The media – whether in print, television, or the cinema – has portrayed women in all sorts of images. These images reflect how a certain society perceive women and what roles do they portray in reality. Women in Indian cinema have been variously depicted with different images which represent the division within the Indian society. Just like in any parts of the world, the classification between men and women has been distinct throughout history. Even in modern time, such classifications which further divide both sexes still exist in media because of the stereotypes that have been established.
The Indian film industry, famously called as Bollywood, has effectively created films which encompassed the different faces of women in their nation. There are films that attributed them with Hindu goddesses and as well as portraying them as traditional and modern women from all division of the caste. The films that are made depicting women reflected India’s thoughts and behavior towards sexuality and social norms. The media – despite of its tendency for exaggeration and sensationalism – draws its inspiration from real life’s circumstances, no matter how fictitious the story becomes.
No matter how the characters of women are formed, their roles in the film say a lot about the current social perception of Indian Women. Two notable films in Bollywood will be the central discussion of this essay. Pakeezah (1972) and Devdas (2002) became well-known for the romantic plots amidst the struggles within social taboos combined with cinematic intensity and songs aptly made for the film. From these films, the heroines that will be given concentration belong to that level of society which is usually judged derogatively.
Sahibjaan of Pakeezah and Chandramukhi from Devdas share the same profession of courtesans, and played major roles in the films showing how Indian courtesans are being personified. The discussion for the two female protagonists will revolve around their being courtesans and they symbolized India’s perception and direction of their views regarding sexuality and how their norms and social evolvement are shaped by these views. Courtesans, as seen from the films, cater to the public eye, predominantly of male audience. Their profession has been criticized by society as immoral and these women are usually isolated from the realm of an ideal woman.
By exploring the two films, it will be argued how the views of courtesans are still relevant in the modern Indian society. To be able to convey the contents of the arguments for the established thesis statement, a brief background or summary of each movie will be provided. This is for the intent of giving a foundation or an origin where the standpoints will be derived. Second, there will be an attempt to categorize Indian courtesans which is distinct from courtesans of other countries. This will be connected to how the character of a courtesan became an embodiment of India’s assumption towards sexuality.
From this, Sahibjaan and Chandramukhi from the films will be subjected to analysis, comparing the differences of their roles as courtesans on the films. The essay will be concluded by gathering all the insights that have been discussed and as well as its implications on Indian society. The plot of both films is set in the conservative India where traditional elements are highly emphasized. One of the two films has been derived from a 1917 novella called Devdas. This film has many versions in different languages and the one directed by Sanjay Bhansali in 2002, is the latest and the first full colored version of the film.
Devdas can be said as a classic love triangle story with the lives of the main characters closely intertwined with each other. The male protagonist Devdas came back from London to reconcile with his long-time childhood beloved Paro. The two has been arranged for marriage however, when the Paro’s maternal ancestry as dancers is revealed, her humiliated mother decided to arrange a marriage for Paro to another man. From that aspect the tragedy of the heart-broken Devdas ensues, as his college friend introduced him to the world of alcohol and carnal desires.
The brothel where his friend brought him became his emotional solace or more of an emotional escapism. As Devdas began to indulge in alcoholism, he met the most famous courtesan named Chandramukhi. Her beauty and exquisite charm which made Chandramukhi as a renowned courtesan became an irresistible pull for Devdas to become close to her. On the other hand, his vulnerabilities as a man shown by his weakened state by the alcohol and the discovery of his supposed love story became the reason why Chandramukhi fell in love with him.
The story takes its turn with Devdas being devoured by his alcoholic addiction and Chandramukhi’s love for him brought her to Paro to convince him to stop his self-destruction and subsequently formed a friendship with her. Though he did not listen, Devdas promised to see her before his death. Eventually, he confessed his love for Chandramukhi however shortly after that; he expressed his goodbye to her because of his intent to move out of the country. On his journey and with the last drink of wine, he became extremely sick. Feeling himself on the verge of death, he went to fulfill his promise to Paro to see her.
Paro ran to meet him but her husband prohibited her and as Devdas dies in front of their gates, his last image is Paro trying to reach for him and screaming his name. It is a clear tragic story for the three characters as all of them are not able to achieve the happiness they wanted out of love. The dynamism of the story is presented by the diverse social upbringing of the characters. Devdas is born from the upper landowning class, while Paro came from an ordinary family whose lineage is from dancers, and Chandramukhi being a courtesan is judged by the society as immoral.
The three main characters attempted to go beyond their social status as the purpose of love became their main source of strength to defy the social norms. The second film which similarly tackled defying social classifications in the name of love is, Pakeezah. Released in 1972, this film took 14 years to be completed due to personal issues between the main cast and the director. An original work of Kamal Amrohi, Pakeezah is a classic Indian courtesan movie. This film is a story about a woman who dreams of escaping a world where she felt worthless and soulless.
Sahibjaan shared the same fate that her mother did, a profession which eventually led to the rejection of her father’s family. After her mother’s death, her aunt Nawabjaan adopted her and brought Sahibjaan to her brothel where she practiced dancing and singing. She became famous as a courtesan when she grew up, however, her aunt felt the need to get Sahibjaan out of the brothel when her father came searching for her. On the train ride out of the city Sahibjaan found a note that has been slipped between her toes where a stranger wrote about the beauty of her feet and not to soil it.
This note became her hope to find rescue from the environment she desperately wants to escape. It also became her only evidence that this particular stranger is the only one who can love her truly and the note is her first real communication with someone who has a pure intention towards her. She was able to meet the stranger who is a forest ranger named Salim, and because of her fear that he might reject her, Sahibjaan kept her true identity. Salim brought her to his family however as men recognized Sahibjaan as the courtesan, Salim’s family disapproved.
Despite of Sahibjaan’s confession about her work, Salim’s feelings did not change and both of them ran away together. He eventually decided to marry her, renaming Sahibjaan as Pakeezah meaning ‘the pure one. ’ However, her shame and fear as being a courtesan dominated her, and not wanting to ruin Salim’s reputation Sahibjaan fled from him and called off the marriage. Her decision has left Salim hurting and as a way of retaliation and coping with the pain, Salim decided to marry another woman and invited Sahibjaan for his wedding. In this part of the film, she danced on broken glasses practically symbolizing the pain that both of them share.
A revelation has been made when Salim’s uncle, Shahabuddin, learns that Sahibjaan is his long-lost daughter and it resulted to a happy-ending for Sahibjaan, knowing that her father will save her from the world she wanted to get away from, and as well as a possibility for her love for Salim to be reconsidered. Just like the film Devdas, Pakeezah tells about a romantic story of a courtesan with a heart. Someone like Sahibjaan does not desire to be a courtesan forever and wanted to become a real woman by meeting her future husband and be a wife.
There is also the familiar pattern of the characters disregarding their social status to be able to experience a relationship with one another. It leaves the impression of Indian movies such as these that the division of the caste system in reality is strictly followed. Pakeezah and Devdas are two classic Bollywood films which portrays the kind of women often degraded by the society. These films presented the courtesans with such humanity which goes beyond their profession of enticing and engaging their audience towards them.
Courtesans can be said to have prominently existed way before the times of the monarchy. Indian courtesans are said to be “sexually liberated and educated women who dance in the temples and at public ceremonies and the only women who are allowed to learn to read, sing, and dance” (Feldman & Gordon, 2006, p. 161). Just like other courtesans in general, they are meant to entertain and offer their company to men. Their difference from prostitutes is that sexual intercourse is just one of their services. They engage in discussions, in festivals, and in the arts. Simone de Beauvoir further differentiates the two:
Prostitutes need two kinds of men, client and protector. In her environment man is superior to woman, and this setting apart favors a kind of love-religion which explains the abnegation of certain prostitutes. For the courtesans, beauty and charm or sex appeal are necessary but not enough, she must be recognize as a person. Her pride, her independence, and her money mean that she will never be ‘taken’ – no man will be her absoluter master. ” (cited in Kazmi, 1994, p. 237) From the two films, as courtesans their bodies became the attraction to be able to play the part.
The dances and mujras by Sahibjaan and Chandramukhi are utilized to emphasize their body part and allure to entice men. As in Indian cinema, women are placed in the cast for the purpose of having something ‘pleasurable in the eyes’ on the screen. “In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Kazmi , 1994, p. 234). Since their roles are courtesans, they are always under the scrutiny of their male clients.
Their publicized sexuality makes them a property of the society. However, from the films, it can be seen that the courtesans fell in love with the male protagonists both coming from noble families. This love makes them as the hero’s property, thus, losing their “generalized sexuality and showgirl connotations” and their erotic charms are for the male protagonists alone (Kazmi, 1994, p. 234). That sense of property has not been made official since Sahibjaan and Chandramukhi are not seen married under traditional ceremonies.
This gives the impression that India may not view courtesans as an ideal wife, no matter how the circumstances of falling in love may occur. In Devdas, Chandramukhi is seen as a feisty woman who holds her dignity as a courtesan. Despite of the numerous males gawking at her performance and by the harsh judgments which society throws at her, she never did want to become someone else or want anything other than Devdas. She has a strong image of a courtesan portrayed in the film. Chandramukhi can be classified as the classic courtesan who has lived by her destiny to please the public, though she is condemned by it.
By the time that she became too attached with Devdas, her duty of pleasing many people has been devoted to please Devdas so he could ease his sufferings. Chandramukhi’s sacrifice of letting Devdas go symbolized her gratitude for him the moment he confessed that he loves her as well. Because that love is rarely given to a courtesan like her and the fact Devdas see her as a normal woman worthy of it, she devoted her life taking care of him and letting go of him in the end even if it entails her happiness (Nair, 2002, p. 86). On the other hand, Sahibjaan is portrayed as a courtesan struggling for an escape from the world she grew up with.
Unlike Chandramukhi, Sahibjaan is a courtesan who wished to change her life and get out of her profession. However, the history of her mother’s life haunts her, encapsulating her in fear that she might never achieve the normal life that she wanted. A courtesan who pleases out of duty, the film focused on making her worthy of marriage. The scene where Salim renamed her as Pakeezah provided her the status that she is still worthy of being a wife despite of being a courtesan. She can be said as someone who subsequently gives in to the cruel prejudices of society.
By refusing Salim’s offer of marriage, Sahibjaan continues to be a possession of the public, denying herself the happiness that she wanted to be rescued by the one man she loves. Nonetheless, both women have exuded strength when it comes to making choices. Though they have been portrayed as weak for love and for rescue, they have made decisions which in their knowledge can deprive them of the happiness that they want. In society, since courtesans are made to please the world, sacrificing their own personal interests is a part of their duty.
Thus, their role as a public commodity strips them off the right to be part of the private sphere, which includes the family. The courtesans of Indian cinema maybe considered as the origin of independent women in Indian society. A courtesan is said to have “the courage to confront society, established morality, and the powers that be” (Kazmi, 1994, p. 231). That the courtesans in these films are the early embodiments of empowering women’s sexuality when it comes to breaking social norms, since in the conservative Indian nation courtesans or good women alike, are considered marginalized.
Courtesans can be viewed as the mortal goddesses of the Indian society who can personify evil and goodness in how sexuality is perceived. References Feldman, M. , & Gordon, B. (2006). The Courtesan’s Art. New York: Oxford University Press. Kazmi, F. (1994). Muslim Socials and the Female Protagonist: Seeing a Dominant Discourse at Work. In Forging Identities: Gender, Communities, and the State, (pp. 226-243). Zoya, H. (Ed. ). New Delhi: Kali for Women. Nair, P. K. (2002). “The Devdas Syndrome in Indian Cinema. ” Cinemaya 56/57, Autumn/Winter : 827.
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