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The Courtesans of Bombay (1983) is a rarely seen feature from James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the creative team behind a string of film hits like A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992). The film was directed by Merchant, who first learned about courtesans when he was a child in India. The courtesans, women who were trained from childhood to perform, would appear "during weddings at home, celebrations of childbirth, and other festivities. They provided the entertainment of singing and dancing and I used to watch them." At sixteen, Ismail was taken to see the courtesans perform for an all-male audience, and the memory stuck with him.
The Courtesans of Bombay is a semi-documentary (or "docu-drama" as Merchant called it) that blends fiction and fact. Parts of the film are scripted by longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, particularly the scenes with Saeed Jaffrey, known for his work in Gandhi (1982) and A Passage to India (1984). Jaffrey played one of the film's three narrators; an actor who becomes obsessed with his favorite dancer and abandons his family to watch her. Zohra Sehgal and Kareem Samar, as a former courtesan and a rent collector for a landlord (who was Merchant's friend in real-life) respectively, are the other two narrators.
With a budget of only 100,000, provided by Channel 4 television in London, the film was shot on 16mm in Mumbai and Pavan Pool, Maharashtra, India. Pavan Pool, where the 16-year-old Merchant had seen the courtesans, is, as Robert Emmet Long wrote in The Films of Merchant Ivory, "a small enclave within the city [of Bombay], yet it is a world unto itself. Four or five thousand people live in its tenements, with as many as twelve to a room, and a spillover of others lie on the stairways and roofs. Whole families live there, but the breadwinners of Pavan Pool are women who from an early age perform the traditional arts of song and dance in the building's beehive of rooms, where male loungers reward their performances with applause and money. Sometimes more is exchanged for rupees than the witnessing of a dance, but The Courtesans is very discreet, and the buying of sexual favors, while acknowledged, is not given a prominent place in the film."
The Courtesans of Bombay was broadcast in England on Channel 4 in January 1983 and was released theatrically in the United States in March 1986. When the film was reviewed by Walter Goodman of The New York Times, he called it "a fascinating 73 minutes of sociology, human interest and exotic entertainment," adding that: "The mood is one of appreciation of the women's accomplishments, with a touch of dismay that movie music and dances are more popular these days than the traditional modes."
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematography: Vishnu Mathur
Film Editing: Amit Bose; Rita Stern (co-editor)
Cast: Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Sehgal, Kareem Samar
by Lorraine LoBianco
Goodman, Walter "THE SCREEN: 'COURTESANS OF BOMBAY'" The New York Times 19 Mar 86
The Internet Movie Database
Long, Robert Emmet The Films of Merchant Ivory