Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan, Devdas And Others; Here Are 5 Most Memorable Films On The Tawaif

While Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah and Rekha’s Umrao Jaan epitomize the cinematic tawaif, here's looking at more such memorable films on the Tawaif

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Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan, Devdas And Others; Here Are 5  Most Memorable Films On The Tawaif
We  all know  about  Meena  Kumari’s  Pakeezah and Rekha’s Umrao Jaan. These two  films epitomize  the  cinematic tawaif,  a combination of  poetess  and seductress,  steeped in  the tragic metaphor  of the candle that burns itself out while giving light to a thankless world. To me the greatest  films on the kotha culture are the ones with  the  best poetry and  music.

1. Pakeezah(1972): Meena Kumari lived  the part  of  the tawaif  Sahib Jaan and the credit  for her  heart-melting  performance  must  got to  a large extent to the  music by Ghulam Mohammed. As  sung by Lata  Mangeshkar, the  Mujras, the  life  and breath   of  every  tawaif’s tale , are  among the  finest heard in  Indian cinema:  Chalte chalte  yuhi koi mil gaya ttha,  Teer-e-nazar  dekhenge, Thare rahiyo  ho banke  yaar re, Inhi logon ne  le lee na dupatta mera…which one  do  we choose? All  or  none?  I could watch Pakeezah  a million times  for  the songs.Meena Kumari’s overrated performance was dependent entirely  on  the  music. During a large part  of  the  film’s shooting Meena  Kumari couldn’t even move because  of ill health  let  alone dance. The Mujra Chalte chalte was  shot with chorus  dancers and Teer-e-nazar  was  performed  by a duplicate  dancer, Padma  Khanna.

2. Umrao Jaan (1981):  Again, a  Tawaif’s tale  elevated solely  by the music by Khayyam and  the poetry by Shahrayar. And  sung exquisitely  by Asha Bhosle. I asked director  Muzzafar Ali why  Asha and not Lataji, and  he  told me it was  composer Khayyam’s decision, since  Lataji singing for Umrao would have made this  film Pakeezah 2. And  boy, did Madame Bhosle do  full justice to  the  melodious Mujras:  Dil cheez kya hai aap meri jaan lijiye, Inn ankhon ke masti ke mastane  hazaaron hain, Yeh kya jegah  hai doston,  and my favourite Justuju  jiski tthi ussko toh na paya humein iss bahane see magar  dekh li duniya maine…Wah, Shahrayar Saab(trivia: Shahrayar’s son Faridoon Shahryar is a well-known  entertainment  journalist).

3. Sadhana(1958): Better than Meena  Kumari in Pakeezah  and definitely better than  Rekha in Umrao Jaan(who was all sighs and no substance)  Vyjanthimala ‘s tawaif act  in B R Chopra’s  reformist drama is  simply dynamite. Actresses seldom get roles like the one in Sadhana.And Vyjanthimala is rightly proud of the film. It provided her with a platform to showcase many shades in her versatile personality. As a  dancer,  a tawaif to be more precise, she had already played Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas , three years prior to Sadhana. Devdas was a relatively easier role to play. She played the all-giving courtesan with a heart of gold. In  SadhanaVyjanthimala is initially portrayed as a gold-digging schemer who takes advantage of a dying woman’s wish to see her Bahu before it’s too late. From the sensuous dances to the desire to be a part of mainstream society, Vyjanthimala takes her character through the wide arc with a confidence that sublimates Champabai’s journey into a  metaphor on societal prejudice and its subjugation by elements which have the guts to say no to biases. Years after Sadhana , L V Prasad produced Khilona  where a tawaifMumtaz is brought home to  a well-to-do family to play a psychologically traumatized man Sanjeev Kumar’s wife. After she is cured she is pushed out bodily from the family nucleus, until the man now having fully recovered his intellectual capacities protests on behalf of the prostitute.

4. Sharafat(1970):  Hema  Malini at  the  beginning of  her career  played  the Fallen Woman rescued by an idealistic college  professor Dharmendra and rehabilitated  until  she returns  to her  old life convinced  she  would never  get societal  sanction. The climactic Mujra Sharifon ka zamane main  ajee bass haal woh dekha ke sharafat chhod di maine epitomizes the  disillusionment of  a woman who  craves  to  leave behind  her life of disrepute if   only  samaaj would let her.

5. Devdas(2002): Madhuri Dixit’s tawaif with the heart  of gold act was  embroidered  with exquisite dances choreographed by Kathak exponent  Pandit Birju Maharaj and of course Bollywood’s most reputed  choreographer Saroj Khan. In what's possibly the best written and choreographed courtesan's role since Meena Kumari's in Pakeezah, Madhuri gleams with a graceful aura.Her recent attempt to do the tawaif  act  in Karan  Johar’s Kalank fell flat on its face.Bhansali   planned  another tawaifs’tale Heera Mandi with a gallery  of gorgeous actresses  from Rekha to  Tabu  to  Kareena  Kapoor to  Alia Bhatt inhabiting the  kotha. Only God  and   the Korona virus know  if such an epic  is possible  any more.

Image Source: IMDb