Vidya Balan in a scene from Begum Jaan. (Photo courtesy: Vishesh Films)
| 4 min read

The Begum Jaans of Cinema: Between Punishment and Redemption

Prostitution is patriarchy’s favourite child. Like Jai’s coin (from Sholay) that ensures his victory by default, prostitution is a handy tool for patriarchy to survive, update and attempt to redeem itself from time to time, in a self-absolution of sorts.

Begum Jaan, the central protagonist of the film, is the madam of a brothel full of women, abandoned because they were sexually abused. They are ‘tainted’ and prostitution is their only rightful place.

From this position of morality arises the popular portrayal of the prostitute in our social reality and Hindi cinema; as women who are the poorest of victims, receiving maximum scorn and deserving only pity.

The patriarchal model of prostitution works on the ‘Goddess/Whore’ binary. The Goddess is to be respected and worshipped, and the whore vilified and damned. Or redeemed, depending on how generous one felt. In any case, it was Man as the saviour of the fallen woman (both the terms and positions self-appointed), while acknowledging the role of the Man as the villain. From V Shantaram’s Aadmi (1939) to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam (1966), from Gulzar’s Mausam (1975) to Raj Kapor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) and finally Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav (1999), this manner of portrayal is evident till date.

The prostitute as the victim, hence, becomes a necessary starting point for the narrative. She is an object already punished, hopeless of redemption. She is weak and helpless against this utterly horrendous fate. She is self-aware enough to know she is a player and a plaything. And she condones her own helplessness endlessly because it is a man’s world and what can she, a mere woman do?

The women in Begum Jaan, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, Vaastav and so on, appear rough and tough, but their toughness is brittle. They are regularly shown to bemoan their fate because it is the worst one. They must also ensure that they redeem themselves through some sterling quality, by the end of the film. Barring a few, this is the primary narrative of most prostitute stories we tell in our films, seeing the prostitute from the outside, as the ‘other’.

Meena Kumari in a scene from Pakeezah. 
Meena Kumari in a scene from Pakeezah. 

If the ‘other’ then has to be assimilated, she has to be seen in the ‘human/woman’ light, above and beyond the stigma of her profession. If she is in the dark regarding her feminine virtues, then she must be brought to that awareness, for her to ultimately transcend to her goddess-hood. Because without that she would remain a human, and so would the man. The inherent dichotomy within the entire act of saving the prostitute seems to escape us regularly.

The morality coded in the sexual act by patriarchy places honour at the centre. Honour being the woman’s primary virtue and full-time job, it places the onus of redemption squarely on her shoulder. Going from whore to wife then becomes the primary objective. But who will marry her? The ideal man, of course. And men have abounded in films like Aadmi, Pyaasa, Sadak, Agneepath, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Vaastav, Chandni Bar, and so on.

But when no one will marry her, (which is most of the time) she will have to fight it out herself. Now she is a foul-mouthed, large-hearted lioness, but no, not a Durga yet, that will have to wait. If she is not the sweet and coy Umrao Jaan, then she must be an abusive and aggressive Kajli from Mausam, Rukmini bai from Mandi, or Begum Jaan. She is the fighter spirit behind the stigma and thus to be admired, yet she must be a ‘certain’ way - foul-mouthed, loudly dressed, bold and lewd as a roughened-at-the-edges prototype.

Shabana Azmi as Rukmini bai in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi.
Shabana Azmi as Rukmini bai in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi.

Her only redemption then lies in sacrifice – the overarching symbol of all things great in the Indian culture. She has had to redeem herself time and again by giving herself up in films like Aadmi, B.R.Chopra’s Sadhna, B. R Ishara’s Chetna, Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem, Prakash Mehra’s Mukaddar ka Sikandar, Chander Vohra’s Khilona, Bazaar, all versions of Devdas except Dev D, Umrao Jaan and now Begum Jaan.

Sacrifice not only redeems her physically but also morally and ethically. She can be suitably shifted to the ‘Goddess’ category now. Sita could not escape the agni pariskha, does a prostitute count? One may be a Goddess but both are women, after all.

(Fatema is a decade-long moonlighter as fiction/non-fiction writer, reviewer and currently enrolled in an adventure sports course called film editing at FTII.)