Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is not a story that makes you feel good, nor does it terrorise you with violent outbursts; but it makes you experience both as a matter of course rather than genre. The film is about a group of sex workers in Mumbai who decide to eliminate the middleman by forming their own co-operative.
Amid the din of mainstream content, the movie stands out for its portrayal of strong women characters, all raging against patriarchal oppression as they try to assert agency over their own bodies.
The dominantly female cast and crew manages to give a realistic texture to the story, staying away from scandalising sex work.
Observing on-screen camaraderie between women lifted up my heart. At first, they’re all dismissive of standing up for themselves, but slowly come around to the idea of reclaiming their own selves. The women express anger, often and freely, but never succumb to sadness. They don’t break down after yet another day of fighting, instead they keep at it, chipping away at their oppression.
All the women in the movie have found dignity and some independence through their work, but still suffer working on others’ rules. Their lives take a different turn with the entry of Tikli, who first suggests starting a women’s co-operative so they can all get better benefits.
She comes up with a plan and encourages her peers to take control of their lives. At first, Tikli is ridiculed for being unnecessarily rebellious and wanting change. Laxmi, one of the group’s older members, although curious, is dismissive of Tikli.
Whenever Tikli brings up revolution, Laxmi makes it clear that she supports Tikli, but this revolution is not yet hers to enact. As the story unfolds, Laxmi finally realises the need for an alternative, non-exploitative system.
Another woman, Manda, warns against disrupting the system, but Tikli, now backed by Laxmi, goes for it anyway. Manda and the others’ opposition is reminiscent of our own fear when it comes to challenging the patriarchal setups that surround us.
At the end of the day, the thing that brings these women together is exploitation. They were all rebels once but had to learn to conform over the years. However, Tikli makes them feel as if they still can be the masters of their own lives. Like Tikli says, “Try nahi karoge toh hoga kaise?” (If you don’t try, how will it happen?)
We all need women who make us want to challenge the patriarchy, and most importantly encourage us to stand up for ourselves.
Buoyed by Tikli and Laxmi’s enthusiasm, the women come up with alternative business plans and innovative marketing techniques to promote their new venture. They are beaten and threatened, but they persevere. Their decision to not quit is what really stood out to me in the movie. Most often than not, we quit fighting because giving in feels so much easier, but struggling, loudly and proudly, is the only way to make our voices count. At a time when we feel overpowered and robbed off basic rights, movies like this one give us the faith to win our own battles.
India, home to some of the largest red light areas in the world, can’t afford to ignore conversations about sex work. A lack of safety is only compounded by the lack of regulation. Authorities and middlemen often just scoop out a hefty tax from sex workers, but offer no protection in return. Declaring sex work illegal clearly doesn’t solve any of the real problems people in the industry face, but working to provide safe conditions and rights would go a long way.
Even without policy issues to think about, the movie is a compelling reminder that to resist is the only way to be.
Aishwarya Shrivastav is a 21-year-old history graduate from the University of Delhi and author of ‘Mouthpiece’.
Featured image credit: Netflix