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Courtesans of Bombay

Courtesans of Bombay(1986)

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The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala filmmaking team took a break from features to produce this semi-documentary peek inside a hidden corner of Indian culture, the 'courtesans' of a large apartment block called Pavan Pool, circa 1983.

The 16mm camera takes an ethnographic interest in every detail of life in Pavan Pool, combining straight documentary footage with staged material. Well-known actor Saeed Jaffrey appears as not himself but an anonymous part-time film actor who likes to attend performance nights at Pavan Pool. He often addresses the camera directly to explain what we're seeing. Two other less familiar actors also take turns narrating parts of the minimalist story.

Kareem Samar plays a rent collector with the unenviable task of trying to make the residents pay. He balances their endless excuses with mostly toothless threats, as the absentee landlord would never stoop to admit that he owned the property, let alone visit it. Samar prides himself on not taking sexual advantage of the female tenants, as did his predecessor.

Zohar Segal is (or plays) an aged courtesan, now retired. She explains the workings of the Pavan Pool complex while preparing a spicy pickle recipe.

The apartment block is home to hundreds of people, sleeping more than ten to a room with many more encamped in hallways and on the roof. The women that do all of the work earn most of the money. The occasional male musician is an exception to the rule, as most of the men gamble, lollygag and pimp for a living.

The courtesans are primarily entertainers who dance and sing for casual male callers. On any given night the guests have their choice of many rooms to visit. Younger dancers who put modern moves into their routines or sing songs from the movies fill rooms with admirers, while more traditional entertainers play to empty chambers. The men dole out money to the courtesans in generous tips. We are told that in many cases their families back home are alone and unfed.

Segal explains that giving birth to a pretty girl child in the Pavan Pool is a blessing. One beautiful girl often provides support for an entire family, whereas boys tend to join the shiftless gamblers and drug users down in the patio. An attractive boy may wear clothing paid for by several admiring courtesan girlfriends.

Pavan Pool complex has a curfew but the docu stresses that the entertainment often moves elsewhere after hours, and it is well known that many courtesans also work discreetly for sexual favors. Segal talks about being the kept woman of a rich man when she was barely a child. We see what looks like an arranged marriage being negotiated between a girl of perhaps fourteen and a man of at least seventy.

With its music and dance performances The Courtesans of Bombay would be a stunning documentary if it distinguished between authentic material and staged content. Even though there may literally be no difference, we have to trust the filmmakers as to the accuracy employed. The Merchant-Ivory team has a reputation beyond reproach, but doubts are raised by obvious staged content such as two courtesans sneaking messages to a shared boyfriend. The film lists a costume designer, a credit we don't expect to see on a documentary.

Home Vision's DVD of The Courtesans of Bombay is a good encoding of a 16mm show shot for England's BBC 4 television; the image is somewhat soft and the colors pale. The soundtrack is very clear, however.

The disc's extra is a second one-hour documentary of equal interest, The Street Musicians of Bombay by Merchant-Ivory's house composer Richard Robbins. It stems from his experiences in Bombay watching street musicians, and is simply a lengthy look at the city's many street beggars and their elaborate musical acts, from a solitary boy singing a song about his faraway province to a man who attracts attention with baskets of deadly snakes. There is also a colorful group of self-castrati who describe themselves as neither male nor female. They are seen entertaining a rich family celebrating a new child and put on a fine show complete with funny songs about the pregnancy experience and (of course) the noble trait of generosity.

For more information about The Courtesans of Bombay, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order The Courtesans of Bombay, go to TCM Shopping.

By Glenn Erickson