Minai, Cassidy. “Kalavantulu/Devadasi Dances in the Films Muddu Bidda and Periyar (an Ode to Davesh Soneji’s Latest Book.)” Cinema Nritya, cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com/2012/08/ kalavantuludevadasi-dances-in-films.html#more. March 1, 2021.

Available free online.

            Description from website: This website works to bring light to classical and traditional Indian dances in the cinema of India; unearthing rare archival clips and academic research on South Asian dance.

Amar Prem. Directed by Shakti Samanta, performances by Sharmila Tagore, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Abhi Bhattacharya, Madan Puri, Shakti Films, 1972.

Summary: A village woman, Pushpa, is thrown out by her husband and his new wife. Pushpa is abandoned by her mother and sold into a Calcutta brothel by her village-uncle. During her time there Pushpa attachments with a local businessman who becomes a regular and exclusive visitor, and her widowed neighbour’s young son.

Mandi. Directed by Shyam Benegal, performances by Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Shabana Azmi, and Amrish Puri, Blaze Entertainment, 1983.

Summary: This film is a satirical comedy which looks at politics and prostitution. Based on a classic Urdu short story Aanandi by writer Ghulam Abbas, the film narrates the story of a brothel, situated in the heart of a city, an area that some politicians want for its prime locality.                                        

Summary from Wikipedia.  

Arora, Poonam. “Sanctioned and Proscribed Narratives in Indian Cinema: A Bicultural Reading of the Courtesan Film.” Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy, and the “Postcolonial”, edited by Kostas Myrsiades and Jerry McGuire, SUNY Press, 1995, pp. 59-85.

From the Introduction

Despite its lip service to secular ideals, Indian cinema in general has contributed significantly to the celebratory construction of Hindu nationalist discourse. It has done so by reviving precisely those tenets of social organization and gender politics which have been invoked by the nationalist discourse and which are derived from Hindu mythology. It is notable, however, that a specific genre within Indian cinema—the Muslim film—reverses the binarism of Hindu and Muslim identities. This genre represents the Muslim not as masculine, fundamentalist, and separatist, but rather as feminine, exotic, and seductive. This apparent anomaly has been explained by Faisal Devji in his recent essay, “Hindu/Muslim/Indian.” Devji argues that the latter “benign” construction of the Muslim in popular texts fulfills a dual function for Hindus. First, it counters the putative threat of the Muslim, who is commonly viewed as the “enemy within.” Second, the representation of the Muslim woman as a figure of romance in literature and film “elicit[s].. pleasure in the shape of a rape fantasy.” Devji reads this fantasy as a mock punishment meted out to the Muslim whose presence not only reactivates the painful memory of the partition, but who is also believed capable of re-enacting that violent history….

I shall extend Devji’s argument by illustrating that, in a specific subgenre of the Muslim film—the tawaif or courtesan film—not only does the representation of the Muslim woman as a tawaif seduce her Hindu audiences (by, in effect, “asking for” her rape), but the focal point at which this occurs is during certain key scenes in which the tawaif unveils herself to the pro-filmic and, by extension, to the film audience. What Devji’s argument does not address is the popularity of the tawaif film with its equally devoted Muslim audience. Nor can the argument that the film extracts a public confession from the Muslim imaginary for the internalized “guilt” of being different within an aggressive homogenizing national culture, explain that appeal.

I will argue via Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan that the tawaif film interpellates “Hindus” and “Muslims” into different subject positions by employing different textual strategies.

Mughal-E-Azam. Directed by K. Asif. Sterling Investment Corp., 1960.

This movie is available to watch for free on Youtube and by subscription on Netflix Canada.

Plot Summary from Wikipedia

Emperor Akbar, who does not have a male heir, undertakes a pilgrimage to a shrine to pray that his wife Jodhabai will give birth to a son. Later, a maid brings the emperor news of his son’s birth. Overjoyed at his prayers being answered, Akbar gives the maid his ring and promises to grant her anything she desires.

The son, Prince Salim, grows up to be spoiled, flippant, and self-indulgent. His father sends him off to war, to teach him courage and discipline. Fourteen years later, Salim returns as a distinguished soldier and falls in love with court dancer Nadira, whom the emperor has renamed Anarkali, meaning pomegranate blossom. The relationship is discovered by the jealous Bahar, a dancer of a higher rank, who wants the prince to love her so that she may one day become queen. Unsuccessful in winning Salim’s love, she exposes his forbidden relationship with Anarkali. Salim pleads to marry Anarkali, but his father refuses and imprisons her. Despite her treatment, Anarkali refuses to reject Salim, as Akbar demands.

Salim rebels and amasses an army to confront Akbar and rescue Anarkali. Defeated in battle, Salim is sentenced to death by his father, but is told that the sentence will be revoked if Anarkali, now in hiding, is handed over to die in his place. Anarkali gives herself up to save the prince’s life and is condemned to death by being entombed alive. Before her sentence is carried out, she begs to have a few hours with Salim as his make-believe wife. Her request is granted, as she has agreed to drug Salim so that he cannot interfere with her entombment. As Anarkali is being walled up, Akbar is reminded that he still owes her mother a favour, as it was she who brought him news of Salim’s birth. Anarkali’s mother pleads for her daughter’s life. The emperor has a change of heart, but although he wants to release Anarkali he cannot, because of his duty to his country. He, therefore, arranges for her secret escape into exile with her mother, but demands that the pair are to live in obscurity and that Salim is never to know that Anarkali is still alive.

Questions to consider

  • What is the audience encouraged to believe prevented Anarkali from obtaining a happy ending? Challenging her station? Akbar?

  • In what ways is the audience encouraged to view Akbar’s choices as being just? In what ways is the audience encouraged to question his choices? Ultimately, does the film support or challenge Akbar? Does it support or challenge Salim?

  • At the end of the movie, after Anarkali’s banishment, the state of India declares that Akbar has an unwavering sense of justice, yet Anarkali, Anarkali’s mother, Salim, and Akbar’s wife regard him as cruel. Who do we believe? Does the film reconcile these two conflicting sides to create a coherent, singular sense of justice? Does it try to?

  • While Anarkali’s character may be fictitious, Akbar was a real Emperor. How might his status as a respected historical figure shape, inform, or restrict Akbar’s presentation?

  • How is Anarkali’s complicity and submission with her station (such as when she, however longingly, resists Salim because he is “above” her, or when she doesn’t try to dodge an arrow to fulfill her role as a piece of art) used to represent her as a respectable character? Does her challenge to Akbar contribute to or undermine that representation? What problems can arise when complicity and submission are viewed as respectable for one cultural category, but not for another?

  • What beliefs and values make Bahar into a villain? In what ways does Bahar contrast with Anarkali?

  • In 1946, All India Radio (the national public radio broadcaster of India) banned performers belonging to courtesan cultures from participating in national radio and film, allowing only performers from “educated and respectable families” (Lelyveld 119). This influential policy was still in effect upon Mughal-E-Azam’s release. How might this policy and the ideologies that upheld it shape, inform, or restrict Anarkali’s representation as a tawaif/courtesan? Listen carefully: is she even referred to as such?

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n’ and the Gendered National Imagination: An Exploration of Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum.” South Asian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2013.

Focusing on the eponymous Shyam Benegal film, Sardari Begum (1996), with intermittent reference as well to his Bhumika (The Role; 1976) and Mandi (Marketplace; 1983), this essay explores the relationship of performing women to the gendered, modernizing agendas of the Indian nation-state. Reprising the career of women who represented professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with a feudal order, these films show women inhabiting subject positions that were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation on its way to modernity.

Tawaif. Directed by Baldev Raj Chopra, performances by Rishi Kapoor and Rashi Agnihotri, Sunrise Films, 1985.

Summary

After a crime lord leaves a courtesan, Sultana, in the home of the unsuspecting Dawood and threatens to kill him if anything happens to her, Dawood must pretend she is his new bride. Dawood, who is forming a romance with a local author writing a book about a courtesan, must carefully conceal Sultana’s identity while avoiding unsavoury circumstances. Despite Dawood’s resistance, a romance develops, and the two must ensure Sultana’s escape from the crime lord and ensure a happy ending.

 

Questions to Consider

  • A common theme of the Bollywood courtesan genre is courtesans wishing to escape their lives into “respectable” heterosexual marriages (see Poonam and Hubel to learn more.) This is certainly true of Tawaif’s ending, but is Sultana’s courtesan life not considered “respectable”? Does the film respect Sultana herself? Does it respect her work? Can they be separated?
  • Dawood is very interested in Poonam’s book about courtesans, but looks down upon the real courtesan, Sultana. Who else consumes media representations about courtesans while disrespecting the people upon which those representations are based? What might the film be suggesting here about representation and consumption?
  • Was Sultana respectable before she was married? If so, how does the marriage serve to influence opinions of Sultana—those of the audience and the other characters?
  • Several scenes suggest that Sultana believes her work is shameful. For example, while staying with Dawood, Sultana refuses to sleep on the wedding bed the landlady had intended for her son, believing that as a courtesan, she is “unworthy” of lying on such a bed, or even of marriage in general. From where do we believe Sultana absorbed this opinion? Is this opinion of courtesans shared by the other characters? Is it shared by the film?
  • Does Sultana have a say in the work she does? In the world of this film, do other courtesans? Would Sultana’s happy ending be accessible to a courtesan who liked or chose her work? Does this film appear to believe that courtesans can like their or choose their work?
  • In what ways could viewing courtesans as innocent victims of circumstance (e.g: trafficking, poverty) help them? In what ways could that view pose a risk?

 

 

 

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n:’ The ‘Nachne-Ganiwalis’ of Bhumika, Mandi, and Sardari Begum.” New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films. Routledge, 2013, pp. 47-78.

From the Introduction

“This chapter addresses three films – Bhumika (The Role; 1976); Mandi (Marketplace; 1983); and the eponymous Sardari Begum (1996)…. [A] continuity of interests and ideological investments link the … three films … including: each film’s focus on a female protagonist and subject; her conscious and unconscious efforts to emancipate herself from the debilitations of her gender, class, and caste oppression; and, finally, for the purposes of my argument, her function as a figure through whom women’s relationship to the hegemonic values and ideological agendas of the Indian nation-­ in-the-­ making are assessed and interrogated. The nation remains, then, a salient frame of reference for grasping the ideological investments of these Benegal films….

The performing women… represent professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with, a feudal order, but which were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the self-­definitions and constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation. “Women performers,” Singh notes, “were kept out of the frame of the nation in the making” (see epigraph; 2007: 94). By focusing on protagonists who belong to professions and identities that are devalued and marginalized in the new Indian nation, these three later films, I argue, “unsettle” (Singh’s term) the processes through which the Indian nation constituted itself, thereby also unsettling an unambiguously negative assessment of feudal social and cultural arrangements. Thus, [these] films undertake a more fundamental interrogation regarding India’s nation-­ formation itself – what the nation deliberately excludes in order to become a nation.

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!”

Boejharat, Jolanda Djaimala. “Indian Courtesans: From Reality to the Silver Screen and Back Again.” IIAS Newsletter, Vol. 40, No. 8, 2006.

This article is available for free online through the Leiden University Repository: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/12710

 

From the Introduction – Modern Courtesans

People today speak nostalgically about the golden age of courtesans, when their company was much appreciated and an accepted part of aristocratic life. Nevertheless, the current practice of this seductive art as found in today’s brothels (kotha) is despised, while its practitioners are considered outcasts operating on the margins of society. Of course there is great variety in India’s red-light districts: from child prostitutes to call girls in modern city bars and women who still use the mujarewali tradition of dancing and singing as part of their seductive technique. Their daily lives and their nighttime practices place them in a twilight zone, serving a male clientele without regard to caste or religion.

Some artists and researchers say that traditional mujarewali no longer exist, as the artistic expressions of today’s courtesans are in no way comparable to those of bygone days. Still, although their techniques have changed, these women perform the arts of seduction, and their customers visit them not only for their public services, but to return to an earlier time, to leave behind the cares of today and of the future.

 

From the Introduction – Courtesan Films

The Bollywood film industry, with 900 releases annually, is among the largest in the world. Many film producers’ works feature both historical courtesans and their present-day representatives…. The introduction of sound in the 1930s gave birth to a tradition of films featuring embedded music and dance
sequences. Of these, the courtesan genre includes such well-known examples as DevDas (1955) Pakeeza (1971) and Umrao Jan (1981). Early courtesan films idealized the beauty and artistic skills of the historical mujarewali and portrayed prostitutes restored to social respectability through marriage. The narratives were interspersed with song and dance sequences similar to what we assume to have been traditional mujara practice.

Ward, Leda. Images of a Decolonizing India: Bollywood’s Tawai’f and the Postcolonial Muslim. Thesis, Barnard College, Dance Department, Columbia University, 2008.

This thesis is available for free online through Barnard College’s Dance Department.

Ward’s thesis explores the ways in which the tawa’if figure in 4 major Bollywood films—the nameless tawai’f of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Chitralekha of Devdas, Umrao Jaan of Umrao Jaan, and Sahib Jaan of Pakeezah—”retell the story of Muslims in colonial and postcolonial India,” particularly in terms of displacement and marginalization. Ward contextualizes her analyses using the historical background of pre-colonial tawa’ifs and of partition.

 

Ram, Anjali. “Framing the Deminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol.25, no.2, 2002, pp.25-52.

Abstract

This essay focuses on the ways in which Indian immigrant women actively engage and interpret Indian cinema. Employing an ethnographic approach, the analysis moves between readers’ readings and film texts in order to locate how Indian cinema mediates the constitution of gendered identities in the diaspora. Keeping alive the sense of agency, this study demonstrates that Indian women viewers/readers simultaneously comply with and resist the dominant patriarchal representations that saturate Indian cinema.

 

Notable Excerpt (pp. 44-45)

The image that most directly counters the purity/sanctity model of Indian womanhood in cinema is that of the courtesan. Chakravarty (1993) comments that the courtesan, as historical character and cinematic spectacle, is one of the most enigmatic figures to haunt the margins of Indian cultural consciousness. Socially decentered, she is yet the object of respect and admiration because of her artistic training and musical accomplishments. The courtesan is an ambiguous/romantic figure in multiple senses. She embodies both Hindu and Muslim social graces and represents what Chakravarty calls “female power-cum-vulnerability”. Rekha’s most memorable roles have involved playing the courtesan directly or indirectly. In Silsila she plays the role of the “other woman,” which is echoed in variations in Basera (1985). In Mukadaar ka Sikandar she plays a bazaar entertainer in love with the tortured hero played by Bachchan, again blurring the boundaries between real/reel life, fiction/fantasy as film gossip and text intersect. In Utsaav, she plays Vasantsena, the legendary courtesan of ancient India, whose life is narrated in the classical Sanskrit play of the fourth century A.D. entitled Mirchchakatika (The Little Clay Cart). However, it is in Umrao Jaan (198 1), which Chakaravarty (1993) calls the quintessential courtesan film of Indian cinema, where she plays both desiring subject and desired object and reveals the contested nature of the feminine in the collective Indian imaginary.

Anderson, Michael. “Body and Soul: Pakeezah and the Parameters of Indian Classical Cinema.” Tativille, 16 May 2012.

This article is available for free online through Tativille: http://tativille.blogspot.com/2012/05/body-and-soul-pakeezah-and-parameters.html

From the Introduction

The classical Indian cinema today is no more in need of justification than was its Hollywood counterpart in the late 1960s.  This is not to argue that either cinema has been immune historically to dispersions against its artistic character, nor even that it no longer is; as commercial industries, each has and continues to arouse criticism for its relationship to the marketplace, and for its supposed concessions to capitalist enterprise.  Still, to say the neither requires justification is to make the least controversial of claims: that art and entertainment can and do coexist in the finest instances of each tradition….

            ….Writer-director Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (‘Pure Heart,’ 1972) succeeds in “validating” the concept of a classical Indian cinema: that is, Pakeezah’s existence – and indeed its elevated artistic status – is altogether implausible outside the contours of Bollywood filmmaking.  This is not to suggest merely that Amrohi’s film required the commercial and/or technological institutions of the Bollywood industry.  Rather, Pakeezah owes its existence to the singular formal structure of the popular Indian cinema.  Specifically, Amrohi’s picture is constructed according to Bollywood filmmaking’s defining epic structure; its characteristic recourse to diegetic musical sequences – with motivations that are not always readily discernable; and its wild disjunctures of space and time.  This is to say that Pakeezah adheres to a set of conventions that mark its distance from the characteristic economy of Hollywood studio filmmaking, even as it instantiates a popular idiom of its own.

            At the same time, Pakeezah does not represent simply an adoption of this popular form, but instead an appropriation of its formal singularities for its particular semantic ends.  That is, while Pakeezah utilizes a pre-existing mass-art form, its application is calibrated to match the idiosyncrasy of the film’s content.  Thus, though Amrohi has not invented a cinematic idiom unique to his film, he has nonetheless succeeded in producing the same level of organic rigor – between form and discourse – than have those artists who have remade the language of their cinema in the image of their subjects: from Carl Theodor Dreyer to Chantal Akerman to Abbas Kiarostami, among scores of others.  It is almost as if we might say that the language of the classical Indian cinema is Amrohi’s, to the degree that it was under his direction in Pakeezah that the form appeared to become as malleable as it long has been for the greatest exemplars of counter-cinema, who have all transformed the language of their art to match the content of individual works.  Pakeezah thusjustifies the classical Indian cinema as it not only marks it as but in fact makes it a singularly expressive form.

Courtesans of Bombay.  Dir. Ismail Merchant.  Perf. Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Segal. Merchant Ivory Productions. 1983. DVD.

This 1983 docudrama examines an enclosed area of Mumbai known as Pavan Pool, a low-income apartment community home to many courtesans. The film explores their daily lives and showcases their performances. Notably, much of the work is scripted: its three interview subjects (a landlord, a retired courtesan and a frequent patron) are all played by actors whose lines were written by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The landlord speaks about the working conditions at the compound, the retired courtesan speaks about how the tawaif practice has changed over time, and the patron speaks about his relationship with and perception of courtesans and their art. The scripted interviews are presented alongside footage of the real residents and performers of Pavan Pool, but videos of the real residents speaking amongst each other are not subtitled.

While the footage of tawaifs’ performance may be useful and interesting to our readers, the dramatization of the documentary draws some interesting ethical questions.

We highly recommend reading Geeta Thatra’s “Contentious Socio-Spatial Relations: Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay/Mumbai” alongside viewing this documentary.

Questions to Ask About Courtesans of Bombay and Other Documentaries

  • This documentary was commissioned by BBC Channel 4. It was made by British people for British consumption. How might this funding and purpose affect the documentary’s content?
  • Given that this film’s subtitled speech—the speech understandable to an English-speaking British audience—is entirely scripted, can this film be accurately called a documentary? Is it drama? Is it both?
  • To what degree do the Pavan Pool courtesans appear to be involved in constructing the film’s narrative? Whose insights are included and whose are left out?
  • What real-life political impacts can documentaries have on the groups they feature? What ethical problems should documentary filmmakers consider when telling stories about marginalized groups? Could the Pavan Pool courtesans benefit from this film? Could the film cause them harm?
  • The landlord consistently presents the Pavan Pool courtesans as naïvely causing their own financial ruin: according to him, they keep hoping for an improbable film contract, they fight each other over cheating men, and some cling to outdated and unprofitable traditions. What does this representation suggest about the courtesans? Are viewers encouraged to believe the landlord is well-informed and truthful? What other reasons might exist for why the courtesans are struggling? How could this representation impact the audience’s view of these courtesans’ agency?

Kesavan, Mukul. “Urdu, Awadh, and the Tawaif: the Islamicate roots of Hindi Cinema.” Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State in India. Edited by Zoya Hasan, Westview, 1994, pp. 244-257.

Kesavan’s essay explores the relationship between Hindi cinema and what Kesavan calls “Islamicate” culture, referring “not directly to the religion, Islam, itself but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and Muslims.” Kesavan notes three key links between Islamicate culture and cinema, notably Urdu, Awadh (the setting of, among many texts, Umrao Jaan) and the cinematic figure of the tawaif.

Vanita, Ruth. Dancing With the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema. Speaking Tiger, 2017.

Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans of Bombay Cinema is an important piece of scholarship detailing the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema and how these representations shape and were shaped by the culture in which they were produced. Throughout the course of writing this book, Vanita closely studied over 200 films; we encourage encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this valuable book for themselves or their libraries.

A substantial excerpt from this book can be found on The Daily O. 

Publisher’s Summary

This summary was obtained from the Speaking Tiger website.

Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.

In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.

A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.”

Ali, Kamran Asdar. “Courtesans in the Living Room.” ISIM Review, Vol. 15, 2005, pp. 32-33.

This article is open-source and can be freely downloaded here. 

Summary

In the spring of 2003, Pakistan’s GeoTV ran its first serialized television play: Umrao Jan Ada, based on the novel of the same name. (This novel also spawned films in 1981 and 2006, both named Umrao Jaan.)

This article examines questions about how this series, and popular television performances like it, reflect and facilitate discourse on gender politics in present-day Pakistan. The courtesan has long been a stock character in South Asian popular culture, including literature and film, but its recent proliferation is of particular interest: as the author asks, “Why have Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia and feminists chosen at this juncture to depict the life-world of the prostitute and the figure of the courtesan as metaphors to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy?” (32).

In short, Ali argues that the film’s representation of the Nawabi era as tolerant and inclusive confronts and challenges the “more homogenizing elements of Islamic politics in [modern-day] Pakistani society.”  He also addresses the issue of linguicism within the play: while it confronts issues of sexism and inclusivity, it does so localized entirely within the space of high Urdu culture, “and in doing so remains oblivious to the vital issues of cultural and linguistic diversity within Pakistan” (33).

Pakeezah. Directed by Amrohi Kamal, Mahal Pictures Pvt. Ltd., 1972.

In this famed courtesan movie, the protagonist Sahibjaan is born to a tawaif, Nargis, who was desperate to escape courtesan life but who was spurned by her lover’s family. Nargis dies in childbirth, and Sahibjaan’s aunt, Nawabjaan, raises Sahibjaan as a tawaif, where she learns to be an excellent and alluring singer and dancer. One night, an unknown poet leaves a poem at Sahibjaan’s feet while she sleeps. She does, eventually, meet him, and, stunned by her beauty and innocence, he renames her “Pakeezah”—meaning “pure”—and proposes to elope with her to take her away from courtesan life. But many painful trials await.

Questions to think about:

  • What does Pakeezah’s purity indicate about the film’s “idea” of tawaifs? Can any tawaif be pure, or is Pakeezah exceptional?
  • Can a tawaif be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a tawaif escape?
  • What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Pakeezah? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic?
  • Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Pakeezah? How culpable are courtesans in their fate?

Devdas. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bansali, Mega Bollywood Pvt., 2002.

In this 2002 film adaptation of the 1917 novel of the same name, the protagonist Devdas is about to return home after 10 years of law school in England. Devdas’s mother, Kaushalya Mukherjee, tells her poor neighbour Sumitra, who is overjoyed. Sumitra’s daughter Paro and Devdas are loving childhood friends. Both families believe Devdas and Paro will get married, but Devdas’s conniving sister-in-law reminds Devdas’s mother, Kaushalya of Paro’s “inappropriate” maternal lineage of nautch girls.

Heartbroken by his family’s rejection of Paro, Devdas leaves his parents’ house and takes refuge at a brothel, where he becomes an alcoholic and where a good-hearted tawaif named Chandramukhi falls in love with him. Eventually he becomes desperate to return to Paro, but a number of tribulations stand in the way of Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi’s ideals.

Notable Elements

  • Develops a positive sisterhood between Chandramukhi and Paro, rather than following the common film trope of situating women as hostile or antagonistic to one another
  • Challenges the Mukherjees’ arrogance about their wealth as well as their double-standards about tawaifs: “Aristocrats’ lust creates the bastards they scorn!” “You [rich people] act high and mighty, but you sell your daughters for bride prices!” “The money you flash around lays at harlots’ feet!”

Questions to consider:

  • If the film in some ways tries to challenge anti-nautch attitudes; what is the significance of the fact that the lowest points of Devdas’s life occur in a brothel, or that mostly evil men go to see tawaifs?
  • Numerous characters shame women for their supposed sexuality. Overall, does it appear like the film to some degree condones this shaming?
  • What dimensions of sympathy do we have for Devdas? What about Paro? How culpable are they in their fates?

Umrao Jaan. Directed by Muzaffar Ali. Integrated Films, 1981.

One of the most famous courtesan stories to come out of India, Umrao Jaan follows the many heartbreaks and tragedies of a young girl named Amiran, who, after being kidnapped and sold to a brothel, rises to becoming the famous Lucknow courtesan, Umrao Jaan.  Some of the film’s songs are now considered classics of Bollywood cinema and its popularity helped to spawn a 2006 remake.

The Umrao Jaan film is based on the Umrao Jaan Ada novel. In the novel’s introduction, the author claims, perhaps for artistic effect, that the story is a real memoir relayed to him by a real person.

Questions to Consider

  • What does Umrao’s talent for writing poetry indicate about the film’s “idea” of courtesans? Are all courtesans hidden, unappreciated talents, or is Umrao exceptional?
  • Can a courtesan be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a courtesan “deserve” a husband? Does the film subscribe to the views of courtesans as “dirty and fallen” women, or does it challenge them?
  • Which of Umrao Jaan’s qualities could suggest she “deserves” forgiveness and/or companionship? Do other courtesans “deserve” these things? Do less talented courtesans? Do willing courtesans?
  • What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Umrao? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic? Who do we lack sympathy for? Why?
  • Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Umrao? How culpable are courtesans in their fate, according to this film?

Tawaifs and Kidnapping

We encourage our readers to think carefully about Umrao Jaan’s kidnapping. What happens to the public understanding of a marginalized group when arguably the most influential story about that group images their community leaders as cruel kidnappers? What effects could this understanding have on real-world people? If many tawaifs intentionally joined kothas to escape terrible circumstances—a situation described in the quotes below—what could happen to their refuge when the well-meaning public mistakes those individuals’ refuge from despair as always and only a source of despair? Is sympathy always helpful? Is “saving” always heroic?

Consider the following quotes from “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India” by Veena Oldenberg:

It is popularly believed that the chaudharayan [chief courtesan]’s most common mode of recruitment has always been kidnapping; that the tawa’if were linked to a large underground network of male criminals who abducted very young girls from villages and small towns and sold them to the kothas or nishatkhanas (literally, pleasure houses). This belief was fueled, if not actually generated, by Lucknow’s famous poet and litterateur, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, in his Umrao Jan Ada. The novel first appeared in 1905, was an immediate success, and was translated into English in 1961. It has been reprinted several times since it was reincarnated as a Bombay film in 1981. The influence this novel has exerted on the popular imagination is enormous; it is the single most important source of information on courtesans of Lucknow, and by extension, the entire profession as it was practiced in the nineteenth century, in Northern India.

(264)

One of the older courtesans I interviewed, who had known Ruswa personally, gave the book a mixed review. She commended Ruswa for understanding the mentality of the courtesan but blamed him for inventing characters such as the “evil kidnapper” and the exploitative madame who became the stuff of later stereotypes.

(265)

Kidnapping may have been (and perhaps still is) one of the methods by which girls find their way into the tawa’if households, but it is certainly not the most common. From my interviews with the thirty women, who today live in the Chowk area of Lucknow, and whose ages ranged from thirty-five to seventy-eight, a very different picture emerged. In recording the life stories of these women, who spanned three generations, I found that the compelling circumstance that brought the majority of them to the various tawa’if households in Lucknow was the misery they endured in either their natal or their conjugal homes….

Not one claimed that kidnapping had been her experience, although they had heard of such cases….

The problem, according to Saira Jan, a
plump woman in her early forties, who recounted her escape from
a violent, alcoholic husband at length and with humor, was that
there were no obliging kidnappers in her mohalla (neighborhood).
“Had there been such farishte [angels] in Hasanganj I would not
have had to plot and plan my own escape at great peril to my life
and my friends, who helped me.”‘

(266)

Shah, Svati P. “Brothels and Big Screen Rescues” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2013, pp. 549-66.

In this article, Shah creates a genealogy of documentary films on prostitution in India in order to extrapolate on her previous critique of the documentary Born into Brothels. Harnessing this method, she argues that the historical and political landscape which brought about such institutions as the International Center for Photography are integral to understanding these films. Shah critiques the discourse of “intervention, rescue and rehabilitation” depicted in the visual representation of Indian prostitution and concludes with an appeal for a broader critique of the “new cinematic canon on prostitution” in India.

Allen, Richard and Ira Bhaskar. “Pakeezah: Dreamscape of Desire.” Projections, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 20-36

This article describes how Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah distils the idioms of the historical courtesan film, poised as they are between the glorification of courtesan culture and lamenting the debased status of the courtesan; between a nostalgic yearning for the feudal world of the kotha and a utopian desire to escape from it. The article argues that Pakeezah self-consciously defines the particular “chronotope,” or space-time, of the historical courtesan genre by showing that nothing less than a transformation of the idioms of that genre is required to liberate the courtesan from her claustrophobic milieu—whose underlying state is one of enervation and death—into the open space and lived time of modernity.