In the eyes of the beholder

Trisha Gupta | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on August 05, 2016
Truth and bare: A still from Mira Nair’s India Cabaret

Truth and bare: A still from Mira Nair’s India Cabaret

Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta

The idea of dance as “not respectable” has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, as Mira Nair’s India Cabaret shows us

“Aapke pair dekhe, bahut haseen hain. Inhen zameen pe mat utaariyega, maile ho jayenge. (I saw your feet. They’re very beautiful. Don’t lower them to the ground, they’ll get dirty),” goes Raaj Kumar’s note to Meena Kumari in Pakeezah. Those words are usually considered among Hindi cinema’s most legendary romantic dialogues, the epitome of poetic delicacy. But think about the line again in the moral universe of Kamal Amrohi’s film, and you realise that it encodes a specific message for the tawaif to whom it is addressed: Sahibjan, the dancing girl, is being told that dancing defiles her.

The idea of dance as “not respectable” has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, tied to entrenched patriarchal and caste-based ideas of inequality. India’s performing artistes have traditionally had a lower social status than their audiences: in terms of gender and often also caste. Any woman who appeared in front of men — whether the performance was erotic or not — was seen as sexually available. Patriarchy thus divided women into those who were marriageable and those who could perform in public.

The nationalist and social reformist agenda that rescued the classical arts from this ‘taint’ unfortunately pushed most other performers into an even more illicit zone. The scholar Anna Morcom has argued in a recent book that for the vast majority of hereditary female performers from communities such as Nats, Kanjars and Deredars, where performing arts had ceased to be a livelihood since Independence, “dancing in bars had been a form of rehabilitation from sex work”.

I found myself thinking about these things as I watched Mira Nair’s affecting documentary India Cabaret recently. Made in 1985, it is a precursor to more recent films about the twilit worlds of performing women: Saba Dewan’s trilogy — The Other Song, followed by Delhi Mumbai Delhi and Naach — perhaps also Shyamal Karmakar’s I Am The Very Beautiful. Nair’s atmospheric hour-long film deals with the world of cabaret dancers in what was then Bombay, weaving its way in and out of seedy, dimly-lit bars and homes, talking to women who dance for a living, and some of the men who come to watch them.

The visual contrasts are striking, and often depressing. When the women are at work, they must look a certain way. They wear make-up and glittering clothes, and twist and turn and writhe on the floor as they slowly remove articles of clothing. Though neither they nor the spaces they dance in look anything like the glamorous Hindi film version immortalised by Helen or Bindu or Padma Khanna, the effort they put in is apparent. Meanwhile the watching men sprawl, as they might in their own living rooms, their ungainly paunches spilling out of gradually unbuttoning shirts.

But as you move from the ghostly green tinge of these interiors to the drab light of day, and watch the same young women waking up, automatically reaching out for cigarettes and a newspaper, your heart leaps up. Sleeping on mats on the floor, their meagre lives in rented rooms may be nothing to write home about — but there is something free about the moment; a freedom from enforced domesticity that is usually only granted to men.

Nair’s film is deeply invested in the freedom these women have earned. Her conversations with the cabaret dancers touch on their jobs and their negotiating skills, their comfort in their bodies and their pride in making a living for themselves and their families. What emerges clearly is the dancers’ own recognition that unlike other women, their bodies are not owned by husbands or lovers.

The contrast is established particularly sharply when Nair follows one Gujarati client to his home, where his wife says she waits every day for his return. She is aware that he goes from his office to the cabaret. She may not like it, but she is resigned. The madonna is as much a slave to patriarchy as the so-called whore.

But the film does not shy away from the sadder aspects of the bar dancers’ lives: the pervasive addiction to cheap liquor, the tenuousness of a career in which age subtracts from value, the deliberate public shaming by neighbours and strangers, and the lack of respect even from family. We watch as one dancer, Rosy, travels back to her village near Hyderabad to get her sister married. Her family is content to use Rosy’s money, but they shun her otherwise.

For the most part, though, the women stay sharp-tongued and cynical. One of them tells a joke which has a series of ‘ sati-savitris’ arrive in the other world alongside a cabaret dancer. Yamraj, the god of death, duly recognises the virtue of those women, and gives them the keys to the silver door. The cabaret dancer gets the keys to Yamraj’s own door.

“Do you feel any shame?” asks Nair at one point. “When I go out at night, sometimes a customer sees me and says, ‘Look, there goes that naked dancing girl, that whore.’ I say, ‘Motherf****r, you enjoyed me on stage, and now you say this?’ That’s when I feel shame,” says one dancer. “If somebody said that to me, I’d say, ‘Here’s my address. Come see me tonight.’ If we speak of shame, then how would we work? And if we don’t work, how would we make money? That’s why, in such a place, shame does not exist,” says the second dancer. “If the viewer does not feel shame, why should the viewed?”

T risha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi: @chhotahazri

Published on August 05, 2016
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