Chunri was born and raised in a brothel and, as the writer of her story puts it, “her birth was not a result of two people celebrating love”. Written by Baber K Khan and illustrated by M Basit Ansari, the comic book Chunri: The Dancing Death is the story of a girl pushed into prostitution, who finds inspiration in Bruce Lee and then fights her way to freedom.
Khan sets his novel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura district, the red light area that has captured the imagination of many novelists and filmmakers. The comic opens at a lavish bar called, quite simply, Mumbai Bar. The protagonist is based on a sex worker Khan once met in Lahore, Pakistan.
“Most of the times, whenever I heard or asked sex workers about what brought them into this trade, the answers were lack of education or employment opportunities and how they tend to earn well in this line of work,” said Khan. “But one day, a beautiful prostitute told me about herself, that her mother was paid to bring her into this world. That’s how the entire brothel has been run for generations. All of them were paid.”
Khan was also inspired by photographer Sandra Hyon’s photo project on the Bangladesh’s Kandapara Brothel, which has existed for 200 years. Since his own interactions with sex workers had been limited to those in Pakistan, and his inspiration came from a photo series on a brothel in Bangladesh, why did he choose Mumbai for the novel?
“I have no idea about Mumbai,” confessed Khan. “I still don’t. Maybe I get a few things wrong but that doesn’t change the larger message of Chunri. I don’t know how, but it was Mumbai from the get-go... deviating from everything the way I had imagined it felt like losing the charm of the story. Maybe it was because of my many Indian friends or the Bollywood influence that made Mumbai more relatable in my head. Still, I searched some more and read more and turned out, Asia’s first and second largest red-light district are both in India. The human sex trafficking, the red light districts, the paid pregnancies, these are very real in South Asian countries.”
The lack of familiarity shows: Khan’s Mumbai could be any city and Chunri could belong to any nationality.
It is apparent that Khan wants to create Chunri as a superhero-like figure, which is why the artist feels the graphic format does justice to his story. “This is the age of superheroes,” said Khan. “People are drawn to them and while most superhero stories have to show suffering in order to be compelling, they aren’t real. Chunri’s story exists in the real world, perhaps making her a hero may inspire people to see how awful social injustices are in our society.”
In the comic, Chunri is painted as different from the other women living in the brothel. The one thing that separates her from the crowd is her obsession with Bruce Lee films and the hours she spends imitating martial arts moves she sees on TV.
One night, a customer engages in what could be described “aggressive foreplay”, against Chunri’s consent. She ends up killing the man, who also turns out to be a member of the mafia. From there, the comic book follows her journey through the streets of Mumbai, as she becomes something of a vigilante and uses martial arts to get her out of sticky situations.
Khan’s attempt at creating an imagined world, the language, the locale remains at a superficial level at best and Chunri’s story ends up becoming even more confusing once cross-border relations between India and Pakistan come into play.
The central problem is that while Khan attempts to treat the story of Chunri with a light touch, the issue of sex trafficking itself is anything but light. According to Australia-based human rights group Walk Free Foundation, over 18 million people are victims of modern slavery in India. “Such persons are often engaged in domestic work, construction, farming, fishing, manual labour, forced begging, and in the sex industry,” according to a Qz report.
“People can take it as entertainment, a new superhero spawn,” Khan said. “I have tried to show her internal struggle and basically highlight the message that there is a hero in all of us, we just need to uncover it.”