Courtesans in Bollywood 

By Priyaankaa Mathur

Courtesans enjoyed a unique status as authoritative independent women, Gangubai Kathiawadi was no exception!

Since the early 20th century, real-life Courtesans have played a great role in shaping the Indian Cinema. While they were portrayed on screen as independent women with unique status, in real life too they were the highest taxpayers.

One of the earliest courtesans in the Indian entertainment and music industry was Gauhar Jaan, she being the first musician to embrace gramophone technology in India. Gauhar was a revered name in the musical circles in India in the early 19th century. It’s believed that a musical gathering without Gauhar Jaan was like a wedding without a bride!

History speaks of the real-life Courtesans (Twaifs) who played a significant role not only in preserving and developing the traditional poetry, dance and music, but also helped in transmitting the old ethics to the new generation of the kings, nawabs and nobles. The word Tawaif comes from awadh and was the name given to skilled courtesans of the 18th & 19 centuries. They sang Thumri and Dadra and performed a Mujra in Kathak, while they wrote and spoke eloquent Urdu adorning rich costumes and jewellery. Eventually, these attributes of Tawaifs later acted as arsenals to carve beautiful stories to showcase the Kothas of Baijis in Bollywood.

Both the real-life tawaifs and their modern theatrical versions showcased strong independent women, who were well-travelled, educated and resourceful. They lead a lavish life and owned properties of their own and were considered amongst the glitterati of their cities, similar to modern-day stars. These women were not only capable of supporting women of their own families, but also communities and societies on their own. Some of them had revolutionary ideas and carried a powerful image in society.

Gangubai Kathiawadi was one of such Influential figures of her era, who turned her tragedy to her advantage. Once sold to a brothel by her lover, she eventually gained power and became an influential pimp known as the Madam of Kamathipura. She was one of the richest and most stylish women of the 60s, who lead a lavish lifestyle and owned a Bently. She had connections with the underworld and did all possible wrongs during her reign from peddling drugs to ordering murders.Being an authoritative figure in her community, she eventually showed concern about the plight of the sex workers and met Jawaharlal Nehru the then prime minister to discuss issues of sex workers in brothels, so that their living conditions may be improved.

Gangubai’s life was documented in the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai written by Hussain Zaidi which is being adopted into a Biographical Crime Thriller by Producer-Director Sanjay Leela Bansali featuring Alia Bhatt in the lead role. The film is scheduled to be released in June 2021.

The lives of the Tawaifs had many legends of love, lust, agony and power which were eventually showcased in the Indian cinema in masterpieces like Pakeezah, Umraojaan and Devdas, some of the most popular courtesan films of there times.

The Film Umraojaan Directed and Produced by Muzaffar Ali Saheb, was based on the true story of ‘Umraojaan Ada’, who was a renowned Tawaif of Lucknow. Umrao was a renowned Shayara(poetess) and one of the most elegant dancers of her times. She was endowed with a melodious deep voice, which portrayed the pain of her sorrowful journey. There could not be a better choice to portray her reel version than the Diva Rekhaji, who rendered the character with utmost dignity. There could not be a better voice than Ashaji’s to render that pain, a music director other than Khayyam Saheb who created those heart-wrenching melodies.

Indian cinema has shown many shades of the Tawaifs from their bright affluent status to dark dirty realities shown their plight facing the wrath and hatred of the society. 

Films like Devdas Directed & Produced by Sanjay Leela Bansali have showcased on one hand the compassion and dedication of ‘Chitpur ki Chandramukhi’ enacted by Madhuri Dixit, bears all the insults by Devdas but still stays compassionate towards him. She eventually fells in love with him and decides to leave the kotha for Devdas who is a forlorn heartbroken drunkard lover suffering from the agony of separation from his childhood sweetheart Paro, who is married to a Zamindar.


While the film ‘Teri Payal Mere Geet’ on the other hand showed the Tawaif ‘Laila Jaan’ who is contemptuous of married women and thinks herself to be superior to them, as all married men came to her.Unless one day she goes for a public performance and finds how much she and her kind are hated in society and decides to give up her life as a courtesan.

While other films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar’have portrayed Tawaifs as heartless souls, supposed to engage in love, who could gracefully sacrifice their love when the time came. In the film ‘Rekhaji plays a Tawaif while she performs the graceful Mujra on the song ‘Salame ishq’.She eventually falls in love with Sikander, later sacrificing her love without a murmur, as she knows there was no chance of the love to be reciprocated.

It’s heart-wrenching to know that Tawaifs or notch girls were not supposed to have a right towards marriage or companionship and were only considered as a source of entertainment for men and Films like Chandni Bar have brought light on their deteriorating conditions portraying them as bar dancers and sex workers.

If we peep into the history we can find when this deterioration of courtesans began,who were once known for their grace and status.

It was the revolt of 1857 when even the courtesans contributed to India’s initial freedom struggle. Azizan Bai an influential Tawaif from Kanpur used her kothas to spy on British clients and passed the information to the revolt sepoys. It was during this period the British came to know about them as they came in the highest income brackets, owned properties and enjoyed a high status in society.

Unfortunately, the British succeeded in smashing the revolt and so they also smashed the indigenous freedom of courtesans by punishing them by imposing their colonial modernity on them. To condemn them the British labelled Indian playful and erotic literature and poetry, as obscene and viewed the Kothas as decadent institutions, causing a gradual deterioration of the courtesan households.

In the due course, some Tawaifs were forced into sex works, while others chose the creative fields and took to do theatre, cinema and recording music. Jaddanbai who was the mother of the legendary actress Nargisji was a Tawaif, who later became a producer and director and composed music for Hindi films in the 30s.


One thought on “Courtesans in Bollywood 

  1. The way writer has written it took me in like living in that era so beautifully narrated.article has compiled with pain suffering surviving and so call white collars connectors in diplomatic way.
    Writer has put life in Line or black and white
    Must read.

    Dr Raj
    Radanks Ltd United Kingdom

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