We all know about Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah and Rekha’s Umrao Jaan. These two films epitomize the cinematic tawaif, a combination of poetess and seductress, steeped in the tragic metaphor of the candle that burns itself out while giving light to a thankless world. To me the greatest films on the kotha culture are the ones with the best poetry and music.
1. Pakeezah(1972): Meena Kumari lived the part of the tawaif Sahib Jaan and the credit for her heart-melting performance must got to a large extent to the music by Ghulam Mohammed. As sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the Mujras, the life and breath of every tawaif’s tale , are among the finest heard in Indian cinema: Chalte chalte yuhi koimil gaya ttha, Teer-e-nazar dekhenge, Thare rahiyo ho banke yaar re, Inhi logon ne lelee na dupatta mera…which one do we choose? All or none? I could watch Pakeezah a million times for the songs.Meena Kumari’s overrated performance was dependent entirely on the music. During a large part of the film’s shooting Meena Kumaricouldn’t even move because of ill health let alone dance. The Mujra Chalte chalte was shot with chorus dancers and Teer-e-nazar was performed by a duplicate dancer, Padma Khanna.
2. Umrao Jaan (1981): Again, a Tawaif’s tale elevated solely by the music by Khayyam and the poetry by Shahrayar. And sung exquisitely by Asha Bhosle. I asked director Muzzafar Ali why Asha and not Lataji, and he told me it was composer Khayyam’s decision, since Lataji singing for Umrao would have made this film Pakeezah2. And boy, did Madame Bhosle do full justice to the melodious Mujras: Dil cheez kyahai aap meri jaan lijiye, Inn ankhon ke masti ke mastane hazaaron hain, Yeh kya jegah hai doston, and my favourite Justuju jiski tthi ussko toh na paya humein iss bahane see magar dekh li duniya maine…Wah, Shahrayar Saab(trivia: Shahrayar’s son FaridoonShahryar is a well-known entertainment journalist).
3. Sadhana(1958): Better than Meena Kumari in Pakeezah and definitely better than Rekha in Umrao Jaan(who was all sighs and no substance) Vyjanthimala ‘s tawaif act in B R Chopra’s reformist drama is simply dynamite. Actresses seldom get roles like the one in Sadhana.And Vyjanthimala is rightly proud of the film. It provided her with a platform to showcase many shades in her versatile personality. As a dancer, a tawaif to be more precise, she had already played Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas , three years prior to Sadhana. Devdas was a relatively easier role to play. She played the all-giving courtesan with a heart of gold. In SadhanaVyjanthimala is initially portrayed as a gold-digging schemer who takes advantage of a dying woman’s wish to see her Bahu before it’s too late.From the sensuous dances to the desire to be a part of mainstream society, Vyjanthimalatakes her character through the wide arc with a confidence that sublimates Champabai’s journey into a metaphor on societal prejudice and its subjugation by elements which have the guts to say no to biases. Years after Sadhana , L V Prasad produced Khilona where a tawaifMumtaz is brought home to a well-to-do family to play a psychologically traumatized man Sanjeev Kumar’s wife. After she is cured she is pushed out bodily from the family nucleus, until the man now having fully recovered his intellectual capacities protests on behalf of the prostitute.
4. Sharafat(1970): Hema Malini at the beginning of her career played the Fallen Woman rescued by an idealistic college professor Dharmendra and rehabilitated until she returns to her old life convinced she would never get societal sanction. The climactic Mujra Sharifon ka zamane main ajee bass haal woh dekha ke sharafat chhod di maineepitomizes the disillusionment of a woman who craves to leave behind her life of disrepute if only samaaj would let her.
5. Devdas(2002): Madhuri Dixit’s tawaif with the heart of gold act was embroidered with exquisite dances choreographed by Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj and of course Bollywood’s most reputed choreographer Saroj Khan. In what’s possibly the best written and choreographed courtesan’s role since Meena Kumari’s in Pakeezah, Madhurigleams with a graceful aura.Her recent attempt to do the tawaif act in Karan Johar’s Kalank fell flat on its face.Bhansali planned another tawaifs’tale Heera Mandi with a gallery of gorgeous actresses from Rekha to Tabu to Kareena Kapoor to Alia Bhattinhabiting the kotha. Only God and the Korona virus know if such an epic is possible any more.