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Merchant Ivory Productions presents
The Courtesans of Bombay (1983)

"He doesn't have big earnings, but whatever he has, he spends here on one girl. She does what she wants with him and treats him like her slave."
- Panna Lal (Kareem Samar)

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: April 20, 2005

Stars: Saeed Jaffrey, Kareem Samar, Zohra Segal
Director: Ismail Merchant

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for Nothing objectionable
Run Time: 01h:13m:54s
Release Date: April 19, 2005
UPC: 037429194522
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ CC+B B-

DVD Review

Ismail Merchant's The Courtesans of Bombay stands between documentary and drama to look at the lives of Bombay's Pavan Pool area, a small enclosed area where courtesans perform for their male audiences. And by peform, the filmmakers generally mean sing and dance, though negotiated sexual activity clearly goes on, which is dealt with obliquely by Merchant. I would be curious as to the amount of sex for sale that occurs, as while Merchant generally glosses it over, a scene near the end shows numerous courtesans leaving Pavan Pool with men.

The film deals with its subjects in a fairly diffuse manner; we don't really meet any of the courtesans working Pavan Pool, we simply see them dance, or practice, or sit around in their crowded apartments (we are told that Pavan Pool houses 4000-5000 people, some living on roofs and in stairwells). The higher up in the building you live, the higher your status, aside from the roof dwellers, one assumes. And "assumes" is the right word, because as the film doesn't function as a factual exploration of this milieu, we don't learn a whole lot beyond general impressions.

What information we do get comes from scripted dialogue performed by three actors playing roles within the world of the courtesans. There is the building rent collector (Kareem Samar), an aging ex-courtsean (Zohra Segal), and an actor (Saeed Jaffrey) who spends his spare money to watch his favorite courtsean. Each relates some general observations about the world of the courtesans, beginning with the rent collector, who we see on his rounds. From there, we move to the ex-courtsean, who takes more pride in her cooking than her old career. The most time is spent with the actor, who discusses the general goings-on. It's all very well to show us these people, but going into this film cold, I didn't feel like I knew much more afterwards than when I started.

The film features footage of varying length of a variety of performances by different courtseans, though I couldn't tell you what makes one better than another. Most are shot the same way: the woman performs, with a couple guys or so playing music, and various shots of audience members watching, and sometimes ponying up some cash when pleased. We do eventually see the object of the actor's obsession, but I have no idea what makes her so notable. For what it is, the film presents a view into a completely alien world in many ways, albeit a sometimes frustrating view. At 73 minutes in length, the film could have dispensed with some of the extraneous performance material and maybe, I don't know, actually have interviewed some of the women. Merchant made this film, the accompanying insert essay tells us, because he saw the courtseans of Pavan Pool perform when he was a teen, and was fascinated by them. At the end of this film, I still had no idea why. If the desire was to preserve some element of mystery in their art, he certainly succeeded.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Shot in fullscreen for UK TV's Channel 4, the film doesn't look especially great; detail level is somewhat dull, and the colors look a tad faded. While this isn't a terrible image, it doesn't appear that great elements were available to work with. Still, Criterion/Home Vision did what they could with them, and the transfer looks about as good as it could be expected to.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack is mono, and sounds okay. Dialogue is comprehensible, and the music comes through fine. Not something to wow anyone with, but it serves the purpose.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Don't miss the primary extra, composer Richard Robbins' 1993 documentary, The Street Musicians of Bombay. To be honest, I enjoyed it more than the main feature. Springing from Robbins' passing exposure to the music of a pair of leper street musicians, Robbins introduces the viewer to a variety of Bombay citizens who either make their living and/or continue family traditions by performing for the public. From a group of self-proclaimed eunuchs to snake charmers to moonlighting construction workers, the array of performers form a mosaic of Bombay street life. The film is presented in fullscreen, with mono sound, and looks and sounds fine. One approach that Robbins took which I would have appreciated from Merchant was the subtitling of the songs performed. These subtitles are on the print and cannot be turned off. English voiceovers translate instead of subtitles for the comments from the musicians themselves. The packaging indicates a run time of 52 minutes, but the film actually runs 59m:06s.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

With its reasonably short length, you won't be investing a lot of time, but viewers might find that the film's oblique quality frustrates more than it illuminates.


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