It’s a familiar scene: the visiting neta, the photo ops with grateful women, the social worker with the self-righteous air that can come from working with the disenfranchised in Mumbai.
But, a change. One of the girls stands up and has the audacity to ask for more than a chance to be a seamstress or domestic help. She wants to work with computers.
“Aukaaad mein raho! (Stay within your limits!),” the social worker barks. At this point, the girl turns and asks the audience: “Why do my dreams have to be smaller than yours?”
This is the essence of Lal Batti, a play that premiered in India on Monday afternoon, as part of the SBI Bank theatre section of the HT Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, after a series of critically acclaimed stagings across the US in May and June last year.
A presentation by NGO Kranti, which works with children of sex workers, the play traces the tragic circumstances that shaped the childhoods of these girls, and also features performances by rescued former sex workers and daughters of sex workers, aged 10 to 18.
The play has been written and directed by the girls themselves.
“All the incidents you see are drawn directly from the experiences of the girls,” said Robin Chaurasiya, cofounder of Kranti.
In a positive twist, the tour of the US included trips to the offices of American NGOs working for the rights of sex workers and marginalised youth, and to universities and schools.
On Monday, the play concluded with an emotional Q&A session, which included many rounds of spontaneous applause as the girls discussed the issues they had raised with their audience.
“I didn’t even realise that I had some level of inbuilt discrimination against these girls until the end of the play,” said Ashok Mathur, 65, of Cuffe Parade, a retired businessman. “On some level I had lower expectations from the girls because of their background, and when they said they had travelled across the world, I was surprised. The play has really shaken me out of this misguided way of thinking.”