Women who dance under the constant gaze of the men seated to witness them shine, sprinkling magic with every move, while hiding the pain of their position and status, have lured filmmakers to tell the stories of courtesans. A goldmine for filmmakers who understand a world that is equal parts opulent, tragic, and haunting, it has been a part of many iconic movies. Whether the legendary K Asif who showed us a court dancer falling in love with a king or Asit Sen who skillfully depicted the heart of a dancer who wants to learn. Taking the baton ahead is now Sanjay Leela Bhansali with a couple of his Magnum Opuses, and now he brings to us Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.
It was this morning that we witnessed the first look of his grand world of Heeramandi, and it left us with a lingering taste of nostalgia, like most of his films. A filmmaker who has been vocal about his obsession with Kamal Amrohi, K Asif, and V Shantaram, Bhansali takes us back in time with each of his period pieces. Now with Heeramandi, he is walking us through the world of courtesans, and we are being reminded of the classics that have led the genre to this point.
So, let us take a look back at the most iconic films that feature a courtesan at the center of it and how the magic took us by storm then, and continues to even today.
Cast: Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar, Veena, Ashok Kumar, and ensemble.
Director: Kamal Amrohi.
Available On: Amazon Prime Video.
If a gaze could kill, Meena Kumari would have killed all of us by now. Pakeezah is and will forever stay at the top of this genre, and there is no two ways about it. A story of a courtesan, Sahib Jaan, who is on the quest of finding love and honor is eternal and speaks to the viewers even today. For a film made in 1972, the opulence of the film is unmatched, and Lata Mangeshkar bringing out the pain and longing through her voice is immaculate.
Cast: Hema Malini, Dharmendra, Ashok Kumar, Sonia Sahni, and ensemble.
Director: Asit Sen.
Available On: YouTube.
Hema Malini in the initial years gave the world a gem that not many talk about now. A woman who tastes the world of respect and is then taken back to the life of a courtesan seeks what she tasted and asks some very valid questions. Sharafat was a movie questioning the society and asking why it doesn’t accept the courtesans back into their lives. A movie that was way ahead of its time, it also stars Dharmendra in a very well-written role.
Cast: Vyjayanthimala, Sunil Dutt, Leela Chitnis, Manmohan Krishna, and ensemble.
Director: B.R. Chopra.
Available On: YouTube.
Sadhna was a movie written with the most complex but yet alarming pen. B.R. Chopra, who gave the world Mahabharat, also made a movie with Vyjayanthimala (who then has already played Chandramukhi in Devdas) and gave her the character of her life. Champabai, a part that is fascinating for the sheer greyness in her will always be one of the most iconic women written in Indian cinema. She starts as a gold digger but is soon made to realize that there is more to the world. Watch it if you haven’t already.
Cast: Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Nigar Sultana, Durga Khote, and ensemble.
Director: K. Asif.
Available On: Zee5.
K. Asif taught the world how to do it with his iconic work with Mughal-e-Azam. A movie that took over a decade to get made and gave Indian cinema one of its most iconic pairings will forever be considered as the biggest period drama ever made. Madhubala’s elegance and Dilip Kumar’s charm made the film what it is today and how can we forget the songs! Mohe Panghat Pe will always be the benchmark.
Cast: Rekha, Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Shaukat Azmi, and ensemble.
Director: Muzaffar Ali.
Available On: NA.
Rekha dancing to Dil Chiz Kya Hain will forever be the IT visual of Bollywood. Umrao Jaan is about a lady living the curse that she was never supposed to. Sold at a young age, she grows to be a courtesan named Umrao. In no time men hover around her and one of which is a Nawab. The love is meant to be broken and fate takes Umrao through a journey that leaves her at a dual end. Umrao Jaan is an example of great filmmaking, brilliant talent, and an achingly beautiful album by Khayyam.
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Jackie Shroff, and ensemble.
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Available On: Jio Cinema.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali dared to adapt Devdas and gave this age-old tale the most discussed twist. We are happy he dared. A lover crashes on the door of a courtesan who is equally heartbroken but with a smile. She takes him in only to fall for him and to realize he still loves the lady who is now married to someone else. Bhansali gave Devdas the Radha Krishna twist, and it has to be one of the most delicate adaptations in Hindi cinema.
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vijay Raaz, Shantanu Maheshwari, and ensemble.
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Available On: Netflix.
Latest and the most badass. Taking cues from Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens Of Mumbai, Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Gangubai Kathiawadi based on the life of the brothel Madame who was known to be fighting for the rights of the sex workers. The movie tapped into her story and explored what made her what she became over the years and ended at the point where she claimed her space and stood eye to eye with then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asking for equal rights.
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