Beyond Bahu Begum

Shafey Kidwai reviews Muntazir Qaimi‘s recently released book on the representation of Awadhi Culture in Hinduatani cinema.

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“Despite ubiquitous presence of women in the public space, existence of the courtesan still denotes an aura of unfamiliarity and it continues to prompt the filmmakers to fashion a gripping narrative around courtesans,” said Muntazir Qaimi whose doctoral thesis on “Representation of Awadhi Culture in Indian Films”, has appeared as a book recently.

Cover of the book

Visibly upset with the pedantic academics who consider films unworthy of serious academic attention, Muntazir decided to zero in on some famous Urdu texts that are translated into films. “Even for natty filmmakers, Awadh, the wellspring of North Indian Muslim culture, betrays a kind of reverie induced by erotic dance sequences and sweet-toned lyrics. It nourishes a sense of cultural sensibility for those who think longingly of a hoary institution. The producers try to depict the sophisticated Muslim culture through the prism of a prostitute or dancing girl,” he added.

Analysing 12 hugely popular films, “Chaudvin Ka Chand” (1960), “Mere Mehboob” (1963), “Bahu Begum” (1967), “Paalki” (1967), “Pakeezah” (1971), “Shatranj Ke Khilari” (1977), “Mere Huzoor” (1978), “Gaman” (1979), “Mehboob Ki Mehndi” (1981), “Nikaah” (1982) and “Umrao Jan” (1982) in the contours of cultural studies with admirable thoroughness, the author asserts that most films portray a mirror image of the past where courtesan emerged as a central metaphor. Frequent visits of persons from all walks of life to her place exposes people’s insecurities and the potential for wrongdoings.

Divided into five chapters the book makes it clear that the Awadh culture had never looked down upon the prostitutes as moral canker, but allowed them to flourish as a spur to poetry, love, joy, pain and oblivion.

The author raises a pertinent question about the existence of the courtesans as their cultural and alien identity put a question mark on the underpinning of the society. The author assiduously delineates all that constitutes Awadhi culture: Mannerism, modus vivendi, language, literature, poetry, dance, music, painting and other forms of fine arts, convivial parties and other sources of entertainment.

Muntazir Qami also traces the impact of dandy culture on the films and the centrality of the courtesan, emergence of new female identity in Awadh and complex relationship between woman and courtesan. Noted academic Professor Imtiaz Ahmad has pointed out that Dr. Qaumi has aptly discussed the emergence of women, the growing role of the religious rituals and the slow process by which women begin to emerge on the public space.

Muntazir Qaimi

Women from aristocratic families were for a long time confined to the zenana and only women from poor and lowly classes and dancing girls were visible in the public space.

The book is to look at the tripartite relationship between literature, and films on the one hand and literature, films and culture on the other.

With the perceptive and focused analysis of several films, the last chapter objectively showcases the essential unity of Hindu and Muslims. The author took pains in explaining as to how films try to harmonise the heterogenic elements of the great and little traditions of Hinduism and Islam. The author concluded that the values propagated by the films gain currency in the society but it is not as simplistic as it looked to be religions intolerance, always handed out brickbats by the films, has been continuously gaining grounds.

Notwithstanding this, the book appears to be destined to blaze a new trail in film studies.

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