Way back in 1939, V Shantaram had made a film called Aadmi (Manoos in Marathi) about a cop who falls in love with a prostitute and tries to rescue her from her ignominious life by marrying her. The romance is doomed; still, for the time, it was a bold and progressive story like so many of Shantaram’s films.

Since then, movie heroes fall in love with tawaifs or hookers once in a while, but their noble intentions usually come to naught, unless the woman is — and this is possible in the movies — chaste. Otherwise, the only acceptable solution to the problem is her death. However, the attitude of the middle class writer or filmmaker towards the sex worker is one of fascination and/or discomfort. If they want to be moral police, they want the issue of flesh trade to vanish; if they want to be social reformers, then it’s rescue the women, rehabilitate them, get someone (not us) to marry them and make them ‘respectable’. Occasionally, like these days, the matter of legalising sex work comes up for debate, but nothing happens.

In the Gujarati play Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, the garishly-dressed woman and the slowly bewitched cop experience a lot together in the strange environs on a moving train
In the Gujarati play Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, the garishly-dressed woman and the slowly bewitched cop experience a lot together in the strange environs on a moving train

That’s why a happy hooker in the Gujarati play Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo is such an oddball. She is fearless, unapologetic about what she does and awfully self-aware. Considering most of Gujarati theatre is set within the family and looks like a Balaji soap on stage, any deviation from the norm is welcome. Gujarati audiences are conservative, but not averse having their belief systems being challenged, if it’s done with pithy lines and layers of melodrama — understated theatre is not their thing.

Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, produced by Manhar Gadhia and Umesh Shukla, has been adapted (and directed) by Saumya Joshi, from the multiple award-winning Marathi play Proposal written by Suresh Chikhle (whose Golpitha was about the life of prostitutes) and directed by Rajan Tamhane. The unique aspect in the original and the Gujarati version is the set of a local train (by Pradeep Mulye) since the entire action is in the empty compartment of the last local from CST.

The cop (Jayesh More) meets the hooker (Jigna Vyas) in the train, and though he is standoffish at first, her unbridled exuberance draws him into conversation and then a strange kind of attraction. In a scene reminiscent from the film Chameli, she tells him a sob story about how she got into the profession and immediately makes it clear that her story changes according to the listener.

When she finds out he is a cop, she is not in the least perturbed, and as they chat, with all kinds of food and drink emerging from her enormous bag, both reveal more about themselves than they intended to, in a strangers-on-a-train manner, but do not bare their souls; that comes later.

The garishly-dressed woman and the slowly bewitched cop — interestingly, their names are not spoken out aloud — experience a lot together in the strange environs on a moving train. The conversation is so pleasing to her, that she turns down a R1000 customer, telling him she has downed shutters for the night. The cop sweetly gives her R500, saying that he is enjoying the evening too, why should she be the only one to suffer a loss.

The woman looks like she has come to terms with her life and has no room for reflection, anger or regret. Still, she carries a packet of biscuits in her cavernous bag that has the picture of a little girl on it —she doesn’t eat the biscuits, the picture on the packet stirs some buried emotions in her. There is as much of weary wisdom to her as there are the sharp edges needed self-preservation in an exploitative world. The cop has a surprising vulnerability to him, instead of the seen-it-all harshness expected from a cop. They get along so well, and their banter is enjoyable too.

It would be too much of a spoiler to give away what comes next, but it’s not tragic in the way of films like Chetna, nor simplistically romantic like Pretty Woman. The solution to bridging the distance between the worlds the two characters inhabit, is unpredictable. What’s more, the audience is able to suspend its cynicism, see the sweetness distilled by the story, and believe in the optimism the two nameless characters feel after the soul wringing they go through. They could be people any of us may have encountered in the train — the cop who guards the compartment in the late night trains and the giggling women who board maybe for suburban assignations. From such mundane surroundings, drama can emerge...

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot