10 things about: Mahi Ramakrishnan, intrepid film-maker

Mahi Ramakrishnan has been an investigative journalist working in the field for 19 years and a film-maker for six. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Mahi Ramakrishnan has been an investigative journalist working in the field for 19 years and a film-maker for six. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 28 — For two and a half years, Mahi Ramakrishnan spent every night at different brothels in the city centre.

She was making a documentary on underage prostitution that was released last September.

The 45-year-old film-maker, who is a USA Today correspondent, says she hung out with two pimps — an Indian woman and a Chinese man — smoking and drinking beer with them for years to gain their trust and access to the seedy underworld.

Mahi says she might not take such risks now at her age. This, however, was not her first foray into dangerous subjects.

An investigative journalist working in the field for 19 years and a film-maker for six, she has covered baby traffickers, arms smugglers, militants in southern Thailand and Indonesia, refugees in Myanmar, and even the Tamil Tigers separatist rebel group in Sri Lanka.

In the future, she plans to make a film in India about child sex and child marriage, focusing on the different generations of a single family. Mahi says it would be easier to do it in India than in Malaysia as she has friends in the industry there. 

Here, Mahi talks about her fears when making the documentary Trapped and the complex, yet fascinating, world of prostitution in Malaysia.

In her own words:

  • I was hanging out with a Chinese guy, a pimp who had a business card. I kept it for the entire two and a half years. I used to tell my father about it, my family members about it… like show it to my friends. It says sensual massage and erotic this and whatever and has a picture of a woman like half-naked. And I was like, “My God, a person who sells sex has a name card.”
  • I was scared. There were times when I’d walk into the brothel, not just the brothel but this place where the other pimps and all meet and drink and whatever. And they’ll just lock the door behind me. Every time they opened the door for me, I had to make a conscious decision to actually take the step inside, knowing the door will be locked behind me. That frightened me. That really frightened me.
  • Sex work is work. And a woman has the right to sell her body if she wants to. She does not need to be beaten blue black or sexually abused just because she’s doing a job. So I believe that sex work has to be legalised. It’s about time. We can’t look at things through an archaic, ancient lens anymore. It’s okay to look at things that are happening and look at what we can actually do. We don’t have to put moralistic values on things anymore.
  • When you make a film like this, people talk to me about it, people interview me over it, people get so excited about it when I screen it. They say, “My God, how can this happen?” But after the initial euphoria dies down, nothing has happened. I have not been able to do anything through my film. There’s been no lobbying. Ordinary people like you and me and her did not take up a cause and say, “Let’s band together. This issue is really important, let’s do something about it.” But you know, it’s just that everyone talks about it and leaves it to the powers that be to work on it. Obviously, I still believe that you need the police. You need to work together with the police to work on this or completely eradicate it. But there is no initiative by any group, so it’s very disappointing. If something that compelling does not move people to take action… people talk about it, they get so angry about it, they get so emotional about it, but they don’t do anything about it. They don’t do s*** about it.
  • She had to tidy up the place. She did it in such a mechanical manner. She just knew — the bed, you have to pull the sheets down. The thing that I remember most about the brothel is the sheets. The brothels are clean. Even the bathrooms are clean, they’re super clean. The floor is clean. But when you look at the sheet, ugh, it’s unbearable. You can see it’s soiled. But she just has to do it. It doesn’t mean it’s her room where it’s only her bed. It can be any room, any bed, any man could have gone in there. It was difficult. But she did it in such a mechanical manner, like I’m done with my work and I’m going to now tidy up the room. A) I put the pillow right. 2) I pull the sheet down. I look around, everything is clean, I’ve done my job, I’m leaving. That way in which she can become so mechanical broke my heart.
  • One told me she came out of the industry, but then she went back in even though she did not really need the money. It was nice to have the extra cash but it was not a necessity. But she still went back because she said that she was so used to having sex with so many different men every night.
  • They always believe they will make the money and at some point, they’ll be able to come out of it and do whatever it is that they want to do. But the other thing that really caught me, not just when I was talking to the sex workers, the children and adults, but also when I was talking to the refugees and whoever else I’ve been doing stories on. What really moves me is the fact that, and sometimes shames me, even though they live in an environment which is nothing but full of vulnerability, they live in a vulnerable environment with absolutely no certainty, with absolutely no hope, with absolutely no future, but they can still be happy. They still hold on to that hope. They always hold on to the belief that something will change for the better.
  • They came in because of financial hardship. Husband had abandoned them. They had children, or husband is a good-for-nothing bastard. They just had to do it. Usually they’ll say it was the easiest thing to do. It’s not easy to open their legs to strangers day in and day out. It’s just that, that was the only thing that they could do. They have a body and they can sell it. They don’t have education. And whatever it is, it’s just not enough money. So it’s the most feasible thing for them to do.
  • He was carrying a good phone, he had a tie on and he was carrying a briefcase. He just walked, didn’t want to look at me. I think he’d have died from shame if he looked. That’s when I realised the people who frequent or go to brothels, you cannot say they come from a particular group. You don’t know who’s going to do it.
  • It’s always, “So will you do the blow job?” And then this woman got so pissed off that she said, “Listen, why don’t you pay, take me to the room, and find out for yourself what I’m capable of doing?” Men seem to be so obsessed with oral sex, with the blow job. At least these men that I’ve seen, men who come to these places. First thing that they want to make sure before they pay a sex worker is whether she can give him a blow job.

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