Free Press Journal

Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema by Ruth Vanita- Review


Book Title: Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema

Author: Ruth Vanita

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 272

Price: Rs 450


At first ‘fun’ was a verb meaning to cheat or hoax. It came from ‘fon’, an old word for fool. It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of”, but now it also means a merry good time. ‘Bully’ at first was a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and then a coward who picks on others.

In culture, that seems to be the case with the term ‘tawaif’ or courtesan, which has come to have negative connotations, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning. The meaning changed after 1857 revolt, the failed bid for Indian’s independence. And this is the perception that author Ruth Vanita wants to change or at least expose the reality of the issue to the readers.

Courtesans have been a part of mainstream Hindi cinema from the very beginning, but they have been pushed into the corner of the room historically, just like what is happening with ‘item girls’ in the current scenario. Overt sexuality of a certain nature, while being devoured by the masses, isn’t looked upon kindly and neither is it given a place of respect.

Courtesans have faced stigma and exclusion from mainstream society for a long time, but Indian cinema remains one of the only traditions of world cinema that depicts courtesans as important characters. In early films, courtesan characters transmitted Indian classical dance, music and aesthetics to large audiences. The author shows them as representing the nation’s past, tracing their heritage to the 4th century Kamasutra and to 19th-century courtly cultures, but they are also the first group of modern women in Hindi films.

Vanita, a professor at the University of Montana where she directs South and South-East Asian Studies, discusses their role as working professionals who live on their own or in matrilineal families and like male protagonists, travels widely and develop familial bonds and friend circles. They have relations with men outside marriage and become single mothers. Vanita studies films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012). Courtesan films are heroine-oriented and almost every major female actor has played this role—from Waheeda Rahman to Rekha and Meena Kumari to Madhuri Dixit.

Vanita’s research of over 200 films brings fresh evidence to show that the courtesan figure shapes the modern Indian imagination, be it erotic, political or religious. Challenging common perception, the author thus, shows that courtesans are like any other people and deserve their own space in the mainstream. But the claim that it’s the first of its kind book is debatable since author Ann Morcom’s book  ‘Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys – The Illicit World of Indian Dance’ had also discussed similar issues. Only her book was more encompassing since it traced the path of ‘nautch-girls’ from the pre-colonial to the modern era.

It challenges the stereotypes set in our minds and exposes the paradoxes between what we enjoy watching and the living experience. And some of the dialogues and songs that the author has used to intersperse her work connects her work emotionally to the reader. But, it is a tad difficult to read due to its academic tone and also the author’s insistence on using the term ‘Bombay Cinema’ repeatedly.

Ultimately, the scholarly work may not be a fast page-turner that can be finished at one go, but it is an important academic well-researched text that people interested in the history of ‘Bombay Cinema’ would surely pick.