Revisiting The Courtesans of Bombay

Image Courtesy: Merchant Ivory Productions

The sound of ghunghroos would chime with a thumri in search of a long-lost love. The kotha is often a very romanticised space in Hindi cinema and has been the last refuge of a dejected lover. From Devdas and Pyaasa to Amar Prem and Pakeezah, the heroes have found “true love” in the arms of a courtesan.

In 1983, Merchant Ivory productions came out with their docudrama The Courtesans of Bombay, directed by Ismail Merchant. The film is mostly shot at the KB compound or Pavan Pool, as the area is called.


The opening shot of the docudrama shows a group of girls tying ghunghroos to their legs, for what is likely a practice session. They are all trained in Kathak, to regale the men who visit them in the evenings. Another skill they are expected to master is singing.  Ghazals, hori and thumris, they know it all to the best of their ability. But just enough to earn a livelihood. They might not become the next Sitara Devi or Begum Akhtar. Perhaps, that is not their aim either. If anything, they want to be noticed by Bombay’s film industry, so that they can break into stardom some day. But mostly, that day never comes.

And there is a reason why they pin their hopes on becoming a film star. Nimmi did get out of the set-up of a kotha to become a top star of the 1950s. No biographical account of Nimmi online will mention this fact that she too was a courtesan. Of course, her mother was said to be on good terms with Mehboob Khan, who invited her to watch the making of his movie Andaz (1948), when Raj Kapoor met her and signed her for his blockbuster Barsaat (1949). Nimmi never looked back after that. Jaddanbai also moved out of kothas and got into film production and ensured that her daughter Nargis didn’t have to be a nachnewali. In the 1980s, actresses like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil have come  to Pavan Pool to study the behaviour and mannerisms of the women here for their film Mandi.

The docudrama is revealed through three characters. There is Kareem Samar, who worked in a printing press on Mohammed Ali road and by chance got the job at the KB compound as a rent collector. He tells us about the women who hold him in high regard because he can throw them out at will. There is Saeed Jaffrey, an Urdu stage actor, who is obsessed with the kothas and spends most of his time and fortune on the courtesans. His family doesn’t seem to have a choice.

Veteran actress Zohra Sehgal is endearing as the retired courtesan passing a commentary on the lives of courtesans living here

The third leg of the story is presented by Zohra Sehgal, a retired courtesan, who looks back at her time wistfully but bemoans the state of the girls today. Even as she prepares a pickle, she runs us through a commentary on the kothas of Bombay. “Today, anyone and everyone can just come and say sing this or sing that. The customer is the king and when he asks for a glass of water, the entire household runs to get it. And after all the entertainment, sometimes Rs 10 is offered, sometimes Rs 50 or just a few nasty words or a few words of praise. The girls have no complaint. It’s their life, their fate.” While it is not directly said, it can be inferred that these girls also indulge in prostitution, though to the outside world, there seems to be a distinction between the courtesans or tawaifs of KB compound and the sex workers of Kamathipura. The tawaifs were also invited to social gatherings  and functions, due to the merit of their art, which they had mastered over years of training.

There is a problem in such a staged docudrama, where you have three actors becoming the character to narrate the story. What is true and what is fake, one cannot clearly say. While it is very likely that these actors play real life characters, why don’t we see those real faces in the narration? Is it because they wouldn’t speak in English or because the narrative would be disturbed? Despite, Ismail Merchant making a great deal of effort to give us a ring-side view of the kothas, this flaw looms large over the narrative.

Another interesting aspect of this docudrama is that it marks the fall of the days of a courtesan in Bombay. The lovers of fine art are on their way out and people are in for garish Bollywood dance numbers. Very soon, these girls would leave Pavan Pool and become bar dancers to eke out a living.

The girls undergo training for several years in Kathak and classical music to be groomed as the best courtesans of the kotha

And yet there are some moments to cherish. Zohra Sehgal, despite ‘acting’ a character out, is very endearing in her narrative. She foresees the future of the kothas and ensures that her children are miles away from this environment, married and settled. There is a senior tabla player fighting old age, who is asked to leave because the one who cannot perform here cannot live here.

An anonymous courtesan sings the ghazal Hona Hi Pada so fervently that she comes across as a misfit. Did she ever get outside these walls and find real fame?

One young girl is doted upon by her mother as she is picking up her Kathak lessons very well and in the kotha, the birth of a girl child is celebrated, in contrast to the society outside the walls of the kotha. A boy born in the kotha either ends up as a wastrel, a pimp or if talented, becomes a musician. One lady sings the ghazal Hona hi pada so masterfully, that one wonders if she would indeed have become the next big name in ghazals had she lived outside Pavan Pool. Also, that girl who aced her Kathak steps as a 10-year-old, did she get out and find a bigger stage to showcase her talent, or was she sold off to a benefactor when she touched puberty? Perhaps these questions will never be answered.

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