Devdas to Heeramandi: The Vices and Virtues of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Courtesans

With Heeramandi, Bhansali returns to his favorite character-type — beautiful, emotionally-feral, tragedy queens who blur the lines between a tawaif and a sex worker
Devdas to Heeramandi: The Vices and Virtues of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Courtesans

They sneak into hearts, and sometimes beds, selling false love, but always experiencing true pain. You can recognize them quite easily, because blaring disrepair is their badge of honour — “dil mein aag, chehre mein gulaab”, heart on fire, but cheeks blushing — and they perform this pathos in every loud glance and attended gesture. If alive, they end up alone. 

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s art keeps returning to courtesans and sex workers — emotionally feral women, brothel madams, performance artists, vice-riddled mavens. It might seem at first like his preoccupation with these ravaged women is yoked to his preoccupation with beauty, grace, and eros. The courtesan and sex worker figure is, in Bhansali’s cinema, the repository of these very virtues — shringaar (adornment), adab (etiquette), and nakhra (coquetry) — without which he cannot imagine either his world or his women. 

At first it was Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit Nene) in Devdas. Then Gulab (Rani Mukerji) in Saawariya. Soon after, there was Mastani (Deepika Padukone) in Bajirao Mastani, Gangubai Kathiawadi (Alia Bhatt) in the eponymous film, and now, the courtesans in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar — Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) and her daughters Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) and Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari); her younger sister Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh); her elder sister Rehana and her daughter Fareedan (both, Sonakshi Sinha); adopted daughter Lajjo (Richa Chadha), among others. 

In Bhansali’s world, we respect — or, at worst, sympathize with — these women only because they are able to alchemise their violations into a glittering, unforgettable performance, the kind that makes grief aspirational and all consuming, the kind that makes character building redundant. They flicker, they don’t become. For instance, Lajjo’s entrance into Heeramandi is her alcoholic longing for a nawab who never returns it; and her exit is her alcoholic, poisoned, longing for a nawab who never returns it — between the two, she mewls, resplendent in georgette. 

Must women suffer, then? Then, women must suffer. 

Still from Heeramandi
Still from Heeramandi

Courtesan, Not Sex Worker

Historically, a line separates the sex worker from the courtesan or ‘tawaif’, which comes from ‘tauf’, to move; or ‘kothewali’ or ‘ganewali’, referring to their place of work and their marketable skill; or ‘veshya’, which comes from the same root as ‘vaishya’, or merchant. 

Distinctions, however, are often not made; the women are considered fungible figures. And when the line is drawn, it is made at the cost of the sex worker, in pursuit of some hazy, romanticized “culture” that the tawaif promotes. 

The tawaifs, the most educated of their time, were sexually and economically independent women. The kothewalis of Lucknow, for example, were the highest tax payers and even owned property. Many even joined the revolt of 1857 as prominent revolutionaries. There is something delicate here, though — that they were propped up by a dense but fragile network of patrons, hinged on their voice, their adaa, as much as their body. They did enter into sexual relations with their patrons, though not exclusively; not always, and certainly not everyone. 

Post 1857, in the wave of British vengeance, courtesans were affected as morality laws refused to see them as more than sex workers, as vectors of disease, their property being appropriated. It was not just the British, but also the reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century who not only kept their distance from the kotha culture, but actively condemned them. For example, when Gauhar Jaan, India’s first recording megastar, was going to be present at an Indian National Congress session, this was objected to by the women. She raised money for the Congress, nonetheless. When Gandhi did not show up to one of her fundraisers, sending a representative instead, it is said that she donated only half of what she promised. Later, courtesans like Jaddan Bai helped fund the left-leaning Progressive Writers Association. They were essential even as they were fading. 

The muck, though, stuck. As Ruth Vanita notes in Dancing with The Nation: Courtesans In Bombay Cinema by the 20th century, the distinction between a prostitute and a courtesan had blurred. The word “tawaif” became translucent in its connotation — it could mean either, both. It is this blur that Bhansali uses as narrative ammunition, conveniently making them pillared repositories of culture, and otherwise, pillaged artists dependent on decadent patrons. 

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

In Pursuit of Remanence

Bhansali began his last film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, a baroque biopic on the infamous brothel madam of then-Bombay’s Kamathipura, with the voice of Begum Akhtar, singing Mirza Ghalib’s ghazal: 

“Ye na thi hamari qismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota

Agar aur jiite rahte yahin intizar hota”

(It was not destined for the lover and I to merge

If I were to live longer, the wait would have been that much more)

Begum Akhtar, once the courtesan Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, is being used to introduce the story of Gangubai, once a sex-worker. It’s an important detail because it alludes to a slipperiness between the two, but also implies that an unfulfilled yearning connects both. Over time and through marriage to a respectable barrister, Begum Akhtar would shed her courtesan past. The desire for respectability was also one for visibility, opportunities, and very basic levels of respect. As the late historian Saleem Kidwai has written, “Those who continued to be ganewalis had to deal with the indignity of All India Radio insisting that its female singers be married, even insisting that they use a separate entrance so that their presence at recordings wouldn’t offend regular, well-born staffers.”

For Gangubai, advocating for the rights of the sex workers who are invisibilised by polite society makes her a public figure, one who shares space with an exemplar of elite privilege, social capital, and political prominence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. 

A still from Gangubai Kathiawadi
A still from Gangubai Kathiawadi

The legal definition of the courtesan was first imposed on the imagination by the British and then barrelled down without question or critique into independent India. The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, passed by the colonial government, brought both courtesans and sex workers under the same bracket, allowing local municipalities the right to relocate them. Convenient, but by no means accurate, the legal imagination was fundamentally incapable of seeing how the courtesans’ use of their body differs from that of the sex worker. 

In Heeramandi, set for the most part in a fictional 1940s, Bhansali describes tawaifs as queens of Lahore, bowing to neither patron nor police. It is an entirely ahistorical gaze that refuses to see the courtesan culture as something that was already in steep decline. There is a delusion that is built into the language and posture of the show as it begins, unsure if it belongs to the characters or the makers. 

It is this fragile delusion that is both frustrating to see — because it keeps eluding historic and narrative clarity, a steady sense of path and consequence — but also tantalizing. The word “remanence” comes to mind —  the residue, the ability of material to retain its magnetism, long after the removal of the magnetizing field. As Andre Aciman writes, “Remanence is the memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself but that, like a missing limb, continues to exert its presence”. There is something of a vaporous power these women hold, it seems to exist even as it is constantly undermined. 

When he focuses on the individual tawaif, it is grief; when it is the collective, it is gemstones. Individual tawaifs have to constantly battle not just the loneliness — “Iska dil toota hai; ab bani asli tawaif”, now that her heart is broken, she has become a true tawaif — but also the venom flung at them, being called a “randi” or treated like one, for example. But seen together, spoken of as a community, they are birthplaces of “tehzeeb”.

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

 The semantic fragility between a “randi” and a “tawaif” is best exemplified in the court scene in Heeramandi, in which we see Bhansali insist upon a strange and inconsistent manifestation of courtesan culture that somehow makes courtesan culture itself indistinguishable from sex work. Accused of usurping a nawab’s property, Mallikajaan is called to the witness box to provide testimony. She describes the work of tawaifs as “tehzeeb ka mela” (a celebration of politesse), which the  lawyer reframes as “jhoote ishq palna” (cultivating false love) — and he isn’t wrong. The women of Heeramandi do nurture and purr false love.

Mallikajaan tells the lawyer tawaifs are “pushtaini fankaar” (belonging to a lineage of artists) to counter his invective about the “jismani taluqat” (sexual relationships) that this art engenders — and here, too, he isn’t wrong. He accuses her of buying and selling women — again, he isn’t wrong. 

Her clinching move is to, instead, make these details seem redundant by pointing out that many an aristocratic lineage survives because of heirs born to tawaifs, often adopted into elite families. This clarifies the flickering distinction between a sex worker and a courtesan that this scene keeps testing. Would a sex-worker’s blood course through royal bloodlines, it asks without really stating it just so neatly? She, then, asks the nawab’s son who gave birth to him, provoking chaos into the order of the courtroom, emerging victorious.

Besides, it is this connotation of “family”, a matrilineal thread of power, that helps distinguish a courtesan from a sex worker. The sense of lineage, a “celebration of non-marital and non-biological kinship”, as Vanita puts it, with a flurry of ‘aapas’ and ‘khalas’ and ‘ammis’ flutters through the story of Heeramandi. These are women attempting to fashion a world that does not need men to run it for them, a political lesbianism if you may. Desire for the tawaifs — and this may also be where they mingle with the sex workers of Bhansali’s oeuvre — is a wasteland; sex is useless, coded in despair; pleasure is elsewhere.       

Devdas And Heeramandi

Bhansali’s Devdas is buoyed by Chandramukhi, the tawaif played by Madhuri Dixit. Throughout the film, the question of whether or not she also sleeps with her patrons is dangled, an unresolved tension. What is clear is that she does not belong to civil society. When Parvati (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) invites her to her haveli for Durga Puja, she has to lie to her family, calling Chandramukhi a “saheli (girlfriend)” from Calcutta. When her identity as a tawaif, a “bazaru aurat”, is outed in front of the zamindars and the villagers, she is humiliated, and from this humiliation emerges her strength — her slap, both verbal and physical. She insists that her work is rendered useful, even plausible by the “ayyashi” (decadence) of thakurs. There is no mention of the culture they consume as she returns to “badnaam mohalle ki rangeen raushni”, the colorful light of a tainted mohalla. 

A still from Devdas
A still from Devdas

In Heeramandi, however, the tawaif is considered a respectable figure. Even Qudsia (Farida Jalal), a bleeding heart old aristocratic lady insists that her grandson, Oxford-returned Tajdar (Taha Shah), learn tehzeeb from Heeramandi. She even invites Mallikajaan to their house for a poetry reading. Their presence, their company is not considered tainted; it elevates the aura. For all the high regard Qudsia may accord to Mallikajaan, as a woman from a respectable and elite family, however, Qudsia hasn’t ever gone to Heeramandi, and the algebra of “respectability” is again tampered with. What are the caveats to this respect?

As Bhansali noted in a conversation with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, the tawaifs “lived like queens; they had the nawabs at their beck and call, politicians, British officers. They were artists, connoisseurs of good poetry.” This is the romantic idea of the tawaif as a culture keeper. When he speaks of each individual tawaif character, however, he speaks of “their angst, their anguish — each one had a story to tell; yet, they were disguising these emotions and coming to the gallery”.

It is a rhetorical switch that while pretending to be above the moral demands of its time, also panders to the social reformists of that time. Their work as tawaifs makes them inadequate, and they invariably have to evolve, become something else, something nobler. In the end of Devdas, Chandramukhi has seen the light, and having learned “bairaag” has become a “jogan”, no longer a tawaif. In Heeramandi, the push that all characters experience is, as Bibbojaan says, from “mujrewali” (the stage performer) to “mulkwali” (the one who belongs to the country), from a tawaif to a freedom fighter, tying their ghungroo on staffs that they use as weapons against the police. In both, love lies by the wayside. 

While Heeramandi takes forward the wretchedness of the tawaif life — that films like Pakeezah (1972) also insisted on, hoping for male saviors as virtuous exits — what remains then, are the complicated but adamantine bonds of sisterhood between the tawaifs.

Gilding the Sexworker

It is with the sex worker figure — in Saawariya, Gulab, played by Rani Mukerjee, and the women of Gangubai Kathiawadi — that Bhansali has absolute clarity. These women are unequivocally rejected by society and hold no pretensions about being on the wrong side of the margins of respectability. Since they are sex workers, they are also brutalized in ways that Chandramukhi never is, because Chandramukhi is a site of tehzeeb, of culture, too. 

A still from Saawariya
A still from Saawariya

The sex workers bear their scars from their profession openly, as seen in Saawariya’s ‘Pari’. There is no demand for culture made on the sex workers’ body. When they dance, it is not kathak, but the hip thrusting ‘Chhabeela’, or ‘Dholida’s’ playful garba — the troubling folk versus classical dance distinction. 

It might seem from these films that Bhansali’s cinema refuses to villainize sex work. In one of the most strident scenes of Saawariya, Gulab asks the landlady Lillian, if both of them have things lying empty — Lillian’s house, Gulab’s body — and so both put them on the market to earn some cash, what, truly distinguishes them? Gangubai Kathiawadi, makes a less comical, more social, and also more convoluted case for sex work. Calling it the world’s oldest profession, how it is a democratic establishment giving the same rate to everyone irrespective of their place in social hierarchies, Gangubai makes a rousing but strange point that without Kamathipura, the city would turn into a jungle, more women would get raped, families would decimate and “Hindustani sabhyata” would fracture. Sex work as a social insurance. So far, so cinematic; delusion as a constant companion. 

But it is when the tawaif figure is brought up, that the sex worker figure is demeaned. In Heeramandi the distinction between a ‘tawaif’ and a ‘randi’ keeps getting made and ignored, revealing a hierarchy constantly asserted and internalized by the moral compass whose influence clearly extends beyond its characters. When, in Bajirao Mastani, Mastani is told to perform for the court, Bajirao blares back, “Yeh koi nachnewali nahin hai,” and as such needs to be treated with respect, but the way the word “nachnewali” is spewed, the connotation is clear — she is pure, unworthy of that profession. 

A still from Bajirao Mastani
A still from Bajirao Mastani

Characters, however, do and say odd things in Heeramandi that make the distinction shaky. When Waheeda propositions the Britisher with her exposed legs, “Sunne ka shauq nahi toh, dekhne ka toh hoga?”, is she acting as an uncultured tawaif or a cultured sex worker? 

As Kidwai writes, with the disappearance of real-life tawaifs from our society, the tawaif figure on screen is emptied of meaning, turned into shape-shifters. Vanita takes this further and argues that attributes of the tawaif figure gets disseminated to non-tawaif characters — serving men alcohol, dancing in public, for example — rendering the tawaif character redundant. Their shapelessness is, perhaps, a consequence of this. But, certainly, it is a consequence of Bhansali locating in them, not his allyship, but his desire to gild fractures with beauty. Both the allyship and the gilding require different kinds of care as an artist; the former Bhansali has shown himself entirely incapable of; and the latter, consummately otherwise.

The character of Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha), son of a nawab, for example, pronounces Heeramandi as a place where “auraton ki izzat ki qeemat lagayi jaati hai”, where their dignity has a price. Crossing lines he falls in love with Alamzeb, the daughter of Mallikajaan. Alamzeb has not yet become a tawaif, and it is the not-yet-ness that makes Tajdar even capable of loving her. With all its renditions of fantasy and delusion, Heeramandi does not believe that love is possible in the life of a tawaif. Alamzeb, particularly, becomes a site of this conservative “purity”, such that even her debut mujra is performed in all white — no hips, no cleavage, every inch of skin covered with reams of pleated fabric.

Strangely, even as Heeramandi is peppered with double entendres and a shirking comfort with the idea of sex, it is deeply uncomfortable with images of sex. Bibbojaan’s nights spent with Henderson or Wali, for example, are merely registered in dialogue, even if the foreplay, the card flinging and lap sitting, is available for all to see. But more suspiciously, it is Alamzeb and Tajdar’s consummation which happens in an awkward cut between her head on his shoulder and her waking up naked in his bed, only to find herself almost immediately pregnant. Bhansali, even as he articulates his women as erotic figures, is careful to not show them as sexualised beings in Heeramandi

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

Perhaps, a worry that their association with images of pleasurable or duplicitous sex might render them less courtesan, more sex worker? There is something self censoring, calculated, and strategic about this omission, a conscious production of sexlessness that in trying to protect the courtesan’s image, almost gilds them into sexless beings. 

For all that joyful sex and pursuit of pleasure — sexual, literary — Heeramandi ends with Alamzeb becoming a tawaif, her inauguration into a world “jisme kaante biche ho manzil tak”, peppered with thorns, but also achieving the ultimate feminine glory of being a mother. We don’t see her practicing tawaif-hood because she is young, and youth is a powerfully hopeful thing in Bhansali’s cinema. You can ask — why is it that the women in Saawariya’s ‘Pari’, the broken sex workers, are all older women? Why are the older women in Heeramandi offered only full-throated revolution instead of a gut-tickling orgasm? Where are the blooms in Gangubai Kathiawadi

There is something about the tawaif or sex worker figure, invariably older, that is fundamentally tired — romance is not just forgotten but forgiven; there is rarely resentment towards this loss. Some channel this loss into power, some revolution, some reform, and some renunciation. Love is distended into an elsewhere pursuit.

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