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Loved Heeramandi? Explore these 8 Indian films celebrating Courtesan culture

Bringing in the new month, Netflix graced our home screens with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s most recent project. Known for his opulent designs and dramatised storytelling, ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ offered no less than his most iconic projects, even tackling similar themes to his award winning ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’. In fact, Bhansali has penchant for courtesan based narratives that have garnered him national appreciation.

Unlike these other projects however, ‘Heeramandi’ is an eight part series, set in the 1920s against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement against the British Raj, following the lives of tawaifs living at the red-light district of Heera Mandi in Lahore. Bhansali describes these women as the “queens of Lahore”, paying heed to women who are often go unnoticed and undervalued in society. The ensemble cast conducts compelling performances to drive home a plot that shines a bright light on the power, flair and strength of courtesans living in a colonial subcontinent.

If you, like us, were captivated by this kind of artful treatment of the heavy subject in ‘Heeramandi’, dive into our curated list of Indian films about courtesans for a cinematic journey through the intricate world of these enigmatic women.

Gangubai Kathiawadi, 2022

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“Gangubai Kathiawadi” is a biographical crime drama directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, released in 2022. The film is based on the life of Gangubai Kothewali, a real-life figure and a notorious brothel owner in Mumbai’s Kamathipura area. Alia Bhatt delivers a powerful performance in the titular role, portraying Gangubai’s journey from a young girl forced into prostitution to a formidable matriarch of the underworld. The narrative unfolds through flashbacks, revealing Gangubai’s resilience, wit, and determination to carve her own destiny in a male-dominated society. Despite facing numerous challenges and betrayals, Gangubai emerges as a symbol of strength and defiance, earning the respect of both her allies and adversaries. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s signature visual style and meticulous attention to period detail transport viewers to the vibrant streets of 1960s Bombay. The film’s ensemble cast, including Ajay Devgn, Emraan Hashmi, and Shantanu Maheshwari, delivers commendable performances, complementing Alia Bhatt’s tour de force portrayal of Gangubai. “Gangubai Kathiawadi” explores themes of identity, power, and survival, offering a compelling glimpse into the complex world of Mumbai’s underworld. The film’s evocative storytelling, coupled with Bhansali’s masterful direction, makes it a riveting cinematic experience that resonates long after the credits roll.

Available on Netflix.

Kalank, 2019

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“Kalank” is a period drama directed by Abhishek Varman, released in 2019. Set in pre-independence India against the backdrop of the tumultuous partition era, the film weaves together intricate relationships, secrets, and betrayals. The narrative unfolds in the fictional town of Husnabad, where societal norms and political tensions intertwine with personal ambitions and desires. The ensemble cast, including Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt, and Madhuri Dixit, delivers compelling performances, breathing life into their complex characters. “Kalank” explores themes of love, sacrifice, and redemption, as individuals grapple with the consequences of their choices amidst societal upheaval. Abhishek Varman’s visually stunning direction and Pritam’s soulful soundtrack enhance the film’s emotional resonance, immersing viewers in its lush cinematic world. Despite facing mixed reviews upon its release, “Kalank” remains noteworthy for its grand scale, evocative storytelling, and striking visual imagery. The film’s themes of love transcending barriers of class, religion, and societal expectations resonate with audiences, making it a memorable addition to the genre of period dramas in Indian cinema.

Available on Prime Video.

Begum Jaan, 2017

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“Begum Jaan” is a period drama directed by Srijit Mukherji, released in 2017. Set against the backdrop of the partition of India in 1947, the film tells the story of Begum Jaan, a defiant brothel madam who fights to protect her home and her women from the ravages of communal violence. Vidya Balan delivers a powerhouse performance in the titular role, portraying Begum Jaan’s unwavering courage and resilience in the face of adversity. The narrative unfolds as Begum Jaan and her inhabitants confront the brutal realities of partition, with their sanctuary threatened by political upheaval and religious intolerance. Srijit Mukherji’s direction infuses the film with a sense of urgency and emotional depth, highlighting the human cost of political conflict. The ensemble cast, including Naseeruddin Shah, Ila Arun, and Gauahar Khan, delivers nuanced performances, adding layers to the film’s rich tapestry of characters. “Begum Jaan” explores themes of identity, sacrifice, and the bonds of sisterhood, offering a visceral portrayal of resilience in the face of oppression. The film’s gritty realism and powerful storytelling resonate with viewers, shedding light on a lesser-known chapter of Indian history. With its evocative cinematography, haunting soundtrack, and compelling performances, “Begum Jaan” stands as a poignant tribute to the indomitable spirit of women amidst the chaos of partition.

Available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Bajirao Mastani, 2015

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“Bajirao Mastani” is a historical romance directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, released in 2015. Based on the love story between Maratha Peshwa Bajirao I and his second wife Mastani, the film unfolds against the backdrop of 18th-century India, amidst political intrigue and cultural conflicts. Ranveer Singh delivers a charismatic performance as Bajirao, a fearless warrior and visionary leader torn between his love for Mastani, played by Deepika Padukone, and his duty to his kingdom. The film explores themes of love, loyalty, and sacrifice, as Bajirao and Mastani defy societal norms and face opposition from their families and society. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s grandiose vision and meticulous attention to detail transport viewers to the opulent courts of the Maratha Empire, immersing them in a world of lavish costumes, majestic sets, and epic battle sequences. The film’s evocative soundtrack, composed by Bhansali himself, adds to its emotional depth and cinematic splendor. “Bajirao Mastani” received widespread acclaim for its stunning visuals, powerful performances, and compelling storytelling, earning numerous awards and accolades. With its epic scale and timeless tale of forbidden love, the film remains a testament to Bhansali’s mastery of the historical romance genre, captivating audiences with its grandeur and poignancy.

Available on Prime Video and Apple TV.

Devdas, 2002

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“Devdas” is a poignant tale of love and tragedy, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and released in 2002. Based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel of the same name, the film follows the tumultuous love story of Devdas Mukherjee and Parvati “Paro” Chakraborty. Set against the backdrop of early 20th-century Bengal, the narrative explores the societal constraints and personal conflicts that hinder Devdas and Paro’s union. Devdas, portrayed by Shah Rukh Khan, is a complex character torn between his love for Paro, played by Aishwarya Rai, and his self-destructive tendencies. Paro, on the other hand, remains devoted to Devdas despite societal disapproval. The film’s opulent sets, evocative music, and soul-stirring performances contribute to its cinematic brilliance. Devdas’s descent into alcoholism and despair, exacerbated by his unrequited love for Paro and his subsequent relationship with the courtesan Chandramukhi, played by Madhuri Dixit, forms the crux of the narrative. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s meticulous attention to detail and visual aesthetics lends the film a timeless quality. “Devdas” garnered widespread acclaim for its emotional depth, breathtaking cinematography, and memorable soundtrack composed by Ismail Darbar. It remains a landmark film in Indian cinema, revered for its portrayal of unrequited love and tragic destiny.

Available on Prime Video and Apple TV.

Pakeezah, 1972

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“Pakeezah” is a timeless Bollywood classic directed by Kamal Amrohi. Released in 1972, it remains an iconic film in Indian cinema. The story revolves around Sahibjaan, a beautiful courtesan, born to a high-born nobleman and a courtesan. The film unfolds the challenges Sahibjaan faces due to her profession and her quest for love and acceptance in a judgmental society. The narrative delves into themes of love, sacrifice, and societal norms, portrayed through Sahibjaan’s emotional journey. The film’s visual splendor, poignant dialogues, and memorable music, composed by Ghulam Mohammed and Naushad, enhance its cinematic brilliance. Meena Kumari delivers a stellar performance as Sahibjaan, capturing the character’s vulnerability and strength with finesse. “Pakeezah” is renowned for its elaborate sets, exquisite costumes, and intricate dance sequences, showcasing the grandeur of the Mughal era. The film’s enduring appeal lies in its timeless storytelling and unforgettable characters, including Sahibjaan’s love interest, Salim Ahmed, portrayed by Raaj Kumar. Despite facing initial setbacks during production, “Pakeezah” went on to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success upon its release. It continues to be cherished by audiences worldwide for its cinematic excellence and profound emotional resonance.

Available on Prime Video and Apple TV.

Chitralekha, 1964

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“Chitralekha” is a philosophical drama directed by Kidar Sharma, released in 1941. Based on the novel by Bhagwati Charan Verma, the film delves into themes of morality, spirituality, and human nature through the story of a courtesan and a monk. Chitralekha, played by Mehtab, is a beautiful and intelligent courtesan who challenges societal norms with her independent spirit and wit. Vishwamitra, portrayed by Ashok Kumar, is a revered monk who becomes entangled in Chitralekha’s world of intrigue and temptation. As their paths converge, they engage in philosophical debates and moral dilemmas, grappling with the complexities of desire and enlightenment. Kidar Sharma’s direction infuses the film with a lyrical quality, blending elements of romance, spirituality, and social commentary. The performances by Mehtab and Ashok Kumar captivate audiences with their depth and intensity, bringing to life the inner conflicts of their characters. “Chitralekha” stands as a thought-provoking exploration of human nature and the pursuit of truth in a world fraught with illusion and desire. With its timeless themes and evocative storytelling, the film continues to resonate with audiences, earning its status as a classic of Indian cinema’s golden era.

Available on SonyLiv.

Mughal-E-Azam, 1960

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“Mughal-E-Azam” is an epic historical drama directed by K. Asif, released in 1960. Regarded as one of the greatest films in Indian cinema, it chronicles the love story of Prince Salim and the courtesan Anarkali, set against the backdrop of the Mughal Empire. Dilip Kumar delivers a captivating performance as Prince Salim, torn between his love for Anarkali, played by Madhubala, and his duty to uphold the traditions of the royal court. The film’s lavish sets, opulent costumes, and grandiose musical sequences capture the splendor of the Mughal era, transporting viewers to a bygone era of magnificence and romance. “Mughal-E-Azam” is renowned for its timeless themes of love, sacrifice, and rebellion, depicted through the tumultuous relationship between Salim and Anarkali. K. Asif’s meticulous attention to detail and visionary direction elevate the film to a cinematic masterpiece, earning it accolades for its technical excellence and narrative depth. The iconic scenes, including the legendary “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya” song sequence, have become ingrained in the cultural fabric of Indian cinema. “Mughal-E-Azam” remains a celebrated classic, revered for its epic scale, sweeping romance, and unforgettable performances.

Available on Zee5.

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