Highway Courtesans

Filmed at intervals between 1995 and 2004, Mystelle Brabbee's oddly insubstantial documentary aims to open a window onto India's rural Bachara subculture, in which prostitution is a family business passed from one generation of women to the next. The Bachara work in small, government-sanctioned villages alongside India's highways, servicing long-haul truckers...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Filmed at intervals between 1995 and 2004, Mystelle Brabbee's oddly insubstantial documentary aims to open a window onto India's rural Bachara subculture, in which prostitution is a family business passed from one generation of women to the next. The Bachara work in small, government-sanctioned villages alongside India's highways, servicing long-haul truckers whose work keeps them from their families for long stretches. The film's center is Guddi, who lives in one such village in Central India with her extended family. We first meet her as a teenager, and she's an articulate guide to Bachara customs. Traditionally, she says, only eldest daughters (like her) go into the business, but Guddi says with some concern that now younger girls do as well, as her little sister Shana eventually does. Girls as young as 12 must decide whether they're going to become "courtesans"; once they do, their chances of marrying outside the community or finding conventional work are slim. Bachara men work as pimps or live off their wives and daughters’ earnings. Guddi and Shana support several brothers who actively discourage them from pursuing other interests. When Guddi finds a boyfriend, local photographer Sagar, her brother Kamal does everything in his power to destroy the relationship, ostensibly because Sagar is "of an inferior caste." When Guddi stops prostituting herself and becomes a schoolteacher under the auspices of Action Aid, a social welfare group, he and the others complain — with their father's tacit approval — that she's not making enough money. When Brabbee last films Guddi, she's trying to break off her increasingly stormy relationship with Sagar and continue to educate herself, in hopes of eventually earning as much as she did as a prostitute. Though the film covers nearly a decade in the lives of Guddi, her sisters and neighbors, it's a shallow look at a complex subject. For example, Guddi's horror at conditions in Mumbai's red-light district isn't ironic; they do the same work she was born into, but without the strong family ties and social structure that support Bachara girls. And while the sadness behind the girls' wide smiles occasionally seeps through ("I'm stranded on a road to nowhere," one giggles), Brabbee fails to situate their condition within a larger social and cultural context. (If Guddi were an impoverished farmer's daughter, how much broader would her options be?) Ultimately, the film feels unfocused and attenuated, despite its brief running time.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Filmed at intervals between 1995 and 2004, Mystelle Brabbee's oddly insubstantial documentary aims to open a window onto India's rural Bachara subculture, in which prostitution is a family business passed from one generation of women to the next. The Bacha… (more)

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