Art & Culture

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

Ruth Vanita
Ruth VanitaDec 16, 2017 | 14:48

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

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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Courtesan-like modern woman

From the 1970s, another figure emerges: A woman who is not a public entertainer but is courtesan-like since she lives on her own and has unconventional relations with men.

This similarity is signalled to the audience through tropes associated with the cinematic courtesan. For example, serving alcohol to a man is strongly associated with a courtesan. In domestic situations in films, the husband serves alcohol to male guests, while the wife serves food, snacks and tea (e.g. Kabhi Kabhie [1976]). Most tawaifs are introduced with a shot of their dancing feet but occasionally one is introduced with a shot of her hand pouring liquor into a glass for a man, as in Ek Raaz (1963).


In Deewaar (1975), Vijay’s (Amitabh Bachchan) girlfriend Anita (Parveen Babi) is compared and contrasted with a tawaif. Her courtesan-like provenance is indicated through symbols, as when Vijay enters the flat, turns on an electric chandelier (chandeliers are a sine qua non in cinematic kotha scenes), and asks her to pour him a drink. However, we also see Anita in bed with Vijay. In this era, neither heroines nor tawaifs are seen in bed with men; this scene shows that Anita does not fit either category. However, Anita, like many non-virgin courtesans, is killed just before her wedding.

In Naam (1986), the figure evolves further. Rita (Amrita Singh) is a working woman whom Vicky (Sanjay Dutt) meets on a plane. Next day, she finds that her employer expects her to sleep with him, so she slaps him and leaves. The same day, Vicky requests her to spend the night with him, which she does, and the next morning she agrees to accompany him on assignment to Hong Kong. There we see them in bed together in a shot very similar to the one in Deewaar. Her choices associate her with a courtesan’s rather than a sex-worker’s lifestyle: she is not willing to sleep with just any man but once she chooses to live with a man, she accepts financial support.

Courtesan-like features appear the day after they sleep together. She attends a party in a tight black, glittery, off-the shoulder outfit, gets drunk, drapes herself all over Vicky while singing, and assumes dance-like postures, such as lying on the floor and the stairway, head and body bent backwards.

When Vicky dies before he can marry Rita, his brother Ravi wipes the bindi off her forehead, thus giving her the status of a widow, and recognising her with retrospective effect as a wife. Despite this, Rita dies in labour. She is seen floating in white to meet Vicky, also in white, in the sky, in a Heer-Ranjha or rather a Deedaar-e-Yaar type reunion after death. Both films thus capitulate to the typical courtesan plot of this era, in which the virgin tawaif can become a wife but the non-virgin often ends up dead.

Another courtesan-like woman is Madhu in Pyaasi Shaam (1969). She and her friend Leena work for Air India and live together. Raja and his friends mistake their apartment for that of a friend and Madhu thinks one of them must be Leena’s boyfriend so she serves them whiskey. This scene of a single, elaborately dressed woman entertaining a group of strange men with liquor is reminiscent of the kotha, and the men leer at her as clients might. Raja proceeds to stalk her, treating her roughly, for example, in the song "Awaara maajhi jaayega kahaan".

Madhu angrily resists but when Raja pays off her father’s debts, she immediately falls for him. This mercenary motive for love resonates with the courtesan who sells her favours. All this comes to a head in the erotic song "Yeh kaisa gham saajna" (what sorrow is this, beloved?), in which she attempts to woo him away from liquor. She takes him to her flat, and then sings a song that presents her love as the alternative to liquor: "Aa tere honthon se lag ja’un ban ke jaam / Sheeshe mein kya hai baanhein meri thaam" (Come, let me become a wine cup and touch your lips / Forget the bottle and hold my arms).

She runs her fingers over his lips, takes him into her bedroom, lies back on the bed and draws him down over her. While tawaifs are depicted wooing men away from liquor by using their charms as a substitute, a respectable woman in this era would be shown as disgusted by an alcoholic and refusing to have anything to do with him, even if he is her husband, as in the famous song "Chhu lene do nazuk honthon ko" (Let me/the wine glass touch those delicate lips) in Kaajal (1965).


The next step in the tawaif’s evolution away from the kotha is her development of complete flexibility, an erotic ideal for a new era. Kidwai argues that as real-life tawaifs disappear, the tawaif character, detached from social institutions, is emptied of meaning and turned into a shape-shifter who can be anything and everything.

Dream Girl (1977) is a perfect example; its slight plot makes no attempt to be credible because, as the title and the heroine’s name—Sapna (Dream)—indicate, it works primarily as an erotic fantasy. Hema Malini in the lead role was marketed as a dream girl, whose dreaminess consists of her ability to be all things to all men: she poses as a princess, a damsel in distress, an ascetic, a gypsy, a boy and a nursemaid. She is not very different from other conwoman characters like Kiran in Hera Pheri (1976), but she has courtesan allure. Finally, it turns out that she "really" is a runaway tawaif called Champabai.


The shape-shifting tawaif also appears in a noir incarnation, for example, as a vigilante in revenge tragedy Jaal (1986). Rekha as tawaif Meenabai takes on numerous personae (typical tawaif, cabaret dancer, upper-class urban lady, wealthy landowner, trickster vamp, murderous ghost), and after each makeover she models a different aesthetic and erotic style.

The tawaif character thus models an eroticism that the middle-class heroine will soon acquire: the ability to wear traditional and modern clothing with equal ease and to dance in both Indian and Western styles. Once the middle-class girl perfects this art, the tawaif character can be gradually retired.

Traditional and modern

Although the courtesan dresses in traditional style, in many early films she has a far more modern home than conventional households, for example, in Shair (1949), Bank Manager (1959) and Benazir (1964), courtesans have homes filled with westernized furnishings, in contrast to the male protagonists’ traditional homes. Thus, the courtesan is in many ways a quintessential modern rather than traditional woman.

As in the Kamasutra, sexual pleasure in the kotha is one among many sensuous pleasures. As Angma Dey Jhala rightly points out, contra Rachel Dwyer, these pleasures are not merely nostalgic but showcase modern India’s fashion and heritage tourism industries, especially in the era of neo-globalization from the 1990s onwards. Much before "ethnic" fashion became popular abroad, the cinematic courtesan’s outfits, named after films in which they appeared, from the Anarkali kameez to the Amrapali blouse, influenced Indian women’s fashion trends, as did other film stars’ styles, such as the Sadhna haircut.

Ancient emblems of eroticism combine with the syncretic style characteristic of late Mughal as well as Rajput and Maratha décor: archways, jaalis, jharokhas, standing candelabra, statues, paintings, sculptures, mirrors embedded in floors and walls, fountains, bolsters, and above all the emblematic chandelier. This style is also modern because modern versions of these items appear in wealthy Indians’ homes as well as in hotels. Spectatorial pleasure derives from the fulfilment of a set of expectations, with variations appearing mainly in colours and in details.

Once the glamorous setting becomes a cliché, films work to produce new erotic effects. The courtesan dancing on a mirror appears in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), and then in Aansoo aur Muskan (1970), where the camera looks up her skirt a good deal. Suhaag (1979) carries the effect further, when she sits on the mirror and we see her reflected upside-down in a contorted position so that her feet and hands with their glittering adornments appear in an unusual conjunction with her face.

In films where the courtesan appears just for one dance, the traditional ghungroo functions as erotic synecdoche, its jingling movements and shiny appearance representing the dancer herself. In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), tawaif Chunni Dasi is introduced through a shot of her feet with ghungroos; this becomes the standard introductory shot in the following decades. A typical example is the song "Subah dopahar shaam savere", in Sharafat Chhod Di Maine (1976). The camera quickly scans accompanists, lamps and clients, then focuses for several seconds on the anonymous dancer’s legs and feet walking towards the viewer, with red ghungroos prominently displayed on yellow-clad legs, then cuts to an opulent chandelier above. To reinforce the point of replaceability, women as well as kothas change in the course of this song, while the hero ages.


The kotha is different from more Westernized spaces like bars and hotels. Up to the 1980s the cabaret dancer wears skimpy clothing, such as an exaggerated variant of skirt or trousers, while the courtesan is fully covered in a peshwaz, lehnga or sari, with a long-sleeved blouse. The cabaret performer’s dance moves are farther removed from those of classical dance than those of the tawaif and her songs farther removed from the ghazal or thumri. The cabaret setting is glitzier than the kotha; it has starker colours, more plastic, and Western-type bands rather than accompanists on Indian instruments. The cinematic courtesan, like the real-life one, thus brings Indic traditions of public eroticism to the spectator.

Films that feature both tawaif and cabaret dancer display the contrast. In Chandni Chowk (1954), the Egyptian Noorie is not a typical cabaret dancer, since she drives a carriage and her home has the trappings of a kotha, such as statuary, a fountain and a chandelier, but she dances in Café Cairo for all the customers and drapes herself on more than one man. Her performances feature elements of belly dancing and she wears revealing clothing. On the other hand, feisty tawaif Laila dances (as traditional tawaifs often did) only for her lover and his friend. In didactic fashion, Noorie ends up dead while Laila marries.

Since the courtesan represents higher culture derived from royal courts, she and her house have a lot in common with upper-class women and their homes. In many films, especially Muslim socials set in Lucknow, the décor of the kotha and the respectable home are very similar, as are the tawaif and the sharif young woman, with respect to their singing, dance and dress styles. This is not unrealistic; households of the nobility and upper class were related to royal courts in one way, and upper-class courtesan households were related to those same courts in another way.

In Deedaar-e-Yaar (1982), the kotha where tawaif Husna sings seductively to Akhtar and the home where heroine Firdaus sings equally seductively to his friend are both decorated in pink and white, with pink transparent curtains all around, and a chandelier over the singer’s head. Both women wear white. The chief difference is that Firdaus dances and constantly touches the man, while Husna plays the piano — a signifier of her Westernization — and caresses him only with her eyes.

(Excerpted with the publisher's permission.)

Last updated: December 17, 2017 | 21:39
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