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December 2006/January 2007
Love is a Highway
The Satya Interview with Mystelle Brabbée


Filmed between 1995 and 2004, Highway Courtesans is a documentary in which director Mystelle Brabbée takes viewers into the Bacchara community of India where tradition places the oldest daughters into lives of prostitution. Legend has it, the Bacchara community’s descendants were courtesans who resided in palaces and entertained kings. Today’s Bacchara women work the highway placating truck drivers. While the traditional lifestyle of the Bacchara women offers a community that is both respectful and supportive, their lives are controlled by tightly restricted roles that are seemingly exploitive.

As a way of avoiding scorn the women are skilled at telling outsiders what they want to hear, yet Guddi Chauhan, the documentary’s focus opens up, recalling memories of her forced initiation and experiences. We watch her struggle as she faces obstacles with her family and personal relationships. We watch her rejoice as she breaks away from tradition and becomes a teacher for Action Aid. We also feel her resignation as she watches her sister Shana and friend Sungita continue as prostitutes, eventually giving birth to children conceived by men from the road.

Highway Courtesans knits a story of sorrow, love and determination, portraying a community balancing traditional and contemporary values, raising universal and provocative questions about sex, roles of women, and the rights of cultures to judge each other.

The film has gained incredible recognition, screened at more than 25 film festivals around the world including International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s World Premier, South and Southwest Film Festival and Adelaide Film Festival. It will premier in New York this December.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk to director Mystelle Brabbéeabout her nine-year experience with the Bacchara women and the courage of Guddi Chauhan.

What inspired this project?
Some years ago a good friend who was a photo journalist living in India showed me an article about the Bacchara, a matriarchal community where the eldest daughter of every family became a prostitute by tradition. The article went on to describe that she was treated with affection and held in high reverence, since she supported the household. That really reached out and grabbed me. But I could not completely wrap my head around how this matriarchal society functioned. I had never witnessed one—especially where women weren’t shamed for their sexuality or work as prostitutes. I wanted to explore it. I wanted to film it—this place that celebrated women, a community where women were in control of their lives.

I actually tried to make this film for many years to my own detriment and the detriment of the film. I remember my first trips, I would shoot certain things and ask certain questions that would support that thesis, my preconceived notions, but it just wasn’t working. I became so frustrated I put the film on the shelf for a year.

What changed your mind?
I finally started to ask myself harder questions. What was really going on here in this community with these women? On my next trip I opened my lens a little bit wider and was very careful to see what they were giving me instead of pursuing my own agenda.

Bacchara have been held together for centuries by this unique custom. How did this tradition begin?
I wish I could be sure. There is actually very little written about the Bacchara society and history. I learned about it orally. While there are many different stories, the common belief is their ancestors were nomadic singers and dancers. And the kings of the regions would offer the nomadic families land to stay permanently if their singing and dancing daughters would come live in the palace. Other stories emerged too, like when the British garrisons were nearby, they would arrest the Bacchara men for petty crimes and the women were left to fend for themselves, turning to prostitution to make ends meet. There might be threads of truth in all of the stories, but I don’t have anything concrete to back them up.

How did contemporary ideas about women’s self-determination and freedom of choice influence them?
The community itself changed a lot in the ten years I was visiting. When I was first there, there wasn’t television. But when it became available, I could see the girls’ view of themselves began to alter based on the images they saw, based on how the rest of the world lived and how the rest of the world viewed prostitutes. The women have always known that outsiders look down on them, even in nearby cities. But they had this ability to separate themselves. I realized along the way, from asking them about how they felt about things, it is an alien concept for them to contemplate how they feel about what they do. It is a luxury in a way. For them prostitution is simply a job, just part of the day.

How did you persuade these girls to open up on camera?
Well, it wasn’t always easy. When I first started, I was not shooting Guddi, but Sungita. She was the first young girl I met and was being initiated within weeks of my arrival. Sungita loved being on camera. She loved singing and dancing. I think she thought we were making a Bollywood film. But when it came to talking about the things going on in her life, she really shut down. I am not sure if this was on her own accord or if it was political as she lived in the household of the village leader. I was just getting nowhere with her. The footage from those years is very much B-roll footage, an outsider looking in.

Then Guddi came to me and said why do you keep spending all this time with Sungita, I’ll talk to you. And she took us, piled us in my car and we had no idea where she was taking us. But it turned out, it was to go meet her boyfriend. [Laughter.] From the beginning she started taking us on her rides.

[Laughter.] I loved that scene in the film…
I think that’s when the film really starts to take off. You have to understand it also took time to gain the girls’ trust. There were still stories circling around that we were a human rights organization looking to shut them down…etc. But those subsided after about three years.

Even later on, there were times I felt they were giving me answers they thought I wanted to hear like, “Oh, we want to quit this.” At times I just couldn’t convey enough that I wanted to find out what was really going on with them. How they truly felt. I was also working with translators who would come with their own agenda. Even when I wrestled with them about how I wanted the questions asked, I could tell they translated them with a twist, “Don’t you feel bad that this is your work?” As a director you are supposed to be in control of your film and I was just wildly out of control. But over the years I became pretty hip to some of my translators’ own judgments about the community.

In your opinion do the girls willingly choose prostitution over marriage or are they forced, as in the case of Guddi?
It’s not a black and white issue. It isn’t like being kidnapped out of your small town in Nepal, taken to Calcutta and forced into sex-trafficking. For the Bacchara women, from the time they are able to walk and talk and interact in their community, most of the women around them, who take care of them, work on the road. It is just what happens. There is family pressure. As your parents get older it is your responsibility and duty to take care of them in the way they raised you. And because there are no other easy options, it takes a rare person like Guddi to do something different. She is unique. She was interested in education and took it as far as she could take it on her own.

Do you think that your filming her gave her the extra courage needed to make the move?
To say we didn’t affect their lives, that we were just flies on the wall, would be ludicrous. Everyone knew for miles around when we would come. But I think it was a combination of things. For Guddi, it was becoming clear she wasn’t going to conceive a child and rely on the income of a child as she got older. So she started exploring every other possible option in her life—a film crew coming to her village, her boyfriend, getting involved with Action Aid. I would say it all propelled her forward.

During the film Guddi suffers under the unjust, archaic patriarchal grip of her father, to the point where she tries to poison herself. Do you think these are common feelings amongst the working girls?
No, Guddi has a particularly interesting household structure within the Bacchara community. She has a mother and a father—where a lot of households are just women. Clearly the majority of the income comes in from the prostitution. And Guddi’s father does push her. But you see when she finally refuses to do it anymore, he can only push her so far. He has to leave her alone. Her mother is just very passive.

To me Guddi is a strong heroine. She is trying to figure out what she is doing with her life more so than other girls in the community. For many others there is this overall acceptance of the way things are. Guddi is not comfortable with that, so she struggles, and she suffers. But most of all she strives for anything she can conjure up, anything she can possibly find, other roads she can walk down. And well, she rocked the boat. You would be hard-pressed to find another girl in her community who came before her who just said I am not doing this anymore. I am going to change. I might make a lot less money, but we will figure it out. I am not leaving the community, but I am not going to work the road.

You mention that most households are run by or solely compromised of women. This is because most fathers are truck drivers?
Yes. But, I noticed the women don’t haphazardly get pregnant. They do use condoms. They very much pick and choose who they want to have children with. They take a lot of pride in having kids with men of higher castes. Whether or not the man will stay in their lives is unknown. Most of the time he doesn’t. To this day I still don’t know if the father of Sungita’s children is in contact with them. Shana, Guddi’s sister, is more upfront about their situation with the father of her child. When he came back to town and she told him about the baby, he took off and she has not heard from him since.

Are you still in touch with Guddi?
I am, but it is hard. Her number is currently out of service so I have to call the head of the village. It is all so complex, Guddi’s family is actually warring with the head of the village right now. So I haven’t talked to Guddi in many months. But I really want to get in touch with her. It is hard not knowing what is going on. You grow a relationship after nine years and even though we don’t speak the same language, there is a bond between us. I need to go back there. She needs to see the film. She deserves to.

What do you want people to take away after seeing this film?
To me this is not a black and white story and it is certainly not a propaganda piece. I’d like people to walk away and just think about it. This is about a life. None of our lives are good or bad or right or wrong. I set out to make a film that celebrated women in a matriarchal society. That is not quite how it came out, but to me that makes Guddi so much stronger. The adversity she faces in order to accomplish her dreams is not small. I want people to see that.

Is there anything you would like to add?
Despite the drawbacks and the confines that we may view, there is a sense of freedom that they have about their lives. In the way they hold themselves, in the way they walk, in the way they help raise each other’s children, in the community they have. There is a different kind of freedom represented here.

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