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Courting the courtesan

Filmmakers are fascinated by kothas, and have recreated them with an eye for nuance, writes Roshmila Bhattacharya
Last Updated : 10 May 2024, 23:44 IST
Last Updated : 10 May 2024, 23:44 IST

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Since May 1, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali unveiled ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’, the Netflix series has become a talking point. Some loved it, some hated it, some are awed, some bored, and for some, it brings back memories…

The connect between Manisha Koirala’s Mallikajaan and Rekha’s Umraojaan in Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 period musical is immediate. It comes as no surprise to learn that she was Bhansali’s first choice 20 years ago. Today, Rekha is happy with Manisha’s choice, believing that having gone through so much, she has added ‘soul’ to the cold, hard-hearted courtesan of Shahi Mahal who weathers every storm.

Interestingly, in his autobiography, ‘Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time’, Ali writes, “Each poem by Umrao opened a new window into Rekha’s soul. Each couplet tore her apart like a ship in a storm. Each melody rocked her like no kathak step had ever done. Whatever she spoke or wore came from her soul, and there is no actor who can come close to this.” The filmmaker saw Rekha’s photograph in a magazine at a barber’s shop at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Her eyes convinced him she should play the courtesan-poetess of Lucknow.

A decade earlier, Meena Kumari had played Sahibjaan, another tawaif of Lucknow. Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 ‘Pakeezah’ begins with Ashok Kumar’s Shahbuddin whisking away Sahibjaan’s lookalike mother, Nargis, from her kotha in a horse-drawn carriage which Amrohi had hired from the Maharaja of Indore. A gift from the viceroy, it had been used by the British royal family, evidenced by the coat-of-arms on its door and the Buckingham Palace insignia on the lamps.

Art director N B Kulkarni erected four sets for the film. Bazaar-e-Husn (the marketplace) measured 80 feet in length, 74 feet in width and 45 feet in height with 18 kothas lining the road. The original set was demolished because Amrohi’s eyes detected that it was an inch-and-a-half off-balance. The budget rose by Rs 20 lakh, but the filmmaker, who was one of the highest paid scriptwriters then, invested all his earnings in his passion project which took 15 years to complete.

‘Mughal-e-Azam’ also began in 1946, releasing only on August 5, 1960, and immortalised Madhubala as Anarkali. Half-a-century later, her ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’ performed in the Sheesh Mahal still remains the clarion call of rebellious lovers. The set was erected in Mohan Studio and took two years to build, with glass imported from Belgium, measuring 150 feet in length, 80 feet in width and 35 feet in height. As an ode, Sooraj Barjatya got Nitin Chandrakant Desai to build a Sheesh Mahal at N D Studio for his 2015 film, ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ while Bhansali built the Aaina Mahal for his historical romance, ‘Bajirao Mastani’. 

Kathak maestro Lachchu Maharaj had choreographed Madhubala in
K Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, starting with Anarkali’s introduction, ‘Mohe panghat pe Nandalal’ to ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’. His nephew, Birju Maharaj, confided that while he did not dance in the film, he performed at the Sheesh Mahal in the presence of industry stalwarts, like Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. Four decades later, he composed and choreographed ‘Kaahe chhed mohe’ for Madhuri Dixit’s Chandramukhi in Bhansali’s ‘Devdas’ (2002).

The 2002 film was a tribute to the author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and P C Barua and Bimal Roy who had earlier adopted the novel on screen. While Bhansali took the creative license of rewriting parts of the original story and showcased grandeur in his trademark style, Bimal Roy emphasised content over form to create his own
cult classic.

In the 1955 film, Dilip Kumar’s ‘Devdas’ reluctantly accompanies Motilal’s Chunnilal to Chandramukhi’s kotha and makes his distaste obvious. Vyjayanthimala’a tawaif responds to the slight with the S D Burman composition, ‘Ab aage teri marzi’. Pointing out that there’s nothing ostentatious about this set, Bimal Roy’s son, Joy, shares that since his father made his films with his own money, he couldn’t afford lavish sets and had to rely on imagination, aesthetics and lighting. “The pièce de résistance here is the hand-drawn alpona (decorative design) around which Chandramukhi dances, her skirt flaring over it as she sits down at the centre, the beauty and grace apparent even in the black-and-white frames,” he asserts. Bhansali took the same scene and painted a rangoli in a profusion of colours across the floor. The glitter of the chandelier, the glitzy props, the gauzy curtains, the sparkling fountains, a bejeweled Chandramukhi with her bevy of dancing girls bringing an almost ostentatious opulence to the screen as ‘Kaahe chhed mohe’ teases, tantalises and torments.

The meeting is a life-changing one as Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas reminds Madhuri’s Chandramukhi that she is a woman and it’s only when a woman can’t be a mother, sister, wife or friend, that she becomes a tawaif (nautch girl). “Tum kuch aur ban sakti ho Chandramukhi (You can be someone else, Chandramukhi),” he urges, before walking away. When he returns, he finds that Chandramukhi has disowned her profession and denounced all luxuries. In Roy’s film, when he wonders why, Vyjayanthimala tells him, “So many have come and gone, par kissi ne itni nafrat nahin ki (but no one hated me as much). “The words, so poignant, mirrored the tragedy of a tawaif’s life and the intensity of emotions,” says Joy.

He recalls how Vyjayanthimala had later admitted to him that his father had cast her because she was a dancer, but after ‘Devdas’ released, she came to be recognised as an actress. She even bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, but turned it down as she felt both Parvati and Chandramukhi were leading roles. Madhuri Dixit had no qualms about accepting her Black Lady.

Both Chandramukhis are unforgettable, as are the other courtesans. 

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Published 10 May 2024, 23:44 IST

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