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.

Caldwell, John. “The Movie Mujra: The Trope of the Courtesan in Urdu-Hindi Film.” Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Vol. 32, 2010, p. 120+.


The trope of the courtesan is found in many Urdu-Hindi films from the earliest period of Indian cinema. The courtesan was essential to the film musical because her character could dance and sing when the more modest heroine could not. The courtesan could also express sexual desire, longing for freedom and independence, and choice in the matter of lovers. She expressed herself primarily through the medium of the mujra-ghazal, a musical set-piece derived from nineteenth-century century courtesan culture in northern India. This article traces the musical and dramatic trajectory of the trope of the courtesan with reference to two of the most famous courtesan films: Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981).

Rios, Hugo. “Death and the Maiden: The Floating Courtesan in Pakeezah.” Atenea, Vol. 30, No. 1-2, pp. 33-46.

This article is available for free online through the Atenea journal (link opens a pdf). It starts on page 33.

From the Introduction

The Courtesan film occupies a particular position in the popular imagination of India. Its great popularity could be ascribed to its hybrid status, the character of the courtesan being hard to define. Sumita Chakravarty describes the character as “as dancing girl, nautch-girl, prostitute or harlot” and, above all, as both “celebrated and shunned” (269). Rachel Dwyer suggests the appeal of a “lost” Islamic element and the relationship between memory, loss and poetry and the ghazal 1 (88). Films such as Tawaif, Umrao Jaan, Mamta, Amar Prem, Utsav, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Bhumika and Pakeezah, among others, serve as testimony of the vital force that emanates from the Courtesan Film but it is the last mentioned that packs all the elements of the Courtesan Film plus an interesting commentary on two seemingly unrelated issues: death and the floating condition of the courtesans.

My examination of these motifs will be focused on Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 film Pakeezah. My reading is nurtured by the idea that this film stands as a text that is both a performance of the genre as well as a critique of it.

My first viewing of Pakeezah was immediately affected by what seemed to be melodramatic excess. Peter Brooks’ definition of melodrama includes an interesting catalog of features, most of which make their way into the Indian film: “indulgence of strong emotionalism, moral polarization and schematization, extreme states of being, situations, actions, overt villainy, persecution of the good and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plotting, suspense and breathtaking peripety” (11-12). Vijay Mishra in his Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire concurs with this idea but he is careful to signal that it is not the only source of excess, pointing also to Parsi Theater and other “local” influences (36). Mishra also comments on the nature of Bombay melodrama identifying it as representing “cultural truths of a metatextual kind– truths that bind eternal laws together–and not truths of a representational (lifelike) kind” (39). Pakeezah follows this road and perhaps takes it a step further. Overall the film presents a plausible structure according to Hindi Film standards but the “excessive excess” it contains eventually burst out of the seams in several key scenes. But in order to talk about this excess it is necessary to establish what is happening in the film in terms of generic conventions…

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.


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:

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.