Studied through the prism of gender and sexuality in India, Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema, as expressed by the author herself in a detailed introduction, is not a film studies book. But considering the great contribution that real-life tawaif had in shaping of the cinema emerging from Bombay, more on that later, Vanita uses the changing role of the courtesan in Hindi films across eight decades as a foundation to present a truly insightful, richly detailed encyclopaedic account. It talks of not just the onscreen portrayals of women in entertainment but the role they played behind the scenes in shaping the very business of Hindi films.
Vanita bases her book on a total of 235 films, of which nearly 211 feature the courtesan character in some form or the other. Despite this staggering number, the courtesan never really had a detailed study dedicated to them. Reading Vanita’s book, one realises the injustice and even the lack of respect to their involvement in the development of cinema.
Right at the onset, Vanita highlights that the ‘tawaif lineages are deeply embedded in the DNA of Bombay cinema’. She cites the examples of two pioneers, namely Jaddanbai, the daughter of a courtesan, Daleepbai, of Allahabad and also mother of Nargis and Fatima Begum, an actress in silent films who went on to launch her own production company.
Many such names are peppered across the history of Hindi films where the real-life classically trained performers were amongst the first actors, playback singers, and choreographers in the business. Vanita’s prose also reveals how the character of the courtesan, in an antithesis to the general impression created by Bombay cinema, went beyond the simple song and dance antics and presents their creation of an alternative emotional universe within mainstream cinema that went on to become a model of sorts for the urban woman.
Vanita’s study employs numerous factors to decode the courtesan and the exploration sees the character emerge as the first group of single, working women in South Asian movies. The character enjoyed greater financial and social autonomy when compared to other central female roles. This is one of the reasons why it attracted leading female stars.
The courtesan is also one of the strongest symbols of defiance, which can be best seen in the court dancer singing ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’ in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). It’s intriguing how Vanita draws a parallel between this and the youthful rebellion of Kabhi Kabhie (1976) in the form of ‘Pyar kar liya to kya, pyar hai khata nahin.’
Up until a few years ago, a book such as this would have largely intrigued those who would read it for anthropological reasons. Not anymore. There is a conspicuous enough shift within the minds of film aficionados to re-examine popular films or even the most escapist narratives and characters from a socio-political viewpoint. Ruth Vanita’s treatise frees the courtesan from the clichés. It is both groundbreaking and long overdue.