Classic Indian cinema

Think Begum Jaan is tough? Meet Rukmini Bai from Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’

Shabana Azmi is the heart and soul of Shyam Benegal’s superb black comedy about a small-town brothel that becomes the victim of gentrification.

The April 14 release Begum Jaan is set in a self-enclosed world dominated and governed by women – not the boardroom or Parliament, but the brothel.

Srijit Mukherji’s 1947-set remake of his 2015 Bengali production Rajkahini features a tough-talking madam, played by Vidya Balan, and her posse of employees. The women refuse to leave their workplace, which is set on the new border that has been drawn between India and Pakistan, and incur the wrath of officials on both sides.

A similar struggle for turf, legitimacy and justice plays out in Shyam Benegal’s 1983 classic Mandi. The bawdy black comedy features an outstanding central performance by Shabana Azmi as the brothel madam who cracks the whip when she needs to but when the going gets tough is not above batting her eyelashes and heaving her bosom. Azmi is surrounded by some of the best talent from the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India in Mandi, and she towers over them all.

Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983).
Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983).

The dance between commerce and carnality is set in Andhra Pradesh. The sly script, by Benegal and long-time collaborators Satyadev Dubey and Shama Zaidi, takes full advantage of the sweet lilt of the Dakhini languague while skewering the town’s fake sense of outrage, represented by righteous social worker Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth). Shanti Devi abhors everything the brothel stands for, but she is ultimately a pawn in the hands of the businessman Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbhanda), who wants to sanitise the neighbourhood so that he can build his own establishments there.

The theme of gentrification in Mandi will be familiar to Mumbai residents who are witnessing the commercial makeover of the Kamathipura red-light district. Meanwhile, activists who have been fighting for the right of prostitutes to ply their trade will find the hypocrisy over the supposed threats to public morality most familiar.

Rukmini says it best: We keep the balance in society, she snarls at a critic. Tell the men to stay indoors if you don’t like what we do.

Gita Siddharth in Mandi.
Gita Siddharth in Mandi.

The Licence Raj era satire draws from Urdu writer Ghulam Abbas’s short story Anandi (1948), Robert Altman’s capitalism satire McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and the Hollywood musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Benegal’s production hews closest to the musical, in which Dolly Parton’s bordello boss runs a merry establishment that is protected by the sheriff but comes under unwanted scrutiny from a moralistic journalist.

From Anandi, the writers pick up the idea that prostitution equals prosperity. Far from bringing ill repute, Abbas writes, the brothel creates and then sustains an entire local economy.

Mandi is always about the money. The movie opens with a hard bargain driven by Gupta for a patch of land. Gupta drives down the price from lakhs to thousands with firmness and unwavering politeness in minutes. He will prove to be the toughest customer that Rukmini (Azmi) has ever met over her eventful life.

The granite-hearted Rukmini is the warden of a gilded prison whose most prized captive is Zeenat (Smita Patil). Zeenat alone has been allowed to preserve her virginity and practise her musical and dancing skills in a room at the top of the one-storeyed establishment. Below Zeenat, mayhem rages on an hourly basis, but in her room on the roof, she smiles contentedly and strums her sitar, unaware of the storm that is approaching.

Aditya Bhattacharya and Smita Patil in Mandi.
Aditya Bhattacharya and Smita Patil in Mandi.

As the new owner of the brothel, Gupta promises stability but instead damages Rukmini’s carefully constructed facade. A new hire (Sreela Majumdar) turns out to be a disaster, while Zeenat falls in love with Gupta’s future son-in-law Sushil (Aditya Bhattacharya). Shanti Devi proves to be the perfect shill for Gupta, who boots the women out of the town to the barren countryside, but fortune smiles on Rukmini even in her worst hour. The marketplace never sleeps.

The leisurely pacing – the film clocks in at 167 minutes – allows Benegal to maintain continuity with classic courtesan films (including Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan) as well as decisively move away from them. Rukmini reminds anybody who cares to hear that the women are artists and the inheritors of a lengthy courtesan tradition that once enjoyed the patronage of the discerning elite. The classical score, by Vanraj Bhatia, backs Rukmini’s assertions, but the antics of her employees say otherwise.

The brassy young women who animate the bordello are closer to the popular depiction of the prostitute – they are foul-mouthed, uninhibited, and always willing to tuck a few extra notes into their too-small blouses. The ill-fated Phoolmani, who is tricked into joining the brothel, is a reminder of what these women must have been like before they decided to adapt. Neena Gupta, Ila Arun (in her first screen appearance), Anita Kanwar and Soni Razdan fabulously play the characters who embody the philosophical concept of “agency” – they own their bodies and their mouths, make the best of their circumstances, and keep Rukmini on her toes at all times.

Anita Kanwar in Mandi.
Anita Kanwar in Mandi.

Giving the easily wrought madam further grief are Tungrus (Naseeruddin Shah), her factotum whose dire predictions are ignored, and Ram Gopal (Om Puri), the lascivious photographer obsessed with clicking the women in states of undress. Annu Kapoor shows up as a sympathetic doctor who keeps the women up and running, while Saeed Jaffrey is suitably hysterical as Sushil’s father and Rukmini’s most ardent champion. Few Indian directors can handle an ensemble cast as well as Benegal, and he gives all actors the opportunity to leave their mark in a movie that revolves around Rukmini and the actress who plays her indelibly.

Azmi put on weight for the role, stuffed her mouth with paan, and adopted the manner of a cut-price diva whose feat of survival is moving while also being comic. Rukmini has a ready sob story for anybody who doubts her intentions – she was jilted in love, it seems – but the manner in which she embarrasses Shanti Devi during a visit proves that she is the madam and the boss. She is both prey and predator, always on the hunt for the best possible deal and willing to bare her fangs whenever danger appears. If Gupta proves to be a hyena, Rukmini is both tigress and dragon.

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The song Zabane Badalte Hai from Mandi.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.