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By: Subhash K. Jha, IndiaFM
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Sex workers aren't meant to be sexy, and certainly not enigmatic enchanting and poetic , like Nargis in Adaalat, Meena Kumari in Pakeezah and Rekha in Umrao Jaan. These women remained chaste and sublime-- qualities defined by the songs and poetry that they sang and their pristine body language.
Times have certainly changed. The Fallen Woman has gone from Chalte chalte yuhi koi mila gaya tha in Pakeezah to Bichua dank mare in Chingari. "If today I showed my heroine as a virgin- whore people would laugh at me. I think those times when sex workers had to sob in a corner after being 'touched' by a man are long over," says Kalpana Lajmi in whose Chingari Sushmita gave a powerhouse performance as a prostitute who celebrates her job.
Now there's Aishwarya Rai doing a stately tawaif in J.P. Dutta's sensitive and grand Umrao Jaan. While Sushmita was a volcano in Chingari, Aishwarya is a gently -running stream whose undercurrents are discernible only to those who care to probe deep within the exquisite exterior.
Sush lets it all hang out. Asha keeps it bridled. Sushmita isn't the first feisty woman to play a prostitute so spunkily. Remember the entire gallery of glorious women actors in Shyam Benegal's Mandi? From Shabana Azmi as the brothel Madame to Smita Patil as her favourite inmate, to Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan and Ila Arun(who incidentally is promoted to the Madame's role in Chingari)... somehow whores translate into award-winning performances.
But they aren't easy to play. Even saying the word 'randi' was tough for Shabana Azmi in Mahesh Bhatt's Arth. And yet she knocked the lid off the coy-whore prototype in Mandi, Bhavna and Doosri Dulhan.
I vividly remember one sequence in Lekh Tandon's Doosri Dulhan where Shabana narrated the tale of her induction into the oldest profession in the world . She tells Victor Banerjee how her mother had sold her to a pimp. "Apni sagee maa (my own biological mother), han?"
Her shock at being betrayed by her own flesh and blood remained the most palpable moment of expressed hurt for a woman of disrepute....until Sushmita Sen's incredible performance in Chingari. The recesses of anger and angst, desperation and despondency that she expresses on screen have been dismissed by some critics as "over-the-top" acting.
But for an actor to over-act, she first needs to know how to act. There're so many actors who pass off their lazy languorous non-performances as "spontaneous acting" Sushmita in Chingari is a volcano. And a lot of that rage she expresses comes from within her. She has always had this volcanic effect on all her co-stars. If she managed to make Mithun insecure in Chingari,in an earlier film (which I won't name) she was pitched against a formidable National award-winning actress .Throughout the making of the film the reputed intense actress would take the director to a corner to inquire not about her own lines. But her co-star's.
Sushmita has always had that huddle effect on co-stars. She has to do nothing but tap into her potential to make her co-star insecure. Like Shabana, Sushmita isn't fearful of being emotionally naked on screen. To play a prostitute you need to rip your soul apart and watch the fragments of your consciousness scatter across the universe of a film.
Not too many actors can do that. When Sharmila Tagore played a street-walker in Gulzar's resplendent Mausam she had a tough time saying cuss-words and acting cheaply seductive. She won the National award for her efforts.
Kareena Kapoor didn't. Though she was effervescent in the prostitute's part in Chameli somehow Kareena's exemplary efforts went unrewarded. Could it be because she didn't pull out all the stops and completely lose her urban inhibitions ?
Namrata Shirodkar had that problem when played the whore in Vaastav. "Every time I had to speak lines like 'Chal kapde utar' I'd cringe. I told my director Mahesh Manjrekar I won't do it. Thankfully he helped me get over my inhibitions. And when someone of Jaya Bachchan's caliber said I deserved the National award for my performance in Vaastav my day was made."
Today Namrata , happily married and away from the limelight can look back at Vaastav as the single-most important film of her career. Every heroine from Suchitra Sen in Mamta to Manisha Koirala in Market has at one time or the other excelled as the Fallen Woman. The tale of the prostitute and the Reformist-Hero that Kalpana Lajmi tells in her remarkably enacted Chingari isn't new to Hindi cinema.
Decades ago Vyjanthimala was the prostitute whom Sunil Dutt rehabilitated. The sex worker is no longer a coy helpless creature of destiny. She stopped being a sob-story when thirty years ago, Rehana Sultan in Chetna and Zeenat Aman in Manoranjan played the self-respecting sex worker to perfection .
But in Umrao Jaan there's no redemption for the Fallen Woman. To the end she remains fallen. Nonetheless the Fallen Woman is more than redeemed in our films. Wonder when the quality of her life would improve in real life!
Upsides and flipsides of Umrao Jaan
Promo Watch: Aap Ka Suroor