Wednesday, December 29, 2004

begam samru and the security guard

just finished writing a six thousand word piece on 'mapping the space/time of cinema in delhi'.
it took a lot out of me
am putting small chunks of it in here to pique people's curiosity...

those who express curioisty shall be mailed the rest, to dissect, debate and diss.

The haveli of Begam Samru, a prelude

Among other things, Begum Samru was famous for the lavish entertainments thrown at her palatial haveli, in the heart of Shahjahanabad, its grounds extending from Chandni Chowk to what is now the Old Delhi Railway Station. The central feature of these early nineteenth century entertainments was the nauch, where the Mughal and British/European elites of the city used to gather to watch the singing and dancing of professional tawaifs.

‘The Mughal ruler Shah Alam acknowledged this dynamic woman [Begam Samru] as his esteemed protector, and the military strategists of the East India Company considered her crucial to their territorial ambitions. Her acquisition of tremendous political, military and economic clout has been documented. Her talents at diplomacy and her political wiles have been noticed, as have her instincts for survival and success. Yet, none of these accounts factor in the fact that she began her professional life as a young tawaif in Delhi.’

Begum Samru was a figure of emancipated female sexuality, who staged lavish spectacles for the gaze of the Indian and British male elites of the day. And yet, always lurking the traps of morality, waiting for the fall, ‘Farzana (Begam Samru) was courted by some of the European officers who were associated with her husband. Among them were Le Vassoult, a Frenchman, and George Thomas, an Irishman. The Begum favoured the Frenchman and when, in 1793, the rumour spread that she had married him, her troops mutinied.’ And the presence of an un-ignorable non-elite element in this play of pleasure and desire, the commodification of sexuality as/and spectacle: ‘No nauchni is expected to wear longer than three or four years, after which she… exercises her art among the lowest of the low.’

Two centuries later, what were once the grounds of Begum Samru’s palace is bustling, crowded Bhagirath Place, the center of the celluloid film distribution network in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal. Over a hundred film distribution companies operate from here. It is more than tempting to see a constellation, in 2004, of these film distributors with the social forces and anxieties at play in ‘the nautch at the Begum’s palace’ – catering at a time of massive socio-economic change to the tastes of a rapidly transforming elite ‘gentry’, as well as the ‘masses’; revelling in the profits brought by the display of independent female sexuality on screen, and yet not without moral censure and anxiety.

Posters, in English, for a Hindi film playing at Moti Cinema, Chandni Chowk, which caters largely to a male, working class, Hindi speaking audience, are surely targeting those more conversant with Monroe-esque tropes Marilyn Monroe, with taglines like, ‘Sexy Bimbo Mallika Sherawat’. A columnist who calls himself Kauwa (The Crow) in the popular Hindi journal of the film culture/fan genre ‘Filmi Kaliyan’, published from Darya Ganj, writes, ‘ … the speed with which Payal Rohtagi is reducing her clothes and showering her beauty makes it seem that the rest of the girls with the ‘nangi-pungi’ (nude) image will have to pack up their bags. On an average once a week a new film of hers is announced whose pictures tell their own story… she says, When everyone is doing it, why shouldn’t I? Go ahead, Madam, do it well. The Crow won’t take his children to see your film, don’t know about others.’
And of course, Screen, the weekly film paper, gets it completely wrong when in the review it carries of ‘Jism’ starring Bipasha Basu, it says, ‘With bold provocative subject Jism is hardly family fare and this could damp its chances at the box office.’ This, on the same page as the listed first week collections of Jism, declared a runaway hit...

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