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As an industry that thrives on music and dance, Hindi cinema has often capitalised on the courtesan figure. Known for their artistic abilities, the performing women of North India find multiple reincarnations in Hindi films. However, these depictions do not follow without certain modifications to their identities. The overarching objective of this paper is to put forth a comparative account between the real life and the fictional representations of courtesans or tawaifs in Hindi cinema and problematize the reasons underlying the same. In order to decode the personalities of real-life courtesans, the first section traces the general history of North India’s tawaif culture, followed by an exploration of the biographical accounts of two courtesans, Azizun, Gauhar Jaan and Malika Pukhraj. The study also takes selective recourse to the oral testaments collected by scholar Veena Talvar Oldenburg in 1976. In the second section, the paper critically analyses the courtesan characters in three Hindi films — Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981) and Sardari Begum (1996)—along with their respective posters. By studying the nature of their presence in history, it becomes evident that the popular renditions of these women in Hindi films are works of pure construction. As opposed to their unconventional and non-compliant persona, popular Hindi cinema portrays these women as passive and servile beings, devoid of agency. The characters of Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan with extreme trajectories of either deterioration or liberation are formulated to be in service of the hegemonic patriarchal order, emerging at the crucial moment of the birth of a national consciousness in 19th century India. Popular cinema’s objective is to give pleasure and seek appeal which has compelled its interpretation of the tawaif to be subservient to the masculine figures in the narrative. Nevertheless, alternative cinema’s commitment to using films as a means of social-reform has drawn Hindi cinema closer to an authentic portrayal of the courtesan, as seen in Sardari Begum.
Keywords: courtesan, tawaif, Hindi cinema, masculinity, posters, history