All we imagine as Heeramandi

The mujra, by extension, is only what a lot of us do in the matrix of life, be it in the world of art, cinema, business or politics.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

We have been through an interesting few days. Eager fans were lapping up the opulence of mujra-dancers in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s web series Heeramandi, even as the prime minister suggested that opposition parties may do a mujra to please their vote banks, while director Payal Kapadia went on to win a Grand Prix at the prestigious Cannes film festival. The three are connected in some way, to explain which I have to take you back to a moonlit night at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course decades ago.

We had just finished watching a nondescript movie about sugarcane farmers by Muzaffar Ali, Aagaman. But I preferred to quiz him on his previous two works—Gaman, his debut in 1978 on a worker from Uttar Pradesh who tries to become a taxi driver in what was then called Bombay, and then the much-acclaimed Umrao Jaan (1981) on the life of a tawaif-poetess set more than a century ago in the kingdom of Awadh.

“How did you make two films so apart in theme and time?” I asked the filmmaker. He replied, “To me, they are both the same story.” Or something to that effect. It kind of dawned on me that he was not making factual documentaries, but painting stories of souls in search of something elusive. In that sense, both Umrao Jaan and Heeramandi have more in common than the obviousness of court dancers patronised by nawabs in their swirling, glitzy jewels and outfits.

Our prime minister has a way with words. When he spoke of mujra he might have been referring only to the popular dance form, and not using the term pejoratively to describe the women the British disparaged as mere ‘nautch girls’, or as an allusive reference to the rulers who patronised them. After all, only the other day, he clarified to an interviewer that when he spoke of Congress giving away tax money to “those who have too many children” his reference was not necessarily to minority Muslims, but also to poorer Hindus who are not comfortable with birth control.

Just as well. Elections are seen as a ‘dance of democracy’, and the mujra after all is only a dance form. But there is more to the mujra than a dance form.

We have to look beyond the obvious visuals and the lavish outfits to see the underlying messages of Heeramandi, set in Lahore in the pre-independence days. Bhansali portrays the tawaifs or courtesans as eloquent, well-trained women adept at poetry, aesthetics, fine manners and men, not necessarily in that order. But then they are also seekers of freedom, love and power in an unjust, male-dominated society. Beyond that, they also have contributed to the freedom struggle, as Heeramandi shows.

Make no mistake, the mujra is not necessarily a negative description. There were other movies about dancer-courtesans that made waves before Heeramandi, of which at least two are noteworthy. Umrao Jaan portrayed Rekha as a poetess lost in a swirl of events and compulsions, much like the taxi driver in Gaman. Pakeezah made a social comment about how a noblewoman can be forced into the role of a courtesan in a cruel world. The cult song, ‘Inhi logon ne le leena dupatta mera’ from the Meena Kumari-starrer, penned by Majrooh Sultarpuri, is a social anthem that explains how the dupatta or veil, a sign of respect, is removed by the rich and the powerful. In Heeramandi, Bhansali shows how even the so-called rich and powerful have their own quest for freedom, dignity and love.

Heeramandi, in a way, is much like The Matrix trilogy of movies set in the world of computer programmes and digital identities in a science-fiction package. As a critic wrote, The Matrix is a philosophical work that concerns ideas including “prophecy, love, truth, karma, the nature of reality, and living in a simulation.” The mujra, by extension, is only what a lot of us do in the matrix of life, be it in the world of art, cinema, business or politics.

We can thus reverse-swing the mujra as an act of existential compulsion and quest for better lives. Talking of which, the Cannes award winner All We Imagine As Light, which I am yet to watch, is not much different from Heeramandi, Umrao Jaan or Gaman in its soul. Like Gaman, it is about the life of migrants in Mumbai, through the eyes of contemporary woman protagonists.

As a critic describes it, the movie is about “people on the breadline, those who are just about getting by, trying to hold onto their homes and their dignity as the city’s wealthy elite buy up and bulldoze their properties”.

In a fuzzy stream of consciousness, you may imagine the poetess-courtesan Alamzeb from Heeramandi as Umrao Jaan and then as Sahibjaan from Pakeezah. We can imagine all of them reborn as the three woman protagonists in the Cannes award winner. Or we can make a fresh movie on the theme, blending science fiction, reincarnation and dancer-politicians in a new plot. We can call it The Mujra Matrix, as we await the next moves in the dance of democracy.

The glitter of power and oddball speeches, like that of the women and diamonds in the evocatively titled Heeramandi, is stuff of both memes and musings.

(Views are personal)

(On X @madversity)

Madhavan Narayanan

Senior journalist

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