Prostitution on celluloid has been portrayed down the ages, in India, Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. It has a hidden charisma of its own, like a book or a film that has been banned and the banning itself becomes a tantalising invitation for the masses who are attracted to the film that depicts or deals with prostitution.

It is a part of everyday sexism. But in constructing certain specific representations of women, it codes woman in a general way as sign, as an object of the male gaze. It must be recalled here that the prostitute, on celluloid as in real life, has her saleability in common, in certain manners of speaking and understanding, with other more readily available and culturally prevalent representations of women. Indian directors, both men and women, are yet to invent new codes of non-voyeuristic vision.

But the Corona Pandemic, which makes social distancing a mandatory rule to prevent infection and contamination, is destroying the already impoverished lives of the sex workers in Kolkata.

This is completely stripped off the charisma, romanticisation and glamourised glimpse of the sex worker in most Bollywood mainstream films that purport to be a social agency to project the tragedy of the sex worker. In real life, the story today, specially during the pandemic that initiated the lockdown in several phases, the picture is quite different, raw, real and cruel.

In India, approximately 10 million women are sex workers and live off their earnings from prostitution which is not only ill-paid but also has an entire chain of “agents” who cut into the earnings of each sex worker. This is not a legalised profession similar to the selling of contraband liquor and trafficking in women and girls that continue to flourish across the crevices and dark alleys of every Indian city, small town and village.

The social distancing has left all of the women in Kolkata’s notorious red light areas absolutely without any source of income. The novel coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on the livelihood of nearly five lakh sex-workers in West Bengal, including those residing at Kolkata’s Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in south Asia. Ever since the outbreak made its presence.

Says Jasodhara Mukherjee, “Sonagachi, which once witnessed at least 15,000 to 20,000 clients every day, now stands abandoned. The red-light area mainly comprises three extremely dingy lanes with houses on either side. On average, there are approximately 12,000 women living in the houses although a few of them managed to rush back home before the lockdown was imposed on March 24.

"Right now, there are approximately 7,000 girls who couldn't go back home and we're all stuck here together," says Kajal Bose, also a sex worker and the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the largest and the most active collective made for and by sex workers in Kolkata.

The organization looks after the education of the children of sex workers, organises medical camps, spreads awareness about AIDs and other STDs, helping with micro-finance and savings and so on and has a large membership that purportedly, is politically neutral.

Durbar, which means unbeatable or unstoppable represents 65 000 sex-workers (Male, Female & Transgender) and is active in identifying and challenging the underlying socio-structural factors that help perpetuate stigma material deprivation and social exclusion of sex-workers. Its mission is “to build a world where all marginalized communities live in an environment of respect, rights and dignity.

Durbar hopes for a new social order where there is no discrimination by class, caste, gender or occupation and all individuals and communities live in peace and harmony as global citizens.

But the Durbar office is closed since the lockdown began and the leading members are cooperating with the several NGOs who are arranging to distribute rations and food packets among the sex workers and their families in the city. Dr. Smarajit Jana, the founder of Durbar, who has worked closely with the women in red light areas for decades now says that for a week in the beginning, the women were given awareness demos and talks about how the spread of Covid 19 effects them along with the use of hand sanitizers, masks and washing hands. But wearing masks and gloves and social distancing negates the very practice of sex as a profession for all the women engaged in the trade.

Harkata Gali, another well-known red-light area in North Kolkata has remain closed after the lockdown was announced This makes the sex workers among the worst hit by the pandemic and the lockdown. After the lockdown was announced, Sengupta says he knew that the sex workers would be the worst-hit in the pandemic.

The mainstream society is immune to their troubles as sex workers are within socially ostracised communities like manual scavengers. “But we are daily wage earners and if we do not have customers at night, what will we eat the following day?” asks a desperate sex worker who chooses to remain anonymous.

An initiative by the Rotaract Club in Kolkata, in association with Durbar Mahila Samity, has been crowdsourcing funds to help women in red light areas. Bishal Modak, a member of the club, says that they have been trying their best to raise funds which can help Durbar buy essentials for the women during the crisis period.

Prostitution on celluloid, mainly in Indian popular cinema, occupies one point of continuum of representations of women, a continuum along which are also situated some commonly available and socially visible representations such as in advertisements. All films with prostitutes as principal or important characters are mainly motivated by prospects of raising the film's commercial viability. In rare cases such as Shyam Benegal's Mandi or Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar have the directors addressed themselves analytically to the social and economic situation of the business of prostitution.

Durbar has reached out to the state government urging it to provide financial aid to sex workers. The organisation has also written to several MLAs and MPs. “But we are yet to receive any response,” said Kajal Bose who was a sex worker when she was young and now works with Durbar.

The “satellite” workers who earn their daily bread from these areas and from sex work are also deprived of their livelihood. This covers the tea boys, the small paan-bidi-cigarette shops and flower stalls, the muscle men, the agents, the touts and the madams. “We do understand the importance of the lockdown but we need a backup structure to support us financially during these terrible times. But we have to survive,” said a sex worker who preferred to remain anonymous.

But “Relief will stop coming once the lockdown is over. But it would be of great danger if the sex workers are allowed to operate as soon as the lockdown is lifted. Due to their nature of work and the congested way in which they live, one single case can infect a hundred,” Jana sums up.

Ironically, women who form the very commodity that is exchanged, have little or no control over the money that is exchanged. Nor do they have access to the circulation of money. The large number of pimps, musclemen, self-appointed protectionists within and without the legal machinery, the brothel madams and the local politicians form an unending link in a chain of middlemen who cut into the meagre earnings of the prostitute placing her back to the poverty she began from. This circular reality of poverty offers the tragic irony of her existence.

She is able to represent all the terms within capitalist production; she is the human labour, the object of exchange and the seller at once. She stands as worker, commodity and capitalist and blurs the categories of bourgeois economics in the same way as she tests the boundaries of bourgeois morality. As a commodity therefore, the prostitute both encapsulates and distorts all the classic features of bourgeois economics. This is the full nature of her threat and it is also the key to her power. But that power has now played the vanishing act.