3 years


The Bar Dancer Who Became a Writer

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Shagufta Rafique became a sex worker at the age of 17, joined bar-dancing some years later, and now finds success as a film scriptwriter

When I was around 12 years old, my elder brother and his wife once confronted me. I had gotten into an altercation with his son. It was nothing but a childish tiff, but they were livid. They told me to learn to behave as I was after all an adopted child. Those words, so easily spoken, completely crumbled my world. I had never known that I was adopted. It was strange because all this while I had believed that this house and this family belonged to me. Suddenly, with those few words, everything changed.

Then I came to hear another rumour—that my elder sister (Saeeda Khan, a former Bollywood actress) was in fact my mother. That I was a love child who she had given to her mother’s care. Saeeda had married Brij Sadanah (who produced many successful films in the 1960s and 1970s, like Do Bhai, Ye Raat Phir Na Aayegi, Ustadon Ke Ustad, Night in London and Victoria No. 203) when I was about three years old. It was not a flattering remark, but when I was a kid I sometimes liked to believe that my mother was Saeeda. It made me happy to think that my biological mother was an actress. But this wasn’t the only story that did the rounds. Others included how I had been given for adoption by slum-dwellers, and another that the woman who had borne me was a maid who had slept with a wealthy barrister. As a child, the news that I could have been born in a slum upset me immensely. But I would try and convince myself that I couldn’t be the daughter of a ‘nobody’ since I had expensive tastes. A friend pointed out that it was likely that my father was a barrister because I was very argumentative and aggressive. I tried to keep myself happy this way.

But I think all these stories affected me. I became withdrawn, lonely and introverted. My mother, Anwari Begum, loved me immensely but she never told me who my biological parents were. And she rebuked me whenever I brought up the topic. Around the same time, my father passed away. We started doing poorly financially. My brother had his own financial burdens and a family to take care of. My mother started to borrow money. Saeeda helped us a bit, but I think her husband wasn’t too happy about it. We started selling items from the house and pawning whatever little jewellery my mother owned. I accompanied my mother to all these places, and I started to feel miserable about it. Here was this lady who had raised me even though I wasn’t her own, and now when she was going through a tough time, I wasn’t able to help her. One day, a friend of my mother told us that I could make money if I danced in private parties. I had been learning Kathak since a very young age and was a reasonably good dancer. My mother didn’t force me, but I took up the offer. I was still 12 then.

These parties happened in seedy-looking flats across Bombay. You’d have the average fellow, but often also top bureaucrats and politicians. They’d come there with hookers and their mistresses. They’d get drunk and if they liked my dance, would shower money on me. I distinctly remember the feeling of happiness as I picked up the rupee notes. I was safe because my job only involved dancing and my mother always accompanied me. But the place had the smell and feel of a brothel. I was pursuing my studies too, but performing miserably. I quit school when I reached Class 7. I was happy though. I was dancing almost every alternate night now and could support my mother and myself. This went on till I reached 17.

During a performance one night, a drunk middle-aged man picked me up forcefully. He wanted me to dance with him, but I was very scared. Nothing like this had ever happened. My mother was there too. He kept twirling me and I kept screaming. But nobody came to my rescue. I was so shaken that I stopped dancing. So we gave a room in our house on rent to a few sex workers I had come to know at parties. The neighbourhood soon complained, and we couldn’t keep them anymore. Apparently this was a neighbourhood of ‘respectful’ people and our house was now a brothel. I was extremely angry. Yes, these women were sex workers, but they were not bad people. They were just earning their livelihood. Partly because of this anger, and because we needed the money, I got in touch with a pimp who worked with one of our tenants. He was a nice guy and initially hesitant to work with me because I hadn’t even turned 18. But then he set me up with a client. And then the chain started—from one man to another. From the age of 17 right up till the age of 27. My family came to know about what I was doing. Saeeda in fact spoke to me a few times about how I should think about the future. It was a difficult phase, and after a point, I was looking to get out of it. Through family connections, I was able to work with Mahesh Bhatt saab as an assistant director in a few films in the 1990s. But I was way down in the pecking order, wasn’t making enough money, and the content of those films then didn’t interest me either. I had to quit and get back to the profession. Thankfully, I never got caught by the police. I would mostly work in big hotels and entertain rich clients, so I was always protected. I remember, though, on one occasion policemen entered a room where I was with a client. I was scared of being put behind bars. But the man was able to convince the cops that I was his wife.

Then another tragedy struck. In a drunken moment, Brij saab shot my sister, his daughter and son, before turning the gun on himself. Nobody is sure of the reason, but I suspect he was upset over how poorly his films were performing. My sister was bleeding in my arms when I took her to hospital. Only her son survived.

In another few years, I learnt about beer bars in Dubai. And how I could make a lot more money just by dancing and not having to sleep with anyone. I took this up without hesitation. I would travel to Dubai and perform every night for three months at a stretch. We would return to India, and then travel to Dubai again when we got a call for work. It was not an easy job. The hotel would take 60 per cent of the money we made, and we would share the remaining 40 per cent. So there was pressure on each one of us to make as much money as possible. We would dance from 9 in the night till 5 in the morning, with very little breaks. I was especially hard-working. I started singing in the bars too. Everyone would ask where I got the energy from—but I was just happy to be there, making enough money without having to sleep with anyone.

After a few years, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. So I returned and started working in beer bars here. The conditions here, in comparison to Dubai, were terrible. There would be frequent police raids too over the issue of closing time violations, when we’d be hidden as if we were prostitutes. Once, there was a raid at a Santa Cruz bar. We were all locked up in a dark, dingy room for over 20 minutes. I remember feeling miserable and helpless. I wanted to get out of it some way. At this time, perhaps to find solace or an escape from this profession, I started writing film scripts. I met many people from the industry but never got a break. I pursued Bhatt saab for many years too. He promised to help me, but no suitable work was found. Then my mother passed away. There was nothing left for me to do here. I was going to travel to Dubai for another stint in its beer bars when I got a call from Bhatt saab. He, along with director Mohit Suri, was working on the rough cut of the film Kalyug. They wanted an outside perspective of the film. After sitting through the rough cut, I quite confidently told them that the film required a few additional scenes. I thought the film was good but lacked scenes where the characters’ emotional make-up could be fleshed out. I was given two hours to write these portions. If they liked it, they would incorporate it. It must have been one of the most nervous moments of my life. I realised then that this was my chance. If I blew it, I would have had no other option but to continue working in a beer bar. After much hesitation, I sent them my suggestions. Both of them liked those bits and they made it to the film.

After the film released, Bhatt saab said he wanted me to write a script for a new film (Woh Lamhe). He said I could now give up dancing. But to me this seemed just too fantastical to be true. I told him, “No disrespect to you, sir, but I won’t quit dancing till the project comes up.” A few days later, I had an offer letter from Vishesh Films, Mahesh Bhatt’s production house. The day I signed it, I quit dancing too.

Thankfully Woh Lamhe was successful and I got more projects. During this time, Bhatt saab would get anonymous calls telling him of my past and suggesting that he should keep away from me. We never got to know who these people were. Perhaps someone I had known during my dancing days or from my extended family.

Some in the industry say I should not talk about that phase anymore, or I won’t get more work. I know that my past has been terrible. But I don’t regret it really. And I don’t want to hide it. I did what I had to. I fell in love quite a few times too. I was once even on the verge of marrying a Pakistani businessman I had met in Dubai. But he fell ill and eventually died. I think all these experiences make me richer as an individual. They keep me grounded and help me write honestly. I think it is true that only a prostitute can see the real world. I am now trying to start off as a director. I have my script ready and Pooja Bhatt has agreed to produce the film. Hopefully, my experiences will help me as a director too.

As told to Lhendup G Bhutia