Director Muzaffar Ali places his latest film Jaanisaar, the romantic saga of a tawaaif (courtesan) and a nawab (aristocrat), in 1877 Lucknow, the seat of high Islamicate urban culture and artistic refinery under the British Raj. The film is in theatres August 21. Done in a semi-classical style, the album is comprised of a mixture of Sufi chants, soft ghazals, and — my focus here — several energetic mujras.

Jaanisaar continues a tradition of mujras in Bollywood cinema that has been cultivated since Partition. As a musical genre, mujras historically reconstruct an aesthetic culture of sixteenth- to nineteenth-century South Asia in which heightened musical and dance entertainment afforded a medium for exchange between one woman and many men — what ethnomusicologist Regula Qureshi calls “an asymmetry of power that is tempered with gentility.”

A long line of directors, including Satyajit Ray, Kamal Amrohi, and Ali, have recovered a history of mostly tolerant Hindu-Muslim interactions, mediated through art forms like mujras, thumris, and ghazals. They have recreated memorable scenes on screen that depict intimate gatherings recalling the heydays of cultural sophistication, evenings spent in mehfils (halls) enjoying courtesans perform dances and recite poetry according to the requests of male patrons and gazers-on. Their bodies were accordingly made available for spectacle to men in power. Through mujras, South Asian directors continue to display the female body to theatergoers today in a highly stylized form.

Period dramas like Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan (the film that put Ali on the map, in 1981) incorporated these art forms because their stories demanded their extensive use. The stories of fictional courtesans have shaped a South Asian historical consciousness and the mujra has played a huge role in cultivating this sensibility. Mujras have become a necessary element in how Bollywood tells the story of fated love between the refined, socially marginalized courtesan and the doting, aristocratic suitor.

Semi-classical music has consistently held a place within mainstream Bollywood films. These are songs that are based on ragas, but that are distilled in complexity, condensed in length, and perhaps made more accessible to a wider listenership. The mujra is one type of semi-classical song used in Hindi cinema, but it retains a very specific utility. Period dramas set within a Lucknavi court demand a close attention to aesthetic nuance that can credibly recall the social context of that world. Mujras are deployed precisely to recover that time period and evoke an atmosphere of old grandeur.

But such an era is becoming more and more slippery to grab onto. The old guard of lyricists and musicians is fading, and the compositions that we excitedly anticipate from period pieces like Umrao Jaan — J. P. Dutta’s 2006 lackluster remake of Ali’s film — and this year’s Jaanisaar inevitably disappoint. The mujras ring false, even though all the criteria are present and beautifully assembled — the animated tabla, the lilting sitar, the wistful sarangi, the leisurely vocalist.

Instead, Jaanisaar’s mujra compositions are hollow. An annoying vacancy pervades the numbers. The mujras only push the period being picturized further out of our reach.

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Humein Bhi Pyar Karle

Shreya Ghoshal’s voice leaves much to be desired in the album’s opening song, “Hamein bhi pyar kar le.” Her sweet melodies suit newcomer Pernia Qureshi’s delicate dance moves on screen. The set is magnificently lit, the anarkali perfectly fit, and the footwork masterfully taught.

My issue, however, is that everything seems too sanitized and commodified. We get a mujra that delivers all the formulaic elements of such an artistic style, without any of the surprises or delights that should characterize the performance.

The nineteenth-century poet Nawab Wajid Ali Shah has composed the verses, but each couplet lacks any nuance or affect. The words are meant to draw us into a privileged space of gentility. It’s just that it seems like an empty invitation. The poetry is too easy a package. The mujra is wrapped with a perfect little bow as pretty, uncomplicated, and docile as Pernia’s face. The track is handed to us to consume and forget.

Instead, mujras should challenge both spectators and listeners, and “Hamein bhi pyar kar le” disappoints on this count. Regula Qureshi argues that mujras are performed in mehfils that are both darbar (royal court) and maidan (battlefield). All the politesse, commentary, conflict, and pathos characteristically present in a tawaaif’s presentation of her self and expression of her unique social position been reduced here to a pretty little ditty.

Either Ali underestimates his audience, or this is a fault of the modern viewer who expects too much of independent Hindi cinema and is easily disappointed when a mujra with Ali’s stamp on it leaves us feeling hungry — or worse, and longing.

Achi Surat Pe

Two mujras sung by newcomer Malini Awasthi, “Teri Katili Nigahon Ne Maara” and “Saawan,” leave me perplexed at the choice of this vocalist. Awasthi’s voice recalls the raspiness of Rekha Bhardwaj — but without any of the soul or depth. Instead, these mujras are folksy and flimsy. No more needs to be said about how cheap these tunes feel.

However, Ghoshal’s other performance on the album, “Achchi surat pe ghazab tootke aana dil ka,” retains a more critical force. It takes a few listens, but the pathos emerges slowly and hauntingly. Ghoshal evokes the heightened poetic expression of a woman’s indignation, a courtesan who feels the resentment of her social position as a tawaaif, made to adorn herself for strange men instead of for her beloved.

Some listeners will recognize that Daagh Dehlvi, the nineteenth-century poet famous for romantic ghazals, penned the song’s couplets. Adapting his verses and setting them to a score is a strategic move on the part of Muzaffar Ali to reconstruct an authenticity for the composition that makes it believable enough to have emerged right out of a Lucknavi court. Point Ali.

The most brilliant portion of this mujra comes in the final couplet, which Ghoshal leaves unfinished. But before her voice trails off and the sarangi fades out, perhaps one of the few magnificent verses in the whole album shines out. Daagh’s lyrics are beautifully rendered. For just a minute, Ali redeems himself once more.

Ab Aage Teri Marzi

In a 2012 article on the on the place of the mujra in modern cinema, composer Ismail Darbar suggests that the artistic style recalls a long-gone era of flamboyance and ostentation. “To create a perfect mujra number, the composer needs to have certain amount of aiyyashi.” This word, meaning “a life of ease and decadence,” also connotes, however, carelessness and debauchery.

What should we seek in a mujra? Classically, they are a combination of poetry, music, and dance — but they also evoke a particular social and historical context. A courtesan’s dance finds meaning in its power to communicate her desires for acceptance and her frustrations with a patriarchal system that oppresses her and makes her an object of worthy only of spectacle and not of love. The private and quiet pathos of the tawaaif is expressed within a kotha (salon) setting, filled with male spectators, and her performance impresses courtly patrons by demonstrating her mastery of refined poetry as well as anticipating her sexual ability.

Jaanisaar’s mujras, however, pander to audiences besotted with the romanticism of an India they have never known. Awadhi court life is a time that only very few today can accurately recall, much less authentically recreate. The mujras inadequately conjure up any mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that imbues it with authenticity.

Is this what Walter Benjamin calls an “aura”? In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he famously posits that the legacy of the mass-production of art today is that it has stripped art of its “aura.” The aesthetic product can no longer be considered “authentic” or valuable. This is only partly the case, since “studio music has lifted meaningful musical idioms from their contexts,” argues Regula Qureshi.

I don’t believe, however, that I’m expecting an “aura” in Benjamin’s sense of the term. What I desire, and what Jaanissar’s mujras largely fail to deliver, is an ability to conjure up a deeper understanding of what love looked like in nineteenth-century Lucknow. This is not an issue with the mass-production of cinema, but rather, with the forces that transform the arts into pretty and shiny things without any substance to scaffold them.

Ali’s period drama incorporates the mujra because it is a necessary narrative device for conveying the plight of his protagonist. His choice to recover the past with this story is an active attempt to refuse the catchy and insipid item numbers Hindi cinema has continued to feed us to this day. We cannot expect the mujra to be catchy — that would be an unfair criterion to place upon it. But we should expect it to convey sentiments about love and grief at an aesthetic level higher than what popular filmi numbers can achieve.

Sadly, Ali, with his team of musical experts, is up against a force much more powerful than his studio can reconcile.

Kanha Main Tose Hari

British colonial rule led to the tawaaif’s fall from grace. The patronage system was abandoned with the British annexation of Awadh in 1856. The nationalist reform movements of a newly independent India, moreover, banned and shuttered the kothas after 1947, resulting in the collapse of the system that supported the tawaaif’s livelihood and agency. India, however, quickly brought the tawaaif back to life on the silver screen, and her historical legacy haunts the modern South Asian imaginary today as directors continue to revive her like some recursive specter.

In a 1989 essay on “Imperialist Nostalgia,” the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo argues that, paradoxically, “agents of colonialism long for the very forms of life that they intentionally altered or destroyed.” They mourn and regret the passing of what they themselves have transformed and obliterated. This is puzzling because at the same time that we privilege modernist progress, we yearn for aesthetic forms of the past to remain stable. Nostalgia clouds and overwhelms us, even though we sit back and watch, with affected innocence, longing for a past full of courtly refinery, aiyyashi, and perhaps even a taste of imperial domination.

At heart, then, is the pain of memory, where nostalgia is understood as a “melancholic pathology.” I would diagnose myself with this condition even though I’m at a loss as I consider what sort of “traditional culture” it is that I’m sick for. What is it that I long to recuperate when I myself hold no memory of these mehfils?

This way of life is a historical fiction — not in the sense that it’s untrue, but that it’s fashioned. Mujras have played a huge role in reconstructing for me a culture that I’ve consumed and savored since the days I first beheld K. Asif’s 1960 lavish magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much of Jaanisaar’s mujras…

In Aankon Ki Masti
Mughal-E-Azam (1960)

It is precisely because of the recursive nature of the tawaaif that the Bollywood mujra is trapped within the boundaries of its own usefulness. The mujra is a spectral performance. Few other artistic tropes in Hindi cinema — ghazal, qawwali, etc. — receive comparisons to earlier versions as the mujra does. Each new rendition recalls its predecessors. Each mujra is a fight to be simultaneously original and authentic — a Janus-faced performance that looks both forward and backward.

While it’s unfair to compare Ali’s cult classic Umrao Jaan with his latest film foray, the comparison will be inevitable to music reviewers and film audiences. Ghoshal’s silken vocals in Jaanisaar will be tested against Asha Bhonsle’s haunting playback for Rekha in heartrending numbers like “Yeh kya jagah hai doston” and “In aankhon ki masti.” Pernia Qureshi’s (lack of) abhinaya — the ability to move an audience toward a particular sentiment — will be tested next to doe-eyed Madhubala’s technique, the masti of Rekha’s own aankon, or the emotiveness of Madhuri Dixit’s eyebrows. [links to videos?] What’s more, Rekha was famously criticized for lacking the poise of a classically-trained dancer, and Pernia Qureshi will no doubt face the same appraisal.

How can we avoid succumbing to the spell that the mujra casts on the South Asian cinematic imaginary? Sumita Chakravarty suggests that the tawaaif is an instrument for directing our nostalgia, a means to “recapture the ‘magic’ of a deceased institution and a lost art” and to “provide a sense of continuity, a connection with the past that is glamorous and erotic.” As an enigmatic and spectral figure, the tawaaif inheres within her a precarious social position.

This, then, becomes the contingent position of the mujra as an aesthetic form in India’s cultural consciousness. The mujra, like the tawaaif who acts it out, finds itself within a paradoxical position. Its visibility and appreciation depends on the choice of directors and choreographers to properly handle it within the confines of a period piece, but these art forms simultaneously risk diluting the art form to something unrecognizable and cheap. The mujra limns the possibility of losing its uniqueness precisely because of its popularity in Hindi cinema today.

The line between deploying the mujra for cinematic self-indulgence and using it for its ability to recover a sentimental moment in India’s history is shaky. Are Jaanisaar’s mujras watered-down drivel compared to earlier cinematic executions, or do they anticipate exciting treatments of the art form in the future?

Muzaffar Ali has been quoted as saying, “I always like to delve into the past to look at the future.” As India’s most talented directors strive to tell audiences new stories about their history, should we be worried that the future will look too artificial and shiny? Or do we prefer a nostalgic commitment to the crumbled and decayed patronage system, tinged with disrepute and a hint of glamour? Either we accept these adulterated performances for what they’re worth, or we hold them to a standard few of us could have ever experienced in today’s era.