Why Bollywood’s obsession with the courtesans doesn’t seem to end even in the age of Gen-Z

The anticipation around Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s OTT series Heeramandi reinforces the popularity of the genre in Hindi cinema

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 7:38 PM

Recently, the highly anticipated first look of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first OTT series Heeramandi was launched. While it surely exudes the opulence associated with Bhansali’s cinema, it also made me wonder why Bollywood’s obsession with the courtesans doesn’t seem to end even in the age of Gen-Z?

The fixation with courtesans has continued since decades. The tawaif-based film is a genre exclusive to Indian cinema, and it has not only survived but thrived despite the changing times, generations, genres and viewing habits. While many research papers on courtesans and cinema have been written, it does feel as though it caters to the ultimate male fantasy. The mainstream audiences love the dichotomy in these characters — the beautiful girl with a vulnerable ‘heart of gold’.

The ambitious Heeramandi is also about a brothel full of beautiful, feisty tawaifs during the Partition of India. Netflix is banking so much on the series that Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, flew down to India to attend the teaser launch of the magnum opus. Talking about his courtesan characters, Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, “Behind their veils were real women who felt so much pain…and yet they would come in the evening and sing and dance. The courtesans don’t have a place in society. The society goes to them. They please those men, they entertain those men and then they go back to their dark world.” Sounds intense! But don’t you think Bhansali’s statement summarises not just Heeramandi but almost every courtesan character in Hindi cinema? Isn’t it the story of Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan, Chandramukhi (Devdas), Zohrabai (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar) and numerous other onscreen tawaifs of Hindi cinema, including Bhansali’s last hit Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)?

Rekha in and as Umrao Jaan (1981)
Rekha in and as Umrao Jaan (1981)

In Bollywood, courtesans are fundamentally tragic figures. The template has never changed. Every begum or bai in a Bollywood film is a victim of circumstances with deep sorrow and longing, seeking love and waiting for someone to give her freedom and acceptance in society. Her story always ends in a tragedy. From Meena Kumari in Pakeezah to Rekha in Umrao Jaan to Vyjayanthimala and Madhuri Dixit in Devdas, the filmmakers as well as the audiences in South Asia have been fascinated by a stunning girl with tehzeeb (culture), beautiful dance moves, a golden voice and a golden heart. Yes, the same story and the same character!

Though later the term tawaif was used interchangeably with the word ‘prostitute’ or sex worker, historically, ‘tawaifs’ have been highly-skilled performers of art from a time when tehzeeb, music, poetry and dance flourished in India. Courtesans were an intrinsic part of that cultural milieu. But when British Crown Law came into effect, tawaifs were criminalised alongside common sex workers. Gradually, the skilled courtesans were termed as decadent and were shunned by the society.

But for Bollywood, they remained a recipe for success for decades and still carry the pull to bring audiences to theatres. It was surprising that in the conservative society of the 1960s and ’70s, families thronged to theatres to watch courtesan-based films like Pakeezah or Amar Prem (1972). Most of these films connected deeply with the viewers of those times.

While there were some exceptional movies made on such characters, including Pakeezah (1972), Chitralekha (1964), Amrapali (1966) and Umrao Jaan (1981), the tawaif trope had become a supreme cliché in Hindi cinema by the end of 1970s. Bollywood exploited the pathos in the stories of courtesans and comfortably used them to insert item songs and bold scenes in the movies. It went on till the ’90s in many B-grade Bollywood flicks till the courtesan mujras were replaced by the item songs and contemporary dances in the newly-globalised India.

But the allure of courtesan characters never really ended. Not just filmmakers, the top actresses in every decade longed for courtesan characters. It was believed the role of a courtesan is the barometer of being a great actress. Accomplished stars like Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Rekha, Mumtaz, Madhuri Dixit, Tabu, Rani Mukerji to Alia Bhatt, every era had actresses vying to become an onscreen tawaif. In fact, for Rekha, it became a signature role. She played numerous such characters. Even before she won the National Award for Umrao Jaan, her tawaif characters in Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) and Suhaag (1979) were a rage. She later played similar characters in Deedar-e-yaar (1981) and Utsav (1984). B.R. Chopra made a superhit film named Tawaif (1985) with Rati Agnihotri playing the title role. Such is the allure of courtesan roles that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan starred in an ambitious-but-pathetic remake of Umrao Jaan (2006), a film that remains the worst disaster of her career.

All these Bollywood films with stunning actresses and dazzling dances wanted us to believe that the real courtesans lead such designer lives. The courtesans in films like Bhansali’s Devdas, Gangubai and now Heeramandi (first look) appear dreamy with gorgeous costumes and opulent kothas (brothels). This is a distinctive Bollywood sketch that is far away from the real life of the courtesans.

In the last few years, Madhuri Dixit played a tawaif in Karan Johar’s visually stunning Kalank (2019). Set in pre-Partition era Lahore, it had a song choreographed by renowned Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj. But Kalank was completely rejected by the audiences. Actress Vidya Balan played a fiery courtesan leading a group of 11 tawaifs in the period drama Begum Jaan (2017). But this action-packed avatar of courtesans tanked on the first day. Finally, Alia Bhatt got lucky with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s blockbuster Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). The success proved that if backed by solid characterisation and grandeur, the courtesan can still be an unbeatable formula. It was perhaps the success of this film that got both Bhansali and Netflix to bet big on Heeramandi. The first look of the actresses Sonakshi Sinha, Manisha Koirala, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Sheikh and Sharmin Segal as courtesans looks impressive, as Netflix anticipates a Gangubai-kind of success.

Sharing the first look of Heeramandi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, “Dignity is very important even to a courtesan or a sex worker. This was the theme of Gangubai… I got Gangubai right, will I get Heeramandi right?”

Let’s wait for the answer.

Yasser is a film commentator and author based in London


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