Millions Cry Like Ameeran and Sahibjaan: Girl Trafficking in Hindi Cinema

Umrao Jaan 1981

Movie poster for Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan, 1981.

If there is any mainstream Hindi film that has portrayed the plight of a girl forced into prostitution and touched the hearts of many, it is Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan. This film was released in 1981 and is based on the novel by the same name, written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa in 1905.

The story is set in Lucknow, one of the largest cities of North India. The story revolves around Ameeram, played by actress Rekha, who is kidnapped and sold off to a brothel at the age of 8. She is adopted by a family who teaches her dance, poetry and music—only to make her suitable for entertaining the wealthy men of Lucknow.

Ameeran ends up becoming a courtesan with a long list of admirers. She is not only misunderstood by her lover, but is also raped by her childhood friend. Her last days are spent in Lucknow without the gloss and the glamour of a courtesan’s life. Ameeran, or ‘Umrao’ (meaning noble) as she was fondly called by her patrons, is shown completely resigned to her ill fate.

Umrao Jaan 2006

Movie poster for J.P. Dutta's Umrao Jaan, 2006 remake.

Umrao Jaan was remade in 2006 starring former Miss World Aishwarya Rai in the lead role. This version has a song with the lyrics:

Ab Jo Kiyo Ho Daata Aisa Na Kijo, Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo!
“Whatever you did God please don’t do it again,
Oh God, don’t birth me as a girl child!”

Pakeezah 1972

Movie poster for Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah, 1972.

Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, released in 1972, revolves around Sahibjaan, played by the legendary Bollywood actress Meena Kumari, who is born to a courtesan named Nargis. Nargis dies soon after giving birth to Sahibjaan and her sister Nawabjaan takes charge of this baby girl. Growing up with courtesans and prostitutes around her, she has no other choice than to become a beautiful courtesan herself. There is a song in the film where Sahibjaans complains:

Humri Na Maano Toh Sipaiya Se Poocho,Jisne Bazariya mein Cheena Dupatta Mera, Inhi Logon Ne Le Lina Dupatta Mera.

“If you don’t believe me ask the policeman who snatched away my veil of modesty in the market,
These are the same people who took away my veil of modesty.”

Dupatta or the head scarf symbolizes modesty, respect, shame or shyness. These are considered to be the essential virtues of any woman. She is saying that the custodians of society, such as the judge and the police, are themselves mocking a woman’s right to live with respect and dignity just because she is a courtesan.

Both Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah are considered as classics of Hindi cinema. Trafficking of girls and women is a sensitive issue and when a filmmaker decides to work with it, he or she not only shoulders the responsibility of portraying the issue as aesthetically as possible, but also makes an attempt to create a realistic awareness about this vice in society. The world does not become dark and void just because we have closed our eyes. Because it is difficult for us to take in this reality, it does not mean that inhuman acts like selling children with the intention of sexual slavery do not exist.

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