointed to finally find his favourite hole. Smile. Paan and cigarette shops were well lit and festival like atmosphere could be heard above. I stole glances to check out beauties on the balconies but met with too many head on return gazes for comfort. Banter between women and passing men was crude to the limit. With ears turning hot I braved on, as did Nirad with his usual, but put on, nonchalance.

“It’s actually like Pyasa, yaar,” said Nirad. When I made no comment, he laughed nudging. “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par bo kahaan hain, bhai!” I for my part heard nothing but his Oriya accent.

We went up a dark narrow staircase. Two flights of it and we were already on the main working floor. We walked past half-open doors on both sides along a longish corridor where undeterred by visitors plain business of living was being practiced. An occasional stove hissed under a small cooking, a child sat babysitting a howling newcomer; I even remember a small boy doing his homework. Nothing but general commotion led you unguided towards an anteroom of sorts where the view suddenly opened up. This is where you chose your girl and slipped behind curtains. Nirad and I weren’t going to go beyond this point.

The first thing that caught my attention here was the presence of an elderly woman and her welcoming smile. Here she was, suddenly, strikingly fair unlike most others and motherly like none. Her presence was not threatening in any way; rather you felt encouraged, less guilty, indeed legitimised. She sat on a large four-poster in the middle of the room from where she conducted everybody and everything. There was a bench against one wall and a row of chairs against another for those waiting. Nirad and I took independent chairs; wooden, no plastic yet.

That woman could be a real ‘danger’ for the undecided lot, I later thought in admiration. All your inhibitions could dissolve in her presence. But Nirad and I were safe. Monumental clumsiness arising out of unmistakable virginity was our defence and when Timilsinha and Vishu explained we weren’t ‘going in’, the girls backed off. Otherwise they had begun to come and play a teasing comb against our locks.

Vishu had already chosen a girl called Tara—when, where, how, I have no idea till this day. Word went in for her as soon as we reached. And a minute later when Tara appeared, that was another shocker. Such a beautiful girl! She had just serviced a client and had stepped out, businesslike, looking for the next. She was still patting her sari around a beautiful navel as a spent commoner passed her by and headed dripping-embarrassed, first for an unseen pouring tap behind a screen and then for the staircase. I discovered the continuously pouring tap as well as its purpose at the same time.

Vishu went checking out Tara as she led him inside. Dressed in a loose unbuttoned kurta, he wiped his young intellectual beard with the assurance of a seasoned player before they disappeared behind the curtain.

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Unlike the vamps of the Hindi film brothels, the girls had actually left us quite alone. I can’t deny feeling a tad neglected. It was as though we had ceased to exist for them. Had we ended up overdoing our no-no bit?

I wondered if Timilsinha and Vishu had already picked up Nirodh somewhere outside or were the girls supposed to provide that? We didn’t know condoms then; French-leather was more the hush-hush term to use among the educated classes. But Nirodh—Nirad was indeed teased as Nirodh during ragging and for a while later—had come as the government’s highly publicised (and subsidised) family planning ‘rubber’ that was a true leveller of masses and classes. Even children knew what it was: I know why such and such was born, Prof Romesh Paul of screenplay writing had once told us imitating a child; that’s because his mother forgot to eat Nirodh! Syphilis and gonorrhoea were the ultimate horror diseases from ‘dirty’ sex; some high-end scholars had just ‘diagnosed’ that Sarat Chandra’s Devdas had died of nothing else but syphilis. HIV and AIDS and Hepatitis A, B or C were decades into the future.

At one point all eyes turned towards the entrance where a slim, tall, white haired and white handlebar moustachioed man (he was also dressed in white kurta-pajama) made an appearance. The girls knew him and turned away. The motherly madam greeted him but with a glint in the eyes and no sign of embarrassment—as though trying to assert a biological point—the old man kept going head-high. He knew his way. That was the most civilised approach to the whole thing I ever saw in my entire life. He might have come to a public toilet—again, Sulabh was still a dream in a certain Mr Bindeshwar’s head—or going to a barber, for that matter.

Madam’s pale fairness reminded me of Mr Bendre of our film laboratory. Given their nature of work, both were under-exposed to the sun. As we entered, the place had looked like an assembly of maidservants but only until the younger lot began to appear. Seeing Tara so beautiful I thought if somebody teased her on a crowded bus he could expect to be thrashed but here…she was available to do what you like with her, man! Women ran the place at all visible levels and I wondered if there was a Sir—or more likely sirs—behind all this, for just in case. If I read the atmospherics right, the brothel seemed more about lactating motherhood than beauties waiting to be fertilised. The girls looked appealing as working women and not as ‘masla-kuchla’ of Sahir’s Pyasa. Who would want to spend time with a doormat?

So much fuss around a mere watering hole, I thought somewhat dismayed. Only if hygiene could be ensured…

How long were they going to take inside? Who might come out first? How long is considered normal? On a whim I went momentarily inwards and checked. For the life of me I couldn’t produce a self-respecting erection in that ‘household’ of women where everything was open and the whole thing closed. But how come in my hostel room a mere thought of a girl could pass me through the whole spectrum of emotions right through to the royal-regal mess? Was I normal? If in my heart of hearts I felt more comfortable eve-teasing than eve-loving, wasn’t it my north Indian culture to blame? Can these things be reversed?

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Timilsinha was the first to finish and come out. Yes, smiling. He mixed around among girls, then came and sat with Madam at the four-poster. I could see from his gestures that he was telling her of the special occasion and of his special man Vishu inside. He was beaming, his day was made. He even waved at us.

Just then we heard signs of turbulence in the deep interiors. A woman began to shout. Turned out it was none other than Tara who came bad-mouthing Vishu, who followed her in an absolutely foul mood. “She doesn’t even undress and wants to rush with everything,” Vishu said, looking every bit short-changed. Timilsinha jumped to his feet and tried to pacify him but the intellectual was inconsolable. “She wouldn’t even let me in,” he complained. “Just eased me outside with her hand!”

“Show the film role to your mother or to your sister!” Tara was on a completely different tangent. “Says he’ll make me a heroine, saala Raj Kapoor ki aulad!”

Tables had suddenly turned. For the first time I felt overcome with real hot flushes. In one stroke all four of us had been dragged through mud right and proper. I didn’t know which way to look, what to do. Was it time for the sirs to make their appearance and take charge of the situation? Was it going to be Hindi-film like?

But Madam didn’t for a moment lose her composure. She let the two of them have a full play of their positions on the pretext of speaking with other girls; then turned to Vishu. “Next time she’ll make up for today, sir. Do come again and you’ll go back pleased. There are many other girls you’ll like even more than Tara. Sometimes they are busy. Everybody has been coming for Tara these last few days and we can’t turn people away, you understand.” Interestingly, she didn’t say take another girl and go back in. It was known, understood and acknowledged on all sides that once having been inside, the man had been spent for the evening.

We wanted to clear out as soon as possible. But Madam made sure we parted as friends. She even got up from the four-poster and put her hand on Vishu’s shoulders. If that wasn’t going to be enough, she was going to go ahead and give him a breast to suckle. No hard feelings.

After walking through a long tunnel of echoing footsteps—our own—we first descended one flight of dark wooden stairs and then the second. It was 1969 and moon landing was the buzz of the times. Stepping on the street in the open air and among people, I felt as though we had descended on moon.

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Based on this experience I wrote a short script in the mid-70s. Art Director Prabhakar Diwakar and I made a ‘research’ visit to Budhwar Peth and built an authentic set in Studio No 1. Girish Karnad, then FTII Director, even chaired the production conference but Acting Course students for whom this was to be a special vehicle backed out at the last moment. The film was never made.

Budhwar Peth has fascinated the Institute students down the years. Of all the FTII films with brothel as backdrop, closest to the real thing in my opinion was one of Shilpi Dasgupta’s studio exercises in early 2000s. A poetic treatment rather than realistic, the 35 mm, black and white, 3 minute exercise, shot with a heavy camera on a floating trolley, showed dozens of women whirling from room to room in sways of natural feminine charm until one of them is impaled by a very ordinary looking man for a closer scrutiny.

That after all is the essence of a brothel at its core.

By comparison my laboured realistic film would have had no chance whatsoever against Shilpi’s poetry. If ever I get to find that script, I’d share it here. Purely for academics’ sake.

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