Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema by Ruth Vanita (review)
The courtesan is an enduring figure within South Asian visual and literary cultures. She is also an uncomfortable figure to talk about– one that has been constantly re-worked and redefined during the colonial period, in social reformer narratives and in nationalist debates about ideal womanhood, often tied to a mythical Hindu past. In Dancing with the Nation, Ruth Vanita takes a comprehensive sample of 235 films to examine courtesans and courtesan imagery in Bombay cinema. Vanita notes that only one study, in Hindi, has seriously considered the role of courtesans in films and that courtesans are missing in studies of cinematography; they are typically mentioned in passing as the ‘other’ and/or as antagonists in the analysis of heroines. She looks at how courtesan characters intersect with various activities in the making and representation of the nation. For instance, she challenges the stereotype that depicts courtesans as Muslim individuals in the making of a Hindu nation and argues that the culture of courtesans was one of hybrid HinduMuslim identities. However, her main lens for examining courtesan films is gender and sexuality in modern India and she maintains that hers is not “primarily a film studies book” (Vanita 3).
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