Maar daala: Anupama Chopra looks back on courtesans that lit up our screens
Eyes that mesmerise, lips that spout poetry, hearts full of yearning... tawaifs return in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new series, drawing from cinema’s best.
Where courtesans were queens. This is the tagline of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest magnum opus – a series for Netflix called Heeramandi. The series, which is likely to premiere early next year, tells the story of a group of courtesans in pre-Independence India. The poster was recently unveiled in the presence of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, and features six actresses, including Manisha Koirala, Aditi Rao Hydari and Sonakshi Sinha, resplendent in similar attire and heavy jewels. The visuals scream sensuality, beauty and poetry, but the series of shots also suggest damage and sadness. We understand instantly that these are women who have endured.
Sanjay’s courtesan-queens are the latest incarnation of the Hindi cinema tawaif – a woman of high taste and fashion. The tawaif might be a sex worker but she is also a poet. She is, more often than not, a tragic figure who suffers and sacrifices and yet somehow her heart doesn’t harden. It’s still made of gold. These are a few of my favourite tawaifs from Hindi cinema.
Umrao Jaan (1981). Rekha as Umrao Jaan set the gold standard for tawaifs in Hindi film. It was as though her entire career and her tumultuous personal life led up to this National-Award-winning performance of a woman who did, what the late Carrie Fisher advised artists to do – she takes her broken heart and makes it into art. Umrao is kidnapped as a young girl and sold to a kotha. Her relationships must necessarily fail because society will not allow them to flourish. Director and co-writer Muzzaffar Ali creates a mid-19th century world, brimming with beautiful clothes, a certain lost etiquette and exquisite music. The Umrao Jaan soundtrack – music by Khayyam and lyrics by Shahryar – is a landmark. If you haven’t seen Umrao Jaan yet, find it.
Devdas (2002). In one scene, Paro (the woman Devdas loves) warns Chandramukhi (the courtesan Devdas drowns his sorrows with because Paro marries someone else) about harbouring notions of marriage. She says, “Tawaifon ke taqdeer mein shauhar nahin hote” (courtesans are not destined to have husbands). To which Chandramukhi replies, “Tawaifon ki taqdeer hi nahin hoti” (courtesans don’t even have a destiny). Chandramukhi knows that Devdas doesn’t love her, yet she does her best to slow down his rapid descent into alcohol-fuelled destruction. Watch Madhuri Dixit, as Chandramukhi, gorgeous in sparkling green, in the song Maar Daala (music by Ismail Darbar and lyrics by Nusrat Badr), to understand how gloriously Bhansali imagines the artistry of the courtesan.
Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Was Anarkali – the name means pomegranate blossom – a slave, a concubine or a courtesan? Accounts vary, but when we first see her face in Mughal-e-Azam, we can only gasp. In the song Mohe Panghat Pe, director K Asif unveils the face of the beauteous Madhubala (before this we see her covered in plaster, pretending to be a statue). Anarkali sings and bites her lip. We fall in love and so does the prince. Of course, a relationship between a lowly dancing girl and a prince can only end in tragedy. But before that, we get Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, in which Anakarli declares her love in front of the emperor. As he sits there seething, she defiantly sings: “Purdah nahin jab koi khuda se, bando se purdah karna kya (When there are no veils in front of god, why should I veil myself in front of the public).” It’s the ultimate rebellion and a moral victory. And unforgettable cinema.
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- Ht Wknd