Dancing with the Nation

By Ruth Vanita

The foot fetish’s most famous appearance is perhaps in Pakeezah (1971), which begins with the hero falling in love with the tawaif’s feet and concludes with her wounding those feet by dancing on glass, symbolic of ending her dance career to marry him. However, the fetish does not originate with Pakeezah, as some commentators wrongly state.

A man sighting a woman’s feet on a train occurs earlier, in Kalpana (1960), when Amar, on a lower berth, sees Asha’s feet dangling from the upper berth, and a flirtation follows.

An apostrophe to a sleeping woman’s feet in almost exactly the same words as in Pakeezah features in Saaz aur Awaaz (1966). The hero finds his dancer beloved asleep so he massages her feet, which are decorated with alta and wearing ghungroos. He strokes them with a rose, and when she jumps up, he says, ‘Pair zameen par na rakhiye maine abhi abhi puja ki hai’ (Don’t put your feet on the ground, I have just worshipped them). The hero’s famous letter in Pakeezah (‘I saw your feet. They are very beautiful. Don’t put them on the ground, they will get soiled’ [Inhe zameen par mat utariyega, mailey ho jaa’enge]) derives from this earlier film.

Since Kamal Amrohi, director and script writer of Pakeezah, was an Urdu poet, it is possible that he derived the film’s title from a woman’s eulogy of her female lover, by Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin (1755–1835), which similarly combines the word pakeezah (pure) with decorated feet: ‘Pa’on pakeezah kafas maahi pusht / Qad-o qaamat ajeeb, chaal pari’ (Her feet pure, high-heeled shoes fish-backed / Height, figure and strange gait a fairy’s).67 Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Urdu poetry celebrated the tawaif’s dancing as joyful; Bombay cinema overlays pleasure with the idea of pain, the ghungroo becoming a symbol of oppression.

By the ’80s, falling in love with a tawaif’s feet has become a well-established trope; in Salma (1985), the hero falls for her feet on a train, much as in Pakeezah. The pleasurable pain of dancing feet, encapsulated in the image of dancing on glass, was picked up from Pakeezah and replicated in numerous films, most famously in Sholay (1975), but also in Tawaif (1985). Dharam Kanta (1982), a highly derivative film that is almost a parody of Sholay, changes the glass to burning metal bars on which Bijli, the gipsy-like toy-seller, has to dance, in place of Chanda, the reformed tawaif.

Ghungroo (1983) literalizes the metaphor. The courtesan’s lover promises to marry her and she treads on the discarded ghungroos en route to her new life. However, he reneges under pressure and she has to dance at his wedding to a noblewoman. Her ghungroo breaks as she dances and she treads on its scattered bells, wounding her feet

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