Back to: Chameli Special
Lips painted scarlet, dressed in a snazzy flower-feasted Manish Malhotra creation Kareena Kapoor gives a flawless shot as the prostitute in Chameli. She’s been shooting the whole night. But the film is approaching completion. And the peddle needs to be pushed.
"At first the very idea of playing a prostitute put me off," confesses Kareena after the shot. "But once I decided I was in, I went the whole hog. I changed my walk, talk, dress, attitude. The language was another problem. I do use bad language when I‘m in a temper–who doesn’t? But not as a rule. To Chameli forbidden words are a defence mechanism. She uses them as bullets to fire away the demons that torment her.
When Preity did a Pretty Woman in the notorious film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke she was just as uncomfortable about using all the foul language. Once she entered the zone of the rented womb Preity had a ball. This remains her best performance yet.
Most soothsayers and prophets of profits predict Kareena will win major awards for her hardhitting yet vulnerable performance as the Fallen Woman. She won’t be the first woman to walk away with awards for playing a tart with a heart of gold. Exactly 27 years ago Sharmila Tagore walked away with her one and only National award for playing the foul-talking beedi-smoking streetwalker who willynilly ends up trying to seduce her own father!
Randy reminds us of Mandi where each one of Shyam Benegal’s discoveries had a whale of time playing a whore to the hilt. While Shabana stole the raunchy show with her slyly subverted portrayal of the brothel’s Madame, Smita Patil, Neena Gupta, Anita Kanwar and Ila Arun were equally potent in their prostitutes’ posture.
Another memorable flesh trader was played by Mumtaz in K. Balachander’s hugely underrated drama Aaina. The actress in her last screen appearance before marriage, played the eldest, breadearner from an impoverished Brahmin family who takes to the oldest profession to feed and educate her siblings. In one of this scathing indictment of social hypocrisy the girl finally finds her lover (Rajesh Khanna) at her doorstep as one of her clients.
Before films like Aaina, Doosri Dulhan and Mausam in the early 1970s, the Fallen Woman was portrayed in our films as a veritable angel, often remaining unsullied, even miraculously virginal while being thrown into the flesh trade. Memorable portrayals of chaste whores include Nargis in Adaalat, Suchitra Sen in Mamta, Sharmila Tagore in Amar Prem, Rekha in Umrao Jaan, Meena Kumari in Pakeezah and Hema Malini in Sharafat.
All these women were projected as poetic enchantresses, singing beautiful melodies in the night, selling seduction rather than sex. The first film to topple the ‘appeal’ cart was Gulzar’s Mausam where Sharmila Tagore was transformed into an authentic prostitute. Thereafter the whore in mainstream cinema shed her plumes.
In Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav, Namrata Shirodkar was a woman of disrepute who very professionally orders Sanjay Dutt to take off his trousers. Juhi Chwala backed out of the project when she heard the scene. Recalls Namrata, "Even I was appalled at the way my character was projected. But then I got into the skin of my character and played her with conviction."
Vaastav remains Namrata’s best performance to date. Jaya Bachchan said Namrata deserved the National award for it.
That climate of credibility which created a feeling of utter involvement in the actress and the audience has been lately missing in the films about prostitutes. In the lately released Market, Manisha Koirala scratches her hair and tries to behave how she would imagine prostitutes to be.
But a sense of involved acting is gone. A proposed film like Deepak Shivdasani‘s Julie hopes to entice audiences more through provocative postures than by seriously studying the politics of prostitution, like B.R. Ishaara’s pathbreaking Chetna in the ealy 1970s where Rehana Sultan was magnificently motivated as a whore who cannot settle down with one man.
Another revolutionary film about a prostitute’s psyche was the late Basu Bhattacharya’s Astha where Rekha played a housewife who moonlights as a call girl to make the money for her consumerist fantasies to come true. Though it seemed improbable for a housewife to sell her virtue for a pair of shoes Rekha’s riveting performance ironed out the rough spot.
Tabu was the spinal chord of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar. The story of a beer-bar dancer who’s willing to go back to her clients in her middle-age to bail out her son, sent shivers up audiences’ spines.
Many recent films about the fate of the flesh seem more fake than fiery. "That’s because such films reduce a sensitive subject like prostitution to a formula," observes producer Pritish Nandy who’s pretty sure Chameli will catapult Kareena into the league of extraordinary actresses. "The important thing about her performance is that it doesn’t become a parody of the real prostitute. Kareena plays the character with incredible understanding."
Will Chameli get Kareena the National award ? Sharmila Tagore got it for her performance in Mausam. It’s hard to say. But the way things look it almost appears as though actresses have to play the Fallen Woman at least once to rise above the ordinary.