Jennifer Merin interviews Mystelle Brabbee re “Highway Courtesans”

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In her first feature-length documentary film, “Highway Courtesans,“ Mystelle Brabbee transports you to the exotic environs of Central India, to a small town in which the eldest daughter in each family goes into ‘the Profession’ to support her parents, brothers and sisters.

This centuries-old tradition of prostitution, which began with placement of prettier-than-average village girls as courtesans in India’s palaces, is oft given gloss and glamorization in Bollywood features.

While traveling in India, Brabbee became fascinated by these women who wait by the side of the road for their customers–mostly truckers with regular routes through the area– to roll into town and stop for some entertainment.

“I was familiar and quite comfortable with Indian culture, and felt close to it because I grew up around it. But I wasn‘t quite prepared for what I found in the Bachara community, where you see so many young women waiting by the roadside for their customers, who stop, spend a few hours and some rupees and then drive off. I saw these women, and I knew I had to find out more about their lives, about their stories,” says Brabbee.

“Being in “the Profession“ clearly determines their prospects in life, and their lifestyle. It‘s very difficult for them to find a way out of it. ‘The Profession“ doesn‘t have quite the same degree of social stigma it has in Western cultures, and in the United States in particular– but most of these women never marry, although some do have children that are very loved and cared for by their families.”

MERIN: Still, prostitution’s such a sensitive subject and, even though following the tradition might be voluntary, these women are being exploited. How did you get them to agree to making the film?

BRABBEE: It was difficult to find them. I had to find the right town to work in. I had to move from village to village for a while until I found the right one.

At first, the women thought it would be fun to be in a film. They imagined, I guess, a sort of Bollywood experience, and when I turned on the camera, they began ‘acting’ and dancing the way actors in Bollywood films do. It was quite difficult to explain to them that the movie was about them, about their lives. That took a while. For them to just be themselves in front of the camera, and to speak openly– they’re very honest, but opening up to reveal your dreams and disappointments, that’s a little different.

MERIN: How ‘d you get them to make that transition?

BRABBEE: With some it was easier than others. I kept going back to India to find out more, and cover more. I shot the film from 1990 though 2004. Spending so much time with them made it easier for them to relax and be themselves in front of the camera. I even let them use a camera while I wasn’t there, just to get continuity.

MERIN: Were they different when you were away?

BRABBEE: Not that much. They don’t feel they have much to hide. Their families appreciate what they’re doing and they have very strong support systems. But that’s sometimes a trap– because even if they have a chance to leave or gat married and have a different kind of life, they don’t want to betray their families by going. There is a lot of love and loyalty. Many support their brothers, too– because to their way of thinking being in ’the Profession’ is easier than the kind of labor their brothers would have to do to earn even a small fraction of the money they earn from their clients. They say repeatBut they express this continually– that they love their families and what they’re doing doesn’t disturb them that much.

MERIN: How’d you decide which of the women’s stories to tell?

BRABBEE That became clear to me as I got to know the women. Guddi was such a strong character from the time I met her and she really stands out from the othere because she, at age 21, decided she was quitting ‘the Profession,’ which made her father and brothers furious. Her story needed telling. Ironically, even after having escaped ’the Profession’ and become a teacher, she’s one of the least happy of the women I met and filmed. Her younger sister, Shana, who followed Guddi into ’the Profession,” stayed in it– and had a child with one of her regular customers. And, she’s content with her life.

MERIN: Did you get attached to the women? Were you upset by their poverty? Did you feel you had to help them? Did they ask you to?

BRABBEE: Yes, I think we became friends, although I don’t think they really understand what my life is like– apart from filming them. I think they had some expectations that I could provide some things they needed, but I felt obliged to stay outside their lives and be an observer. As a filmmaker, that’s my role.

MERIN: Still nine years is….

BRABBEE: A long time. True. I do think about them, but there came a time for me to finish the film and get it seen and move on.

MERIN: You must have had hours and hours of footage? Was editing an ordeal? How did you decide what to exclude?

BRABBEE: Editing was incredibly difficult– technically and emotionally. I edited on the run. We were getting the film edited in time to submit it for festivals, and we were doing it during the Nantucket Film Festival where, wearing my other hat, I’m the Artistic Director and am responsible for programming about 50 films. So I’d rush into the editing room, look at what had been done, quickly give notes and race out to do festival business. It was challenging. But, after the Bachara women shared so much of themselves with me, I wanted to finish the film and get it seen.

MERIN: Have they seen it?

BRABBEE: Not yet. I’m not sure what they’ll think of it when they do.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).