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Devadasi: Prostitutes of God

by Matt Strachan

devadasiThis may be the only time you’ll ever read these words (or perhaps not, in which case seek help), but Meat Loaf said it best with his 1970s power ballad – “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”. And whilst sex, religion and politics form that rock solid tripartite of ‘topics to absolutely avoid at dinner parties’, any one of these singular ingredients can be more than enough to make for a compelling documentary. Which makes Devadasi: Prostitutes of God glisten with potential, and not just because of its title

The film follows journalist Sarah Harris through Southern India and its pseudo-religious sex slave trade, made illegal 20 years ago but clouded in doctrines dating back to the 6th century. These beliefs provide the pretext under which young girls from the most poverty-stricken families continue to be sold into a life of prostitution as ‘servants of God’ (the Devadasi of the title) in sacrifice to the Hindu Goddess Yellamma

This is a fascinating and weighty subject, and despite forerunners such as Born Into Brothels setting a precedent difficult to surpass, the unique circumstances of the Devadasi and the alternate perspectives the film finds itself taking ensure the film is able to tread new ground. If anything it treads too lightly, its svelte 29 minutes and casual host-led style forcing it to skim the surface of the issues and those affected by them. If afforded more time, Harris’ sparky, playful and empathetic style would no doubt allow seemingly trivial or light-hearted, but ultimately resonant, elements to enter the frame, as glimpsed in the film’s demonstration of “the classic Sangli condom trick”. Constrained by format as it is, the film is never really able to match the weight of its subject matter.

Perhaps more important is that a film like this, exploring issues like these, exists at all, and if certain restrictions of style and length are imposed so that the film and its subject have more chance at reaching a broader audience, then this is probably a price worth paying. After all, “two out of three ain’t bad”.


Read Matt's Q&A with the director, Sarah Harris here

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