Ruth Vanita: Tawaifs were the first group of modern women depicted in films

Updated: 21 January, 2018 17:55 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

A new book shows how courtesans and their portrayal in cinema, played an important role in ensuring that the witty and playful voices of this community were never lost

Rekha in Umrao Jaan, 1981
Rekha in Umrao Jaan, 1981

Actor Rekha's vast oeuvre notwithstanding, she is still most known for her stellar performance in Muzaffar Ali's 1981 film Umrao Jaan, where she played a Lucknow courtesan. The complexity of her character Amiran, and her performance in the iconic Dil Cheez Kya Hain, continue to haunt movie lovers. What Rekha also did with this film, was deepen the mystery surrounding the courtesan community, also known as tawaifs, who were once associated with the royal courts. Their biggest contribution was in transmitting and developing classical music and dance, before they lost patronage, forcing some to look for jobs elsewhere, including cinema.

A new book by writer and professor Ruth Vanita titled Dancing With The Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema (Speaking Tiger), evaluates how movies on and about this community, shaped the theme of the tawaif. Her research is based on 235 films. Among other things, the book covers several dimensions of the courtesans' lives as depicted in cinema — from the interesting friendships and filial bonds they form with men to their family and also, religion. The interest for this book, the writer says, developed in 2012, when she published a book called Gender, Sex and the City, which studied Urdu non-mystical poetry produced in Lucknow from about 1780 to 1870. "In the literature of this period, tawaifs emerge as female intellectuals, working as colleagues of male poets who address and praise them by name in poems and letters. I wondered where the witty, erotic, playful voices of courtesans went after these women lost their patrons and were reformed out of existence. Cinema is one place where those voices went, for example, into playful, funny film songs," says Vanita, who is currently a professor at the University of Montana, where she directs South and South-East Asian Studies.

Ruth Vanita
Ruth Vanita

A few real-life tawaifs also played an instrumental role in Bombay films, she says. In the book, Vanita cites how "tawaif lineages are deeply embedded in the DNA of Bombay cinema." For instance, Jaddanbai, mother of Nargis was the daughter of courtesan Daleepbai of Allahabad. "Jaddan was a pioneer in Bombay cinema, working as actor, singer, music composer, director and producer of films," Vanita writes in the book. Fatima Begum, actress in silent films and the first woman director was also from a tawaif family.

According to Vanita, cinema also played an important role in conveying the historical reality of these women's lives. Here, she highlights how courtesan characters were represented as the first group of working, single women in Bombay movies. "Many of them are depicted as acclaimed artists who travel on their own [Teesri Kasam 1958, Sunghursh 1968], earn a living by their art [Mahal 1949, Vaasna 1968], enjoy wealth and fame, owning their own houses and cars [Shair 1949; Bank Manager 1959], and form unusual familial relationships with men, women and children who are not related to them sexually, maritally or biologically [Gomti ke Kinare, 1972; Dream Girl 1977]. In all these ways, they can be considered the first group of modern women depicted in films," says Vanita.

The fact that almost every female actor, especially those trained in classical dance — like Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Rekha and even recently, Aishwarya Rai — played this role with aplomb, only goes to show that cinema embraced the tawaifs and their art as its own.

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First Published: 21 January, 2018 17:51 IST

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