Art & Entertainment

Bollywood’s Sex Workers: Courte-sans Creativity

Never known for originality or verisimilitude, Bollywood scriptwriters trawl the absolute depths when creating on-screen prostitutes, in search of lucre

Courte-Sans Creativity

In spite of being persistently maligned by condescending critics, Bollywood has been unapologetic about peddling tropes on screen from its very origins.

The Hindi film industry has but only a few, won­ted strokes, when it comes to painting its characters on the 70mm canvas, thanks to its perennial obsession with blacks or whites, with little or no scope for greys in between.

Over the years, the portrayal of a courtesan, sex worker or call girl in commercial films hasn’t cha­n­ged much, with most moguls sho­w­ing scant regard for anything remotely realistic. “Further from the truth, closer to the coffers” has been the­ir guiding principle. As for creating make-­believe fantasy, Bollywood is nonpareil.

Occasionally, a few intrepid filmmakers such as Guru Dutt and Shyam Benegal have sought to deviate from Hindi cinema’s rulebook, by showing the oldest profession with a different sensibility, but a majority of their ilk still thinks altering the original template that has enthralled patrons of masala flicks for ages is sacrilegious.

Call them cringe-worthy kitsch if you please, but Bollywood loves to return to the retro world every now and then, to tell the tales of a Devdas here or a Gangubai Kathiawadi there—all in the same familiar settings where class and crass co-­exist in absolute harmony. But then, what makes such movies tick if they are so far removed from reality? Which are the tropes that generations of cine-goers have grown up watching in every other Bollywood movie on prostitutes, and have continued to endure to this day? Sample these:

Chaste as her namesake

First things first, not all onscreen tawaifs are sex workers. Some of them also make a living by performing mujras, lip-syncing to the vocals of a Lata Mangeshkar or an Asha Bhosle. Groomed by the likes of Gopi Krishna or Birju Maharaj, or for that matter the likes of Kamal Master or Saroj Khan, they pass muster with the audience as trained cla­s­sical dancers. Connoisseurs of diverse sensibilit­ies throng their kotha to intermittently shout wah-­wahs in appreciation of their suggestive mov­es. A few mean men with lustful eyes, carrying a wad of currency and a bottle of Vat 69 turn up too, but the tawaif makes it clear that she sells only her “art”, not her body. It goes without saying that des­pite living in a cesspool, she remains as chaste as her namesake, the River Ganga.

Bollywood loves to return to the retro world every now and then, to tell the tales of a Devdas here or a Gangubai Kathiawadi there.

Aristocratic voyeurs

If the dreaded landlords have had big havelis to live in, a sprawling kotha has always been the pri­zed possession of a working tawaif. Going by the opu­lence at their spotless mansion, they seem to have done well in life. With an elite and aristocr­a­tic gentry on their list of regular clients, they perf­orm barefoot on marbled floors under an ant­ique chandelier in a hall teeming with drunk, middle-­aged men who have the least compunct­ion in ogl­ing at them with voyeuristic delight on their faces.

Golden heart, diamond ring

Whether it is a kotha or a full-fledged brothel for flesh trade, the resident tawaif has always been a woman blessed with a golden heart, who, of cou­rse, wears an edible diamond ring that will help her bring down the curtains with a melodramatic end. All through the movie, she lends her ears pat­i­ently to the myriad woes of a jilted lover, offers her shoulders to a good-for-nothing drunkard and nurses his wounds after his heartbreak. She even dances to the tune of Salam-e-ishq to boost their morale, but all her good Samaritan acts come to naught at the end of the day, as she has to pay the price for daring to fall for an izzatdaar (respectable) man who is ultimately found to be too timid to accept her, fearing social stigma.

Designer brothels

When an ostentatious kotha does not suffice, the talent of the likes of Nitin Desai and Bijon Dasgu­pta come in handy. Bollywood has been truly ble­ssed to have gifted art directors like them who can recreate a brothel inside Film City exactly like its original (minus the grime). Why should any dyed-in-the-wool fantasy peddler (read filmmaker) was­te time and energy to shoot on real locations just to infuse a sense of realism in the narrative, when Kamathipura can spring to life out of nowh­ere within a suburban Mumbai studio for just a few crores? None of their potboilers will ever make it to the Oscars, anyway!

Daakus love her, too!

Moustachioed all, they roam in ravi­n­es of Cha­­m­bal on their emaciated horses, but find solace in the arms of their favourite cou­r­­t­e­san at a nearby kotha. With guns flung acr­oss their shoulders, dac­o­its just want to let their hair down after a hard day’s ride, by enjoying a foot-­tapping mujra recital. Pity, it alw­ays ends in a fiery excha­nge of bullets with cops that forces them to retreat into the jungles of Bhind and Morena.

Easy woman (left) Meena Kumari in Pakeezah; and Preity Zinta in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke.


Madam Jekyll and Hyde

There have been two kinds of bro­thel keepers. One is a matronly figure who plays the guardian angel to all the girls und­er her wings, and fights to pro­tect them. The oth­er is a sch­e­m­ing woman who has no remorse for han­d­ing over a teenager to an eld­erly monster for a few wads of rupees. Even by a conser­v­ative estimate, more than half of indep­endent India’s cinegoers have lea­rned the sexist connotation of natth utaa­rna (to deflower) through dialogues of Hindi films on pro­s­titution. At times, the brothel is run by a menacing transge­n­der who instils fear and revulsion in inmates of her kotha as well as audiences in theatres. 


All roads lead to a kotha

How do such noble-hearted women land in brothels of all pla­ces? Well, some are ditched by the­­ir paramours, after being ent­i­ced to run away from home with all the jewellery in the­ir mot­hers’ almirah; others are abandoned on a running train, only to be found by a lecherous pimp on the prowl. A few starry eyed ones come to Max­i­mum City on their own, but end up in a seedy bro­thel in a dingy lane protected by politicians and cops.


Love bar set too high

“Pushpa, I hate tears!”, “Saw your feet. Don’t put them on the ground. They will get dirty” … From Devdas (1955) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) to Pak­eezah (1972) and Amar Prem (1972), some of Bol­l­ywood’s most romantic lines have been spoken to a courtesan. It is altogether a different matter that none of them had a happy ending. A prostitute in love with her gentleman client has been a familiar leitmotif in film after film, but rarely have Bolly­wood writers summoned courage to make them live happily thereafter in their reel lives. In the new millennium, Bollywood scriptwriters have opened the doors to transgenders, but a sex wor­ker is still waiting to get her due from them!


Clothes of a character

Shoddy clothes, shoddier make-up... A prostitute has to look exactly the way Bollywood perceives her to be in real life. Even an occasional Hindi film viewer can distinguish a hooker from oth­ers on scr­een, just by following the stereotypes of their portrayal. A bidi-smoking, paan-­chewing woman with a plunging neckline, who unleashes cuss wor­ds without provocation has to be someone of easy virtue. Only Anurag Kashyap’s movies have at times sought to prove that it is perfec­tly okay for homely girls from good families to acquire these traits, without incurring any stigma on their chaal and charitra (charac­ter).


Rent a womb

Surrogacy may be the in-thing in Bolly­wood lately with many A-listers beco­ming parents through the process in real life, but on screen, only a prostitute is found to be willing to rent out her womb for a price. From Shab­ana Azmi’s character in Doosri Dul­han (1983) to Preity Zinta’s act in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001), prostitutes have often played good Samaritans to childless couples. Kriti Sanon’s Mimi (2021) sought to buck the trend last year, but it is not the new normal yet. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Courtesans Creativity")