Rita was just 16 when she was trafficked to Kolkata’s Sonagachi area and forced into sex work. For the past decade, she has dabbed gaudy cosmetics on her every evening, waiting for clients in the narrow bylanes that make up Asia’s largest red-light district.
But these days, she is putting on make-up for a very different dream – to become a TV serial actor – visiting a music teacher and taking language lessons to face the camera.
Reshmi’s story is similar. The 22-year-old was forced out of school when she was in class VI because her mother was a sex worker in Basirhat, on the outskirts of the city. But she has spent every evening the past week taking spoken English and dance lessons at an NGO’s office in Sonagachi.
They aren’t alone. Hundreds of sex workers and their children are now trying to make the once-improbable journey from darkness to the arc lights, thanks to chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s pet project.
The scheme – called Muktir Alo (Light of Freedom) – aims to train sex workers and their children in acting, offering them a chance to share space with known artists on television serials and the silver screen.
The project is a part of rehabilitation package for those sex workers who are willing to leave the profession.
“The chief minister has given us the nod to go ahead with the project. We have got positive response from producers and directors of teleserials. The state government will train sex workers and their children in acting and thereafter give them a chance to work in showcase their talent in the small and big screens,” social welfare minister Sashi Panja told HT.
“Apart from Muktir Alo, where adults have been trained in acting, we have another project Sabolombon Plus (Independent Plus) where even children can participate in television serials. We have identified some sex workers and their children who will be part of the initiative. We are finalising the training dates and schedule,” added Panja.
During the training, project aspirants will be given a monthly stipend of Rs 2,500, apart from a daily allowance of Rs 200. The training will be of three months.
“Didi said we have to learn English and Bengali properly. The script contains words of both languages. We also need to speak English, so that we don’t fall behind normal girls who are opting for a profession in acting. This is a great opportunity for me and I just cannot wait,” Reshmi told HT.
Even Basanti, a 45-year-old sex worker from Bowbazar, wants to try her luck.
“I have been a resident of the red light area of Bowbazar since I was five. My sister, too, was a sex worker. There must be a role of a mother or mother-in-law for me?” Basanti asked.
The project has generated tremendous enthusiasm among sex workers throughout the state.
“They view it as a better option compared to making candles or sewing. I believe the initiative will be successful. The department should also ensure that those selected and trained get work,” said Dr Smarajit Jana, chief adviser of the Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Samity, one of the largest sex workers organisations in the country.
Previous governments initiated several rehabilitation schemes – such as sewing and weaving – but got poor response from sex workers as the alternatives weren’t financially viable for them.
Doubts about the viability of the acting project also linger.
“I earn Rs 18,000 per month as a sex worker. I am ready to give acting a shot. This is what I dreamed of. But I should earn at the end of the day to run my family. I have a child and an ailing mother to support,” said Sushmita, a 32-year-old sex worker.
(names have been changed)