Bollywood has often been fascinated with the other women. Okay, by “the other women”, I am not referring to the mistresses or the item girls here. I am referring to those whom we have relegated as slangs in our daily vocab list. Not just in India, but possibly every society and every language across the world have considered the prostitutes and courtesans with such disdain and derision, that the women have rarely been able to make any headway into the ‘civilised’ social structure.
However, the irony lies in the fact that, while on one hand our society at large has maintained a contemptuous indifference towards them, our films on the other hand have always romanticized their portrayal of prostitutes. Their ‘whores’ are more often than not sleazy objects of desire but women with a deep sense of morale and commitment towards the male protagonist. They had taken up the profession out of compulsion (which I believe is true in reality also) but had nurtured incomplete dreams of a quintessential family. In many a case, they have been the muse of the hero, but more than often, the ‘other woman’ had lost the hero to the heroine. Though clichéd by now already, the characterization of ‘a hooker with a golden heart’ is still being repeated. Think of a Chand Bibi from Ishaqzaade. Though Gauhar Khan almost perfected the role with her mannerisms and disarming smile, you can’t give Habib Faisal any brownie points for etching a character like that. Haven’t we seen many Chand Bibi’s earlier? What is so novel about it? I so wished Chand were a grey character (besides her career) and played a role in destroying the lead pair – for whom I was not any case feeling bad.
In this post, I am noting down some of the portrayals of ‘other women’ that, I feel, had something different about them. May be a new dimension, may be the power of performance or may be the different way of doing the same thing.
MADHURI DIXIT as CHANDRAMUKHI
DEVDAS is incomplete without Chandramukhi. Possibly the worst story by the great author Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Devdas chronicles the eponymous protagonist’s relationship with the two women – Parvati & Chandramukhi. Those who refer to Devdas as Sanjay Leela Bhansal’s version would be surprised to know that the original story had much more of Chandramukhi than it had Paro, though Devdas was pretty much the
same spineless, drunken parasite.
However, besides SLB’s rendition of the story, what was special about the film was Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi. Her character was possibly richer than Devdas and Parvati’s family put together. Or at least that’s what the film reflected. She lived in a mansion, wore the costliest of dresses and even took care of Devdas in his illness. At the same time, she could chide the arrogance of the hero if he tried to demean her. And, oh yes, she could slap a zamindar in his own fortress amidst hundreds of people on a ceremonious day. For all the grandeur she lived with, Chandramukhi could have possibly reared any man in her backyard. Alas, like every moth desires the candle, Chanda yearned for the wrong man and earned a life of solitude.
It is difficult to share screen space with the most popular actor of the industry and a former Miss World, with lesser screen time and still leave an impression that lingers in people’s minds. No wonder SLB agreed to cast a much married MD because ‘he couldn’t think of anyone else playing Chandramukhi. Who else would a director want to show on screen when he picturises a scene of heroine waving her hair and breaking a mirror? Who else could so tauntingly sing ‘Rasiyaaa…. Bada beimaan…’
The video above may not be one of a highly remembered part of the film, but there could barely have been an ideal intro of a woman as alluring as Chandramukhi…
SHABANA AZMI as RUKMINIBAI
Now, that’s how we would expect the Madame of a brothel to behave. So, when the pioneer of Hindi art film Shyam Benegal makes a film with his favourite actresses, you cannot but expect them to come up with an amazing performance. MANDI may not be a path-breaking film or a milestone in the history of Hindi films but this socio-political satire, that took pot-shots at our double standards when it comes to prostitution, saw Shabana Azmi perform Rukminibai in an avatar never seen. The short-tempered yet socially obligated lady plays is a possibly one of the truest depiction of a prostitute.
Rukminibai wants to hold on to her abode, which she shares with other women. At the same time, she doesn’t want to let her disciple and popular girl Zeenat to marry the guy, the latter loves. Yet, the futility of it becomes the truth of her life. She has lost her prime, her charm and her reality is shrouded by the beliefs she has nurtured. She chews pan and throws gaalis, but the spit and cuss possibly comes back to pain her in the form of the arthritis that she has to bear all her life.
People call Shabana Azmi the ‘Meryl Streep of India’. And though I detest any such comparison, the respect attached to the nomenclature is something the actress has earned and reinstated time and again through her performances.
The video above is a small part from the film. From her diction to walking style, the way she carries the umbrella like an ornament to the way she steals a glance at herself in the roadside mirror, the actress in her brought Shabana alive (and not the reverse).
TABU as MUMTAZ
Before her and after her, prostitutes and courtesans of Hindi cinema were larger than life, and even those who were real were not portrayed in such grim fashion as hers. Mumtaz’s story resonates the voice of hundreds of bar dancers in India – a profession considered illegal and stopped almost overnight, leaving hundreds of women unemployed. However, this modern day classic by Madhur Bhandarkar is not about how to make resume for vacancy in a bar-dancer’s post. On the contrary, it tells you the grim vicious cycle the life of an average hooker goes through.
Possibly, like many other bar-dancers and hookers, Mumtaz does her job in CHANDNI BAR only to save the day. However, a life like that neither begs sympathy nor deserves civilized accompaniment. So, when she falls in love, it has to be with a local goon Potiya. And falling in love with a man perennially under the threat of being killed by cops and opponent parties, turns out to be an even bigger punishment.
After Potiya’s death, Mumtaz goes back to Chandni Bar – this time around as a waitress, only for the dreams of a life beyond the one she was forced into, aiming to get her kids educated and settled. However, the futility of the fancies keeps knocking on the door – only to tell her at the end how puerile she was to even think of escaping the rigmarole of her world. While her daughter ends up being a bar-dancer, her son takes after his father’s gangster shoes.
The scene above is possibly one of the finest culminations of tragic Hindi films. The way Tabu breaks down still gives me goosebumps.
The film not only sealed Rekha’s role in the pages of Hindi cinema but epitomized the life of a courtesan. With a deep voice that seduces and charms with its musical flair, charm, lyrical grace with which she dances to woo her men and a profound expertise in poetry Amiran is every painter’s muse. As the young girl kidnapped and sold to a brothel, Amiran grows up to be the most popular courtesan of her times – UMRAO JAAN. She falls in love twice, only to be left in shambles each time – when her first lover deserts her for the sake of a family life and the second man is killed. Years later, when Amiran finally traces her way back to the home she was born in, she is disallowed re-entry into her family, by her brother who fears the harm her profession could bring upon their repute. He would prefer seeing her dead to taking her in.
Muzaffar Ali couldn’t have found a better actress than Rekha to play this role. Her grace is poetic as the words that form lyric to Khayyam’s timeless melodies. With the scarlet lipstick fruitlessly trying to cover the pallor of her life, Rekha exuded such pain through her eyes that one could instantly connect with hundreds of such other women who could have been illegally traded for money and then left to squander their entire lives under the infamous roofs of bordellos.
What makes Rekha’s performance even more scintillating is the voice of Asha Bhosle which so beautifully gels into her character that somewhere down-the-line, the two become inseparable. The video above is possibly one of the most popular songs of Rekha’s career.
Supposedly, the character’s mannerism was based on Rakhi Sawant! Now, that’s a shocker and you can’t help but think “what’s wrong with Sanjay Leela Bhansali?” To draw inspiration from a person who is so loud in real-life engenders the risk that the actor portraying may be equally over-the-top. Therein lies the requirement of getting an artist who can save the character from getting caricaturish and render it a much required dignity.
When you are at the peak of acting career and considered the numero uno heroine in the commercial sector, it’s almost sacrilege to do a supporting role in a film with newcomers in lead, and the film itself proclaiming to be a fairytale. Yet, Rani Mukherjee in SAAWARIYA is such a delight to watch that you realize the strength of her histrionics in almost every frame she appears. The wrong English speaking, slang mouthed Gulabjee who was a neon-light nameplate on the facade of her building, is the narrator of this tale, with a secret tweak in her heart for the much younger male protagonist. In fact, she is the one who calls him SAAWARIYA – the man with love for everyone. In her full-sleeved blouse and chiffon saris with backless blouses, Gulabjee adores the child-hearted Ranbir Raj, warms up at his sight, admonishes him on his perfidy towards Sakeena and even throws him out when the heartbroken romantic guy turns up at her doorstep, looking for love. She does that all in her own theatrical way, and makes the character one of the better aspects of the film.
Look at this clip and you will know how India’s Baz Lurhman renders such colors to her Gulabjee that even artificiality becomes so integrally part of her presence.
She is the epitome of teary eyed courtesan, becoming synonymous to any mawkish girl who can cry at the drop of a hat. With a lilting voice, long painted eyelashes and idiosyncratic talking style, she was as different from a prostitute as my physique is from Hrithik Roshan’s. Yet, you can’t help but like Pushpa and her relation with Anand Babu and the little Nandu in this adaptation of popular novel Nishipadma (the Lotus of the Night).
Besides Satyajit Ray, Shakti Samanta was another director who utilized Sharmila’s talent to her finest capabilities. From An Evening in Paris to Aradhana, from Kashmir ki Kali to AMAR PREM, he entrusted Sharmila with different roles and she enacted them beautifully (even the very famous swimwear scene in An Evening in Paris). What strikes most about Pushpa is that, for a change a courtesan in Hindi cinema does not talk much. Contrary to the regular perception of prostitutes, Pushpa was reticent enough to give the entire limelight to Rajesh Khanna who did his Anand Babu to archetypal brilliance.
While you would associate the courtesans singing, with the bereaved / inebriated hero listening to her, AMAR PREM has just the opposite. The video above ratifies what I just said. However, with songs like these and that too in Kishore Kumar’s voice (there isn’t a suitable adjective for either the man or his voice), you can’t complain, can you?
A film like CHAMELI only makes me sad. Because it shows how a girl who dared to do offbeat stuffs got herself considered in the corridors of convention only to ensure her films earn enough money.
Pretty much in her earlier days, Kareena Kapoor braved the role of a street-side hooker in this Sudhir Mishra film which chronicled the life of Chameli over the period of a night, through the carefully observant eyes of Aman, played by Rahul Bose.
Chameli is a jhantaak randi, who encourages a young guy to run away with his transsexual partner, to escape opposition from the guy’s family. She has got herself embroiled in unwanted hassles with gangsters, and even knows the peril of sleeping with a man afflicted with HIV. The scope of the film limits much exploration of Chameli’s life. However, within the reels of that one night, Kareena Kapoor breathes life into the sadak-chaap cigarette smoking hooker who bemuses a bereaved widower. As the strangers sharing the night between themselves, Chameli and Aman warm up to each other, and when they part their ways that night, Aman cannot resist going back to the same spot the following night, in pursuit of Chameli.
The scene above gives a glimpse of Chameli and her initial moments with Aman.
These characters will not fade away from the visual frames of Hindi cinema. What possibly could be looked forward to are the different dimensions that filmmakers can bring to such characters. I had thought of mentioning Meena Kumari as Sahibjaan (Pakeezah) but my faint knowledge of the film resisted the same. Would love to know the picks of others as well… ?