Courtesans in Bollywood: How the tawaif transitioned into 'modern' Indian woman

#1 Dec 16th, 2017, 22:16
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Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema; Rs 375

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From the 1950s onwards, plot twists enable the heroine to take on a courtesan-like role and inhabit the courtesan’s eroticism. Sometimes, this happens when she poses as a tawaif to entrap the villain. An early example is Asha, the journalist in Kala Pani (1958), who disguises herself as a street dancer, Gulbadan. Its apotheosis is "Choli ke peechhe kya hai" (What is behind the blouse) in Khalnayak (1993), where undercover police officer Ganga joins the dance troupe of Champa, who is described as "the most famous tawaif" of the region.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s there are many such moments, for example, in Maan Gaye Ustaad (1981), conwoman Geeta and conman Krishna pose as a tawaif and a poet from Lucknow. He introduces her with idiomatic Urdu verses, such as "Aa rahi hai aap ke khatir / Banaras ki subah Lakhnau ki shaam" (Here come for your pleasure / The morning of Banaras and the evening of Lucknow).

Other far-fetched pretexts for allowing the heroine to act as a courtesan or court dancer include her compassionately taking the place of an injured tawaif who needs money to pay for her mother’s surgery Gair Kanooni [1989].

From the 1990s onwards, historical films continue to enhance the heroine’s charms by giving her a tawaif connection. In Dedh Ishqiya (2014), set in Lucknow, a brief flashback of Begum Para’s past shows her dancing in a peshwaz, looking very much like Rekha as the young Umrao Jaan. We are told that Para was a student of Birju Maharaj and danced in the town-hall auditorium in Bhopal. For a stage dancer to marry a Nawab as his first wife would be highly unlikely; the only purpose of this vignette seems to be to imbue the heroine with a tawaif-like eroticism. The film concludes with her eloping with her female lover and opening a dance school, an apt metaphor for tawaifs’ transmitting dance traditions to middle-class women.

In Bajirao Mastani (2016), when Mastani, the daughter of a Hindu king and a Muslim tawaif, follows her lover Bajirao to his court, his angry mother houses her in the dancers’ quarters. She seems to accept this status by coming into his presence as a court dancer although Bajirao himself contests it, saying that she can dance at court but not in a social gathering. Later, his mother contemptuously presents her with ghungroos, saying that however beautiful or talented she may be, she cannot be his wife.
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#2 Dec 17th, 2017, 04:40
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Interesting !

Actually the notion of a Kotha and tawaif, might have existed in British India, but it began to erode at the higher levels. Bollywood sometimes changes with time, and sometimes gets stuck in stereotypes a.k.a Pakeezah !

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