Sardari Begum. Directed by Shyam Benegal. Plus Films, 1996.

Sardari Begum follows Tehzeeb, a young reporter covering the story of Sardari Begum, a popular singer and courtesan killed during a riot stemming from Muslim-Hindu tensions in Delhi. When Tehzeeb discovers her father among the mourners at Sardari Begum’s funeral, she comes to learn that the singer was her aunt, who was disowned by her family for learning music from a courtesan/sex worker—a dishonorable practice.

Despite resistance from her father (who despises Sardari Begum for being a courtesan) and her editor (who insists the story wouldn’t gain reader interest), Tehzeeb insists on covering Sardari Begum’s life story—not merely the violence that surrounded her death, and throughout the movie, audiences learn about the string of devious and exploitative men who have endangered Sardari throughout her life, the loving man she almost married, and her estranged daughter.

 

Please Note

  • This film presents an intricate history of Sardari, and in doing so, resists conforming to stereotypes (whether complimentary or disparaging). We at Courtesans of India encourage our readers to watch the full film, because our condensed notes below cannot capture the representation’s complexity.
  • A thorough analysis of the representation of Sardari Begum in this film requires understanding of the historical and contemporary treatment of “Performing Women”/”Public Women” in India—a broad category that groups and marginalizes singers, courtesans, sex workers, nautch girls, and more. Dr. Nandi Bhatia has written an excellent book on the topic, specifically as it pertains to theatre and dissent.

Questions to Consider

  • Sardari Begum is a thumri singer, but is she a courtesan? Is she a nautch girl? Is she a sex worker? Why do some characters speak about her as if she is? Where do these categories diverge? Where do they overlap?
  • Is the audience exposed to any other performing women? Are we encouraged to view performing women (including thumri singers, courtesans, nautch girls, etc.) as generally good and talented, or only certain types? Is Sardari Begum the exception or the norm?
  • What does this film do with the trope of the deceptive courtesan who profits from unsuspecting men?
  • In what ways do Sardari Begum and Tehzeeb try to emancipate themselves and those around them from the confines of their subject position? Do they succeed? Why or why not? Is emancipation possible?
  • Is Sardari Begum a strong-minded activist? Is she a contributor to her daughter’s oppression? Can she be both?
  • Can we, the audience, forgive Sardari Begum for pushing her daughter into her own career and away from the marriage she desires? Can we forgive the mother lambasted by Sardari Begum for refusing a non-Muslim husband for her daughter? Which of these mothers were trying to protect their daughters? Which were trying to control their daughters? Can it be both?
  • Why is it significant that Sardari Begum is dead throughout the film? Who is telling her story? Who is interpreting it? Is Sardari voiceless?
  • What was the nature/source of the riot during which Sardari Begum was killed? What does that nature suggest about Sardari Begum’s relationship with the culture around her?
  • When Sadiq tries to influence Sardari’s image to be more sexualized, she says “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!” How is the audience encouraged to view nautch girls? Does the film defend all female performers, or only those who are “untouched and pure”? Who defines purity? Is the audience encouraged to agree with Sardari’s views on sexuality or to question them?
  • What role do Muslim-Hindu conflicts play in this film? Is Sardari Begum party to these conflicts? Is the audience encouraged to support her role in inter-faith weddings?

 

Exploitative vs. Generous

  • Many of the noteworthy men in Sardari Begum exploit, deceive, and control the women around them.
    • Hemraj seeks a kind of ownership over Sandari Begum and her art, insisting that she only perform for “those who could truly appreciate it”—him and his upper-class acquaintances.
    • Sadiq attempts to control all aspects of Sardari’s career: he convinces her to leave her hometown, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, attempts to influence her to make more openly sexual music, and controls her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his own name. Sandari to leave her home town, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, and controlled her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his name. When Tehzeeb interviews Sadiq, he claims he doesn’t know why Sardari left him, claiming that she simply became critical of him upon losing her “mental balance.”
    • Mark claims he’ll leave his wife for Tehzeeb, but ultimately never does. He demeans and rejects Tehzeeb’s ideas for news articles.
  • Contrastingly, Sandari Begum is consistently represented as generous.
    • When her brother Jabbar asks her for a loan for Tehzeeb’s education, she gives it to him as a gift
    • When she hears her father is ill, she insists on sending him a generous sum, despite believing he wouldn’t want to see her in person
    • In her younger days, she shared her earnings with her Jabbar and the community

 

Tehzeeb’s Commentary 

  • When Jabbar, Tehzeeb’s father and Sardari’s brother, demeans and dismisses Sardari as “any other prostitute,” Tehzeeb openly resists patriarchal ideology:
    • She attempts to focus the conversation on Sardari’s talents
    • She says, “I think [Sardari Begum] was an independent-minded woman, and our society cannot stand such women.”
    • She asks, “All a woman can be is a good wife, an ideal daughter, or a self-sacrificing mother, isn’t it?”

 

Who Upholds the Patriarchy?

  • In some flashbacks, Sardari Begum is seen arguing with a young bride’s mother and a priest, insisting that the bride should be allowed to marry who she chooses. The mother, contrastingly, regards choosing her daughter’s husband to be her own right. Both the mother and the priest reject the daughter’s choice of husband for being non-Muslim.
  • Sakina, Sardari’s daughter, tells Tehzeeb that Sardari, who believed marriage would take away her daughter’s freedom, refused to allow Sakina access to her choice in romantic partners, discouraged her from marrying, and pushed her into a life of music without considering her opinion on the matter. In a flashback, Sardari rips up love letters from Sakina’s love interest, stating that “the best music comes from a heart that is untouched and pure.”
  • When Sadiq pushes Sardari Begum to take on sexually-charged songs, Sardari responds, “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!”

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