Sex worker-turned-author basks in glory of Kerala film award

PTI, Oct 19, 2021, 1:51 PM IST

Image credit: Express photo / Janak Rathod

Thiruvananthapuram: It has been over 15 years since Nalini Jameela shocked the conventional mindsets of society and upset the patriarchy by penning a path-breaking autobiography on her daring and frightful life as a sex worker.

Since then, she has been enjoying several identities in life raging from a best-selling author and activist to a gender expert and social relationship counselor, and now at the age of 69, she is a recipient of the prestigious Kerala State Film Awards.

Jameela adjudged the special jury mention for costume design in the movie ”Bharathapuzha”, directed by Manilal when the state government awards were announced here on Saturday.

For Jameela, it was yet another unexpected twist that life had in store for her and she was bold enough to say that the lessons she had drawn from her early life as a sex worker were her base for any new achievement.

”The state award was really unexpected…It was for the first time in my life that I did costume designing for a movie. I cherish this honor as one of the greatest achievements in my life,” Jameela told PTI.

Noting that experience makes a person strong and bold, she said it was plenty of her experiences-whether good or bad, that made her capable to fight all odds and reach this stage of life.

”Bharathapuzha revolves around the story of Sugandhi, a sex worker in her mid-thirties, hailing from the central Kerala district of Thrissur.

Actress Siji Pradeep played the central character in the woman-centric film, which deals with several gender issues.

”While choosing costumes for the character, I actually saw myself in her… me as a sex worker during my young age. I never used costly sarees or ornaments in life and I do not even like to wear a bindi. I tried to reflect those characteristics in the heroine’s physical persona,” she said.

Jameela also said while designing outfits for the heroine and helping her with the mannerisms and body language of a young sex worker, the dreadful memories of the grim past came flooding back.

”I spent days with the film crew, especially the heroine, to provide all support they needed. There were scenes in the film which I could relate with that of my life…,” the activist explained.

It was her long-drawn friendship with Manilal, the director, that brought her to the tinsel world.

When he had discussed the project with her, Jameela never imagined that she would be entrusted with costume designing.

But, she made up her mind to take up the new challenge and managed to complete the work as per the expectations of the filmmaker.

”I worked according to my own perspectives. But, the happiest part was that the director was convinced about what i was trying to say.. He had given me the liberty to follow my mind while designing and selecting costumes,” the elderly woman added.

A third standard dropout, Jameela was forced into prostitution at a very tender age following the death of her husband who had succumbed to cancer.

While running from pillar to post to look after her family and raise her two daughters, she had no option but to take up sex work as a profession- which the conventional society viewed as immoral and unethical.

The years-long life as a sex worker, police brutality, attack by goons, and endless physical tortures inflicted by ”clients”, has only given Jameela an added energy to fight the hardships and shatter the taboo attached to sex workers.

Before turning a sex worker and started loitering in bus terminus and railway stations soliciting ‘customers’, she had worked in brick kilns and domestic help to earn daily bread for her near ones.

When she published the ‘Autobiography of a Sex Worker” in the year 2005 after retiring from sex work, it fast turned out to be one of the best sellers of Malayalam besides kicking up a widespread debate on the plight of the hapless community.

After the first book had been translated into several languages including English, she came up with another one ”Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker”, a memoir that revolves around the relationships she developed with the ‘clients’, in 2018.

Besides being a member of several NGOs, she has also been working as a gender and social relationship counselor and taking classes in colleges and universities on the subject.

Asked whether she would like to build a career in costume designing, she said she was not sure whether any mainstream filmmakers or production houses would give her an opportunity, and if anything comes her way, she would definitely give it a shot.

She said the changed perspective and empathetic approach of the new generation towards sex workers and the LGBT people is a great solace for the community members.

The 69-year-old woman also cherished a dream of bringing out the cinematic adaptation of her autobiography and setting up a care center for elderly people.

”Those who came from streets worked in mud kilns and toiled in someone’s backyard as a domestic help will surely have a great strength and courage to fight the odds and shatter the taboos of this patriarchal society,” Jameela concluded.

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