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Bollywood and its romanticisation of prostitution: Life of a tawaif was far from magical

Netflix's latest offering, Heeramandi by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, talks about lives of courtesans or tawaifs from Lahore in pre-Independence era of undivided India.

Netflix has teamed up with Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, for an upcoming project called, Heeramandi. Our antagonistic neighbour has a red light district with the same name in Lahore. The movie is said to be based on the courtesans of Lahore and their lives, likely set in pre-Independence era of undivided India.

This isn’t the first time, Bollywood has come out with a movie which glamourises courtesans, or tawaif, as they were once called. The movies almost always try to portray women, who were forced into prostitution as some who morph into some strong independent and influential women. The most recent being ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi,’ in which Alia Bhatt portrayed a madame who is sexually assaulted by the mafia, but eventually ends up being an influential person and some sort of messiah.

One of the most popular among these movies, perhaps, is ‘Umrao Jaan,’ which was made twice, first in 1981 with veteran actress Rekha and again in 2006 starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the titular role, based on the Urdu novel ‘Umrao Jaan Ada.’ Both the movies and the novel tell the story of a courtesan and poet by the same name from 19th century Lucknow, as recounted by her to the author. The narrative centres on Umrao Jaan, actual name Amiran, who was abducted as a young child, sold to a brothel and raised as a courtesan.

Who can forget K.Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam, where Shehzada (Prince) Salim (Dilip Kumar) falls in love with Anarkali (Madhubala), a courtesan at his father Akbar’s (Prithviraj Kapoor) court, much to the emperor’s dismay and opposition. Kamal Amrohi’s popular film Pakeezah, also portrays a rich man, Salim Ahmed Khan (Raaj Kumar) smitten in love with a beautiful courtesan played by Menna Kumari.

A courtesan or tawaif is usually depicted as a free-spirit whose life is typically portrayed as being replete with lavish residences, picturesque locations, attractive men, pricy possessions and true love. They practically seem to lead a life of leisure and luxury.

In reality, their life is quite contrary and dark to what is shown on the silver screen. Historically, they have been exploited, abused and forced into prostitution. They were never accepted by society and were constantly viewed as social decadence. Many of these tawaifs were part of Mughal courts and over the years through books and movies, they have been glamourised as some women who had agency over men and even took part in political discourse.

Except, most of these stories ignore the fact that even the fictionalised stories of Umrao Jaan, she was a minor when she was kidnapped and sold to another tawaif for money. To romanticise, they talk about how at such house of prostitution, she was introduced to art and culture like Hindustani music and poetry and even taught how to read and write. Except, all this was against her will. She was made to sell her body for sex, be an entertainer for men, subjected to lewd comments by men very likely against her will.

But movies are made, books are written and even articles are written to whitewash the blatant prostitution. Feminists cry themselves hoarse claiming that the tawaifs were ‘unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle’. Apparently, one obscure story of one tawaif being part of Indian soldiers who revolted against the British.

2019 Scroll article on Tawaifs

A 2019 Scroll article on tawaifs talks about one Azeezunbai who allegedly played a pivotal role in Sepoy Mutiny in Kanpur in 1857. “A courtesan from Lucknow, Azeezunbai moved to Kanpur at a young age.” Scroll writes. Except, it does not mention how young she was when she moved to Kanpur from Lucknow and under what circumstances. It is quite certain a young girl did not grow up aspiring to become a child prostitute. For all her alleged courageous deeds in later part of her life, how is one to ignore the fact that Azeesunbai was very likely kidnapped as a child and forced into prostitution?

Quite certain their lives were not ‘magical’. They were not the Disney princesses who had floral tiaras tied to their hair and birds singing with them. No woman would sell her body for money if she could find a way not to.

And if being a tawaif was such a graceful profession, why is ‘tawaif’ used as an insult for women? In Junly 2019, Samajwadi Party leader ST Hassan referred to Zaira Waseem, the Dangal actress who quit acting to devote her life to Islam, as ‘tawaif’. He had said that there is no difference between tawaif and actress while commenting on the controversy. In May 2022, Shaheen Bagh protester Aiman Rizvi called a Republic TV journalist ‘digital tawaif’.

If tawaifs or courtesans were truly so respected and lived a ‘magical’ life as Bollywood wants us to believe, why is it used as an insult women?

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