Hidden Heroes: How Courtesans Transformed From Kothas To Warriors In India's Fight For Freedom

Hidden Heroes: How Courtesans Transformed From Kothas To Warriors In India's Fight For Freedom

Ginormous opulent sets, jaw dropping costumes and painstaking attention to details of camera angles/movements and lighting, which have become the hallmark of any Sanjay Leela Bhansali production

Yogesh PawarUpdated: Saturday, May 11, 2024, 10:25 PM IST
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Ginormous opulent sets, jaw dropping costumes and painstaking attention to details of camera angles/movements and lighting, which have become the hallmark of any Sanjay Leela Bhansali production post Khamoshi, are all there in Heeramandi  — the unhurried langurous tale located in the filmmaker’s imagination of Lahore’s red light area of yore.

Nawabi kothis, palatial mansion-like kothas, horse-drawn buggies and the lights all add to the blinding dazzle. As form smothers content, multiple historical, linguistic and styling inaccuracies have highlighted by netizens about this heady mix of deceit, cunning, manipulation, oppression, love, lust, heartbreak, remorse, repentance and patriotism.

While praising the makers of Heeramandi for the cleverly hyped build-up “so that there is enough curiosity about even the non-existent layers bringing the viewers back again and again,” says Lahorian Faseeh Bari Khan, a writer, filmmaker and content creator who has often parodied the over-romanticisation of tawaifs, kothas and the life around them.

And, yet, there are some like Bangalorean Sudeshna Deshpande who want to overlook Heeramandi’s multiple flaws. This cultural historian calls it a “brave work for today’s day and age” because it manages to quietly undo a very powerful invisibilisation in the freedom struggle narrative located at the religion, caste, gender and morality intersectionality. “To do so in these communally hyper-polarised times needs gumption. For this alone salutations are due to Bhansali. “All the taam-jhaam seems worth it for this alone!”

You can’t miss the hat doff to Pakeezah and Begum Jaan even as the film seems to suffer from a hangover of Bhansali’s own Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat.

While admitting that the contribution of courtesans (tawaifs, baijis, devadasis and nayikins) in India’s freedom movement right from 1857 downwards is often sandpapered, Kolkatan Manish Gaekwad — author of The Last Courtesan, which chronicles his mother’s life and times — who briefly worked on Heeramandi in its early stages feels the location of the courtesan on the intersection of morality, gender, religion, caste and class could be the only possible reason for the invisibilisation. “Any perceived correction of such invisibilisation is obviously unwitting and a by-product come about merely because of the circumstance of the plot,” explains Gaekwad.

Be that as it may, it cannot be discounted that the courtesan was right in the eye of the action right from India’s First War of Independence 1857. When not offering refuge and funds to rebels many actively participated in the resistance even taking up arms like Azeezunbai, though history all but forgot them even as footnotes.

Historian Shailesh Srivastav explains how this was unfolding even as the Mughal empire had already been in decline for several years. “Many courtesans migrated to Lucknow in Oudh State, leaving Delhi behind, where the nawabs continued to patronise them. But even in Lucknow, their luck ran out when Oudh State was conquered by the British (1856). When the patron princely states rose in rebellion, the tawaifs actively participated in the uprising as they saw the East India Company as the root of all evil,” he says and adds, “Rebels used their kothas as hideouts and places to assemble. They also got funding from the well-off courtesans.”

Srivastav says that courtesans did not have it easy then too. “Their fight was double-edged,” he says. “They had to fight not only the British but also deep-seated traditional prejudice. Unfortunately, the freedom movement was also very unkind and often thwarted them,” he says, citing the problematic refusal by Gandhi to accept their “sinful” earnings in Benares. “For them it was not only about political azadi but also social.”

Lyricist A M Turaz who has penned the songs for Heeramandi admits that the last azadi song was the toughest. “It took multiple drafts to get the spirit of what was to be conveyed right. This is as much about freedom from the shackles of boorish patriarchy as anything else,” he avers going on to recite: Sab taj pade besuddh honge / Hum apni haakim khud honge / Bharat maa ki azmat ko hamey / Bante shehzadi dekhni hai / Hume subah azadi dekhni hai / Hume dekhni hai azadi / Har haal mein hamey dekhni hai / Hamey dekhni hai azadi.

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