The fallen woman in Bollywood films
Neha Dhupia in "Julie" may be the most upfront celluloid sex worker Bollywood has ever seen. But the fallen woman has always been a luminous part of Hindi cinema's lexicon.
For most of her existence on celluloid, the sex worker has been treated as an unspoilt flower blossoming in a slushy environment.
But that coy image underwent considerable change in the 1970s when B.R. Ishaara made "Chetna", a hard-hitting take on a hooker (Rehana Sultan) and her lover's (Anil Dhawan) vain efforts to rehabilitate her.
The film's most talked about poster showed the film's lead actress with her legs spread, with the man standing in the middle of the inverted V.
Today Neha's bare-backed poster in "Julie" cannot hope to recreate the flutter that Rehana Sultan did in "Chetna". The latter and her film were ahead of their times.
Off and on, during the period that divides "Chetna" from "Julie", the celluloid sex worker came into her own, crossing the dividing line between filmy coyness and hardcore realism with a swiftness that shocked audience.
In the 1970s, in the wake of "Chetna", there were several 'bold' spin-offs, including Ishaara's "Charitra", which introduced Parveen Babi as a call girl, and "Bazaar Band Karo", and also Feroz Chinoy's "Do Raha" and Vijay Kapoor's "Call Girl".
These films came and went without creating much of an impact.
It was left to actresses like Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi to portray the sex worker authentically.
In K. Balachander's "Aaina", Mumtaz, in her farewell performance before marriage, was awesome as a simple rustic Brahmin girl who becomes a sex worker in the city to support her large family only to be spurned by them when they get to know of her means of income.
In Gulzar's "Mausam", Sharmila Tagore gave an award-winning performance as the streetwalker Kajri who ends up trying to seduce her own father. In Lekh Tandon's "Doosri Dulhan", Shabana was the tart who hires her womb to a childless couple.
The most unselfconscious and blithe brothel film of this period was Shyam Benegal's "Mandi" where a glorious gallery of super-talented actresses - Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, Aneeta Kanwar and Soni Razdan - filled up the frames with easygoing sumptuousness.
Instead of being coy or raunchy, "Mandi" preferred to be satirical about the flesh trade.
The traditional concept of a fallen woman in Hindi cinema has always been noble. Nargis in "Adalat", Vyjayanthimala Bali in "Devdas", Suchitra Sen in "Mamta", Meena Kumari in "Pakeezah", Rekha in "Umrao Jaan" and Sharmila Tagore in "Amar Prem" are some actresses who romanticised the image of the sex worker beyond all norms of the flesh trade.
An early example of a sex worker who behaved in character is Waheeda Rehman in Guru Dutt's "Pyaasa". Who can forget her impish yet coquettish mannerisms as she sang "Jaane kya tune kahi, jaane kya maine suni" to entice the bewildered poet Guru Dutt into her lair of pleasure?
But Waheeda was an early exception. As portrayed in the majority of films, the courtesan was not a sex worker, but a conveyer of high aesthetic values.
Rich poetry, melodious songs and elegant dances turned the brothel into a domain of high art.
Even if the courtesan as played by Hema Malini in "Sharafat" and "Mehbooba" sang lyrics like "Shareefon ka zamanein mein haal yeh dekha, ki sharaaft chod di maine" and "Main tawaif hoon, mujra karoongi", the actress' body language and Lata Mangeshkar's voice dignified and ennobled the sex worker to a point where she transcended the limitations of her trade.
In fact for a very long time, Hindi cinema sanctioned the "virgin prostitute", a woman who remained in the flesh trade without sex! In Rakesh Roshan's "Bhagwan Dada", Sridevi played a streetwalker who gets her clients drunk once she gets them into a room alone.
The ludicrous oxymoron that was the "virgin prostitute" now seems like an anachronism.
One of the first films in the new millennium to open up the sex worker's portrayal was Mahesh Manjrekar's "Vaastav" where Namrata Shirodkar in a brief role blew the screen apart.
Earlier this year, there was Manisha Koirala as a spirited sex worker in "Market".
In Sudhir Mishra's underrated "Chameli", Kareena Kapoor gave a rousing performance as a sex worker who practices her profession unapologetically. In a moment of immense humour she bursts into the divine song "Raina beeti jaye" that the sex worker played by Sharmila Tagore sang in "Amar Prem" 30 years ago.