Mainstream Bollywood movies tend either glamorize the hooker, or use the character to generate melodrama. In the cinema of the past, she was either waiting for the noble hero to rescue her, or sacrificing her life for him. Aditya Kripalani’s film Tikli And Laxmi Bomb captures the ugliness and endless compromises of the streetwalker’s life, but she is not a figure of pity; rather he wants the audience to admire her courage. (The title refers to noisy firecrackers, the small red noisemaker and the loud, eardrum-shattering bang).
Kripalani adapted his own novel for the film, and shot it on real locations—the dark streets where the women gather every night, the dingy hotels where they take their customers, the squalid hovels into which they disappear after their work is done.
Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is an older woman who does not do sex work any longer, but negotiates with the pimp, customers and cops, and protects them in her own way—mostly by wheedling with the men. She accepts that it is a man’s world, and there is no point in battling with them. She dresses in a black man’s shirt, a shapeless skirt and ugly sandals, signaling that she no longer in the game. (There is a Prabhat Studio poster on her wall, either to indicate that she belongs to another era or to pay tribute to V. Shantaram’s 1939 Marathi film Manoos—Aadmi in Hindi– that featured one of Indian cinema’s earliest hookers).
Laxmi is entrusted with the task of training new arrival Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty), and sharing her tiny room. The sassy, hard-drinking Putul is not the suffering in silence type, and her knife-wielding, aggression upsets the ‘system’. After enduring violence and extortion by the cops, she persuades the other women to cut out the pimp Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) and the indifferent auto-driver bodyguard AT (Mayur More), since the hafta they are paid does not guarantee their safety. She reasons that it’s their body, their work, their pain and shame, so why should the men profit from it? Laxmi says she will support Putul, but not actively participate in her “kranti” (revolution), since she does not believe it will change anything.
Putul, nicknamed Tikli by the other women, is tech savvy so she has innovative ideas and solutions to every problem. Her focus is on the safety of the women (installing an app and appointing burly female guards) and cultivating clients with incentives. The members of her gang are thrilled that they can finally get to keep all their money and also earn better. Obviously, the male ‘system’ would not back off so easily, and the revolution hits a road block.
In spite of the repetitiveness of some scenes, the improbability of street hookers earning in lakhs, and being sought by men in swanky cars, and the length of the film (150 minutes), what Kripalani establishes well, is the unlikely friendship between the two women (both terrific actresses), and the support system that the other women build for one another. Society may look down upon their work, but they are not ashamed or apologetic. Kripalani does not give them weepy backstories. Laxmi’s past life is just hinted at by the mention of her family’s harmonium; and Putul writes about herself much later in a message to Laxmi.
There are a few maudlin touches, like Laxmi comparing the women to the city of Mumbai, that has been continuously looted, and sings the mournful, “Mumbadevi de mujhko maafi,” but mostly the tone alternates between pragmatic and hopeful, but not foolishly optimistic. There is still hope for a revolution, but the hurdles also get higher and tougher to overcome. The idea of women controlling their bodies and their fates seems impossible, till stories like that of the Mayflower Madam come to mind—the American women who built an escort agency into an empire.
Interestingly, Kripalani has worked with an all-female crew on this film, and that must have altered the energy dynamics on the shoot in a positive way. The film made the rounds of film festivals before streaming on Netflix. After this Kripalani made another anti-patriarchy film called Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal, about four women teaching a man what fear is all about—the pervasive sense of panic women feel when they step out of home.