“When she was young she studied Indian Philosophy and Literature under the guidance of her great uncle Sir Rabinder Nath Tagore and also took part in the plays written by Sir Tagore and performed at his school in Shantiniketan, in Bolepur, outside Calcutta. After her training and studies...she was educated for higher studies in England, at Cheltenham.
After leaving school she travelled extensively with her father all over Europe learning something about the Arts of the other countries and continuing her studies in Singing, Dancing and Painting. In addition to Hindustani, she speaks several European languages and has attracted Europe in a programme of singing and dancing appearing at Zurich, Basel, Lausanne, Stockholm and Oslo.”
This is how a 1933 press release described Devika Rani [Chaudhuri], the actor-producer and winner of the first Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1969. As journalist and author Kishwar Desai pointed out in The Longest Kiss, a biography of Devika Rani, note the emphasis on the actor’s cultured background. Later in the book, Desai writes that Devika had told her husband and boss of Bombay Talkies, Himanshu Rai, ”Please don’t bring in the daughters of courtesans and Devadasis.” One of the best-known recruits of Bombay Talkies was Hansa Wadkar, whose lineage could be traced back to both. Her real-life story was immortalised in Hindi cinema by an incandescent performance by Smita Patil in Bhumika (1977), a film that is a companion piece to Anvitaa Dutt’s recent Netflix feature, Qala.
“Your name must gather a Pandit as a prefix, but not bai as a suffix,” Urmila Devi, played by Swastika Mukherjee, tells her daughter Qala, played by Triptii Dimri. Vidushi would have been more accurate, but that detail aside, Qala suggests Urmila Devi comes from a lineage of courtesans, who are known for thumri, a form of Hindustani classical music that is typically associated with women (as were ghazals). On the other hand, dhrupad and khayal are the masculine forms. They’re said to be more complex and hence, truer indicators of mastery of Hindustani classical music. What is inspired is the casting of Urmila Devi, deliberate or not. Mukherjee — she is often typecast as the seductive escort/performer figure in Bengali films — starred as the singing sensation Anguri Devi in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). In Qala, it is as if Angoori Devi has curdled into Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, voicing all the prudishness of Indian society.
Hindi cinema in particular was for long obsessed with the figure of the performing woman, typically portrayed as a courtesan and occasionally, as a performer (Teesri Kasam, 1966), actress (Heroine, 2012; Bhumika; Arth, 1982; Woh Lamhe… 2006), dancer (Guide, 1966), singer (Saaz, 1997; Abhimaan, 1973; now Qala.) In the majority of these films, the performing woman is portrayed sympathetically, even empathetically, but rarely is she happy. She serves most often as a cautionary figure, a tragedy, signifying what befalls you if you are not a ‘bhadramahila’, the educated, decent woman following the norms of respectable society. Think of Umrao Jaan (1981, 2006), Pakeezah (1972), Guide, Arth, Heroine. Now Qala.
The emphasis on respectability and the lack of it in the performing arts, particularly in cinema, in the early twentieth century is superbly captured in Neepa Majumdar’s book Wanted Cultured Ladies Only!, which takes its name from an advertisement published in the English-language magazine Filmindia in 1943. Another notice in the book reads:
“We cannot expect to produce a heavenly picture like “Song of Songs” with artistes recruited from the slums of North West Calcutta. It is a happy sign that the pick of the society have come into the producing branch of the industry.”
--Amar Das Mullick, Varieties Annual, 1 January 1934
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise chronological setting for Qala, writer-director Anvitaa Dutt seems to have drawn inspiration from the cultural world of the 1930s, when MK Gandhi drew crowds that may have otherwise attended concerts. An impulse for ‘improvement’ took hold of the filmmaking industries in Calcutta and Bombay, part of a wider discourse of reform as the National Movement gathered momentum. How would India cinemas—seen as a lowbrow form of entertainment vis a vis Hollywood films that were entertainment for the colonising class and therefore upmarket —improve? By casting women from ‘cultured’, non-’slum’ backgrounds. That is, women who did not come from lineages of tawaifs (Muslim) or devadasis (Hindu).
The reference to slums is not casual. Women actors for commercial Bengali and Marathi theatre in the late 19th century, were often found in ‘streets’ and ‘gutters’, and then ‘polished’ to have a veneer of respectability. Yet the women performers continued to be known as prostitutes, and the men as debauched. In Majumdar’s analysis, possibly the first ‘star’ in the Indian eco-system of the performing arts was the actor Binodini Dasi, or Noti (actress) Binodini after whom Calcutta’s Star Theatre was said to be named in the 19th century. She was arguably the first woman in Indian show business to write a memoir. Her My Story and My Life as an Actress is known for its revelations about the exploitative system of the Calcutta stage. For instance, she was asked by director-playwright Girish Ghosh to take up with a wealthy man, who would fund the building of the theatre in return for Binodini’s company (this incident is recounted in Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Prothom Alo).
At the turn of the twentieth century, when the technologies of sound recording and film emerged, most of the women who were permitted, or indeed possessed the skill, to perform before the new technologies were courtesans and the few women trained for the stage in Calcutta and in other parts of India. Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian woman known to record her voice between 1902-1904, was a tawaif in Calcutta. One of the first woman composers in Bombay cinema is Jaddanbai, a noted tawaif who lived in Calcutta before moving to Bombay. Jaddanbai was also a producer and director, among the first women in Bombay cinema to do either. Her daughter is the legendary Nargis. Ila Arun played Jaddanbai in Nandita Das’ Manto. Hansa Wadkar, the Marathi film legend from Thirties and Forties, came from a lineage of devadasis and courtesans from both sides of her family. Amirbai Karnataki, the singer-actor whose rendition of “Vaishnav Jana Toh” is said to have had an admirer in MK Gandhi, came from a family of performers in Marathi musical theatre. She and her sister Gauharbai worked in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada cinema in the Thirties and Forties. Karnataki’s songs in Basant (1942) and Kismet (1943), the blockbuster which established Ashok Kumar, made her a major star for a couple of years. There must be others: this is not a comprehensive list, only an indication.
Ila Arun as Jaddanbai in Manto (2018).
(What is unusual about Qala is that it also portrays the male performer as a complex figure who suffers. The male performer in Hindi film is typically a misunderstood figure, of course poor—done in by external factors. But here for a change, we see a young man with a deep identity crisis without his gift. And even with his gift, he is an oddly callous person, who chooses not to see the cruelty meted out to his sibling.)
This, in brief, is the context for the anxiety for improvement, for the discomfort toward courtesans, for Urmila Devi’s derision for the film industry. “Do you know what kind of girls sing in front of these film industry people?” Urmila says to Qala.
Scholar Partha Chatterjee wrote in the influential essay ‘Colonialism, Nationalism and the Colonialised Woman’ that it fell upon this new Indian woman, an important construction of the national movement, to preserve the values of Indian tradition while benefiting from modern education and values in such a way that Indian men could flourish in the modern world shaped by Western values. This idealised figure of Indian femininity was essential to preserve and mark the new Indian identity superior to the Western identity. The figure of the bhadramahila is epitomised by the educated housewife, who serves her husband dutifully and teaches her children well, the school-teacher, the virginal and upright young woman. These are all, if you think about it, roles that the actor Nargis essayed memorably. In Awara (1951), she is the lawyer in training who brings Raj Kapoor to a change of heart about his petty criminal life. In Shri 420 (1955), she is a schoolteacher who is the voice of conscience (once again) to Raj Kapoor, this time swayed by corporate success. And in Mother India (1957), she is slightly different from the urban bhadramahila but nevertheless very much a citizen of independent India, optimistic about the building of dams and the virtuous mother who shoots her wayward son. Nargis never played a courtesan or performing woman in her career, unlike her contemporaries Madhubala (Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), Meena Kumari (Pakeezah) and Vyjayanthimala Bali (Devdas, 1955)). Nargis, the daughter of a famous tawaif, chose a career in film but avoided the roles that connected her to her well-known lineage.
Thanks to writer Manish Gaekwad for pointing me to Adalat (1958), which is the one time Nargis appears to play a dancer. She enrols as a dance teacher to earn money as a young woman, but escapes when she finds that it is a front for a brothel. Through the rest of the film, she tries to escape the clutches of the brothel but personal circumstances force her back. I would not see it as a courtesan or performer film. But it is one of the few times you see the adult Nargis dance on screen.