Prostitution in books and movies:  Has She got a ticket to ride?

By Ratnottama Sengupta



Gauhar Jaan, a singer and dancer who cut six hundred records in more than ten languages between 1902 and 1930, a woman who popularised Indian classical.


Chhaya. Tagar. Basana. Maanada-Panna-Radha. Hasina. Angelina. Gauhar Jaan… What do the narratives of these ladies have in common? They are all engaged in sexual activity for money.

So, what are the sobriquets for them? Prostitute, street walker, wench, call girl, escort, harlot, hooker, hustler, vamp, whore, temptress, tart, puta, fillet de joie, bawd, moll, courtesan, lady of pleasure, woman on the game, lady of the night, scarlet woman, concubine, paramour, cocotte, strumpet, trollop, wanton woman, devadasi, tawaif, baiji, ganika, randi, veshya

This is less than half the 75 synonyms in Thesaurus for the ‘woman of ill repute’. And this is without going into the term sex worker, coined by a certain Carol Leigh, in the last century that has seen people become ‘porn star’, ‘sex educator,’ ‘sexual trainer,’ and even ‘actress turned prostitute’.

Where has the word ‘prostitute’ come from? From the Latin word prostitus, found since the 16th century? But the past participle of prostiture — whether interpreted as ‘to expose publicly’ or read as ‘thing that is standing’ — does not have the abusive association the most ancient profession has. For that matter, the very phrase ‘oldest profession’ — a euphemism for prostitution when delicacy forbade the use of the word — is said to have acquired its opprobrious nuance only in the last lap of 19th century, after Rudyard Kipling used it in ‘On the City Wall’ (January 1889), a short story about an Indian prostitute. Kipling begins by citing a biblical reference:

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as everyone knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs…


Several majors of world literature have gained from the narrative of such ladies. James Joyce of UlyssesLes Miserables of Victor Hugo, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (popularly known as Fanny Hill) by John Cleland, Shudraka’s Sanskrit classic Mricchakatika, stories by Eugene O’Neil and Henri Maupassant, by Premendra Mitra or Bonophul in Bengali, and even Shakespeare with his Measure for Measure come to mind most readily. And certain titles like The Threepenny Opera, Moulin RougeBelle de Jour, The World of Suzie Wong are familiar because they lived on stage and screen.

So many more live with us through their forays on celluloid. Emile Zola’s Nana was trans created by Jean Renoir in 1926. George Cukor’s Camille (1936) was born from Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957); Gigi, made from the novella in 1958; Billy Wilder’s Irma la Duce (1963); Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971); Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972); Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976); Louise Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978); Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); Gary Marshall’s super super hit Pretty Woman (1990)… Add to this the Indian unforgettables on courtesans and nagar vadhus: K. Asif’s  Mughaal-eAzam (1960); Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha (1964); Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966); Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972); Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984); Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, made in 1981 and then remade in 2006 by J P Dutta; and  Muzaffar’s recent Jaanisaar (2015).

And our fallen women of the brothels? They too have honourable existence in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), Asit Sen’s Mamta (1966) as also Sharafat (1970); Chander Vohra’s Khilona (1970), Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem (1972); Gulzar’s Mausam (1975); Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983); Sudhir Mishra and Anant Balani’s Chameli (2003), Pradeep Sarkar’s Laaga Chunri Mein Daag (2007), Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini (2015), remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan (2017) …

20190905_084252Before I exhaust this list, I must make a special mention of Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Mando Meyer Upakhyan or ‘Tales of a Naughty Girl’ (2002). This movie was about a teenager whose mother, a brothel inmate, wants her to marry an old lech for money — but the rebel runs away to Calcutta, to find a new life in education!

Collectively, and continuously, these names underscore that fallen, shameful, sinful or not, the loves and lives of veshyas resound through the heart of the world.


Some bare facts about the trade: If a person sells parts or organs of the body to mitigate hunger, we feel pity for him. But if a woman sells her ‘virtue’ — another euphemism — we feel disgust. She is deplored, derided, disparaged. It is a grave sin to trade your virtue, even if it is to meet some societal need, so for years the degraded woman could be booked under the law. What is her crime? That, men pay the ‘shameful creature’ for their sexual gratification!

Has any male ever hated the rag-picker or the jamadarni (sweeper) who lives off the urban muck? Granted, they are not accorded the front seat in social do’s the way actresses are, but no one subjects them to visceral attack merely for being ‘lowly’ citizens. However, at least in England of 1888, Jack the Ripper chose for death and mutilation of body parts — sex organs — only of women in prostitution.

Worldwide, whenever a ‘fallen woman’ — yet another euphemism — is mentioned, people picture a siren who lures men into her den and then robs him of his wealth. Reality check: More often than not, she falls in love with a man who ‘marries’ her — sometimes he simply promises to!  Or impregnates her, takes her away from her home, and then dumps her if not sell her to a brothel owner. True, some girls are in the profession by the fact of their birth; because their mother is tawaif, or their father is a low-born actor, a natua (men of this community forced their womenfolk into flesh trade). Is the ‘husband’ or the father ever made to pay for this form of economic exploitation? Not that I know of.

As a writer and a creative individual Nabendu Ghosh, to quote iconic filmmaker Mrinal Sen, “never believed evil is man’s natural state. Along with his characters he has confronted, fought and survived on hope”. This precisely is what we see in his short story collection, The Mistress of Melodies*. Be it Chhaya, the widow who is ‘married’ by Balram and deserted soon as she sells her jewellery to secure him a job (‘Market Price’*); be it Tagar, the virgin who is abandoned when she is with child (‘It happened One Night’*); be it Basana, the orphan who wants to make a home, even if it is with a profiteer (‘Dregs’*); be it Hasina, the baiji who sells her adolescent daughter to the highest bidder and then finds out that he is the very man who sired the child (‘Song of a Sarangi’*) ; no matter how delicate or crude her status is, this writer never looked down upon them. A Gulab Banu dances like a fairy; Gramophone queen Gauhar Jaan sings like an angel; a dying Radha stands under the lamp post to earn the rent for her ‘madame’: Not for a moment are they mere bodies bereft of souls.

Indeed, a part of their soul continues to pulsate even when they bare their body to loathsome, foul smelling, fetid customers. That is why they have the icons of their gods in their ‘den’. They offer money to the mate who is inhaling only to stop exhaling. They cook for their pimp. Gauhar Jaan listens to the patriotic bard, Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das and stands up to the imperialists…


This aspect, combined with the fact that she was the first Indian voice to take Hindustani ragas to the world, had fascinated the writer in Nabendu Ghosh. But he had penned ‘The Mistress of Melodies’*– in English as the first draft for a fuller screenplay. A major voice of 1940s in Bengali literature who moved to Bombay with Bimal Roy in 1951, the multi-faceted author is more celebrated as the legend who scripted several classics of the Hindi screen through 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. And as screenwriter too he trained the spotlight on the fact that a body can be stained, not the soul.

Sharifon ka zamaane mein aji woh haal dekha ki, Sharafat chhod di maine… ‘When I saw the way the righteous conduct themselves in this world, I gave up righteousness...’ sang Hema Malini in Sharafat (1970). The blockbuster wherein a feisty courtesan sets out in search of her father was a satire on the hypocritical moral standards of the patriarchal society. Twenty years before this, Nabendu had written both the story and screenplay of Baap Beti wherein the little daughter of a ‘dancer’ – yes, one more euphemism — residing in a hostel sets out to find the ‘father’ she never had.

And talking of dancers; in Chanda Aur Bijli, adapted from Oliver Twist, Chanda is a ‘street singer’ – a masked portrayal of a woman of easy virtue. Then, in the national award-winning love lyric, Teesri Kasam (1966), dancer Hirabai falls in love with a naïve bullock cart driver Hiraman who places her on the pedestal of a devi, a goddess. Hirabai leaves the itinerant Nautanki (a small theatre) company so as not to disillusion him. Who says that women visited every evening by host of men don’t feel coy when they are taken for a newly-wed bride! Certainly not Saadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu writer who was taken to court for writing about such ladies.

IMG_0534Nor did Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the author of Devdas (1955). He created Chandramukhi, the most beautiful and richest prostitute in Chitpore who “disgusts” Devdas. The heartbroken protagonist still pining for his childhood heartthrob Paro — who is married to an elderly zamindar – leaves the kotha (brothel) but Chandramukhi does not forget his love for Paro nor undervalues it. On the contrary; she falls in love with Devdas, leaves her profession and devotes herself to him alone. Devdas is perhaps the first on the Indian screen, then, in which a ‘kothewali’ (brothel inmate) is not hated but an odd woman in love.


When I say, “Chandramukhi leaves her profession,” I also ask myself: Is this really a ‘profession’? When I hear the term ‘sex worker,’ I also want to know, ‘Did this lady choose this as a career option? Did Chandramukhi apply for the job in a brothel, a kotha? Do today’s Radha-Maanada-Panna-Bunchi enjoy job security? Promotions? Retirement benefits? Were any one of the glamorous baijis counselled about the abuse inherent in the job? Does the housewife Chhaya hurled into the job have the option of quitting it? Can a Basana go for a career change?’ Because the answer to all my questions are an emphatic NO. I reject the 20thcentury term that implies prostitution is an innocuous, even wholesome work like a typist’s, or a dentist’s secretary…

And long before I learnt to pose these questions, Nabendu Ghosh showed it is far from the truth. Yes, some — like Hasina — are born into the ‘trade’. But most others are duped, cheated, sold, dumped to rot in dungeons we know as brothels, with no escape in sight. The author, however, had a dream even for these ladies. One night they muster courage to leave the darkness of the alley and walk towards a new sun.

Today (as perhaps always?) boys and trans-genders too are prostituted. But women and girls still constitute the vast majority of those trafficked for sex. According to one estimate, in Europe alone 87 percent of the humans in prostitution are women. Why? Perhaps because women are, always, more vulnerable. Emotionally, women are mothers. Physically so, because — as a Swedish film said with its title, ‘Men Cannot Be Raped.’ And most easily, economically; because men have been the hunters-soldiers-farmers. In a nutshell, breadwinners…

However, even under these constraints, these ladies — tawaifs, baijis, nautankis, nautch girls — have been custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts. And that silver lining deserves to be saluted.


*The stories referred to are ‘Market Price’, in the anthology The River of Flesh, edited by Ruchira Gupta; ‘Dregs’( Kuda), and ‘It Happened One Night’ ( Woh Ek Raat), from Chuninda Kahaniyan edited by Ratnottama Sengupta; and ‘Song of a Sarangi’ (Ekti Sarangir Sur) from the Bankim Puraskar winning collection Chaand Dekhechhilo (Witness: The Moon). These stories will now be published by Speaking Tiger under the title, The Mistress of Melodies. 



Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics (2018). Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam KadamMe and I, That Bird Called Happiness.



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