Resurrecting the Courtesan Identity: A Historical Critique

Qandeel Qazi
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International (Deemed University)


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 three courtesans, Azeezun, Gauhar Jaan, and Malika Pukhraj, as well as oral testimonies.  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 historical accounts of the courtesans’ lives, it becomes evident that as opposed to their unconventional and non-compliant persona, Hindi cinema portrays these women as passive and servile beings, devoid of agency.  The objective of popular Hindi cinema to give pleasure and appeal to the audience has compelled its interpretation of the tawaif as subservient to the masculine figures in the narrative as seen in Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan. 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