Courtesans in Hindi cinema are usually depicted as women with golden hearts. The one-line description is apt for the titular character Sardari Begum (1996), Shyam Benegal’s tribute to the courtesan.

Benegal’s heroine Begum sings a number of sad songs about the men by whom she is exploited throughout her life, she is generous with her money and métier, and she meets with a tragic end. Fate is against her, and yet, she soldiers on.

Sardari Begum is based on a story by Khalid Mohamed and Shama Zaidi. Benegal made a film on a similar theme, Bhumika (1977), based on the memoirs of the Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. Smita Patil turned in an effective performance as an actress who has a lot in common with Begum.

Benegal also approached the subject of courtesans in the bawdy comedy Mandi (1983), featuring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. In Sardari Begum, he combines the two themes and gives it a dramatic whodunit treatment on the surface, gradually parsing a story out of familiar tropes, with one adjustment: the courtesan is no damsel-in-distress.

Composer Vanraj Bhatia’s excellent musical score and Javed Akhtar’s lyrics empower Begum to sing like no one’s listening.

In the opening scene, Begum (Kirron Kher), a popular thumri exponent well past her prime, is shown pottering in the kitchen, preparing a meal and humming the tune Chali Pi Ke Nagar (Going to the house of my beloved). She sits down with her tanpura for her daily practice when she hears a commotion in the street below her house. She walks over to the verandah and is struck by a stone hurled in the communal riot that has erupted in the vicinity. Begum succumbs to her injury.

Chali Pi Ke Nagar.

After giving viewers a taste of Begum’s musical prowess, Benegal immediately removes her from the narrative, deepening the aura surrounding her. A reporter, Tehzeeb (Rajina Raj Basaria), is assigned to cover the funeral, where she discovers that she is related to Begum.

What follows in a Rashomon-style narrative in which Tehzeeb gathers contradictory information about Begum’s life. In the to-and-fro that follows between Tehzeeb’s inquiries and flashback sequences, the truth is complex. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” Julian Barnes wrote in his novella The Sense of an Ending. It’s the same kind of problem with which Tehzeeb struggles while trying to draw a fair profile of her deceased aunt.

Smriti Mishra plays the young Begum, a woman despairing to sing and whose ambitions are curtailed by her domineering father. She runs away from her home in Agra to train with the courtesan Iddan Bai (the name is a riff on Jaddan Bai, the 20th-century singer and mother of actress Nargis). Surekha Sikri plays Iddan Bai. She is shown singing one of the first thumris, Sanwariya Dekh Zara Iss Or.

Sanwariya Dekh Zara Iss Or.

Indian classical singer Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar’s voice is accompanied by the tabla, harmonium, tanpura and the sarangi. Iddan Bai croons a sensuous number that sends the seated patron Hemraj (Amrish Puri) into raptures. As Bai sings Javed Akhtar’s lyrics “Toote na yeh dor” (The string that binds us should not break), she is interrupted by the arrival of Begum, the young girl who will become her pupil. The scene symbolically establishes the passing over of the courtesan’s trade from the old to the young.

Begum must first prove her vocal talents in the gathering. She recites the marsiya (a poem written to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain) Hussain Jab Ke Chale Baad Dopahar, written by the 19th-century Urdu poet Mir Anees Mir. A version of the marsiya was also recorded by Lata Mangeshkar in Shankar Husain (1977), featuring Khayyam’s music.

In Tikekar’s playback voice, Begum displays an accomplished talent. The use of Tikekar’s vocals for both female characters makes it clear why Iddan Bai will take an instant liking to the woman who barged in. Begum echoes Bai’s guttural virtuosity. Hemraj (Amrish Puri) is equally besotted by Begum.

Raah Mein Bichi Hai.

In the Begum-Bai duet performance that follows, Raah Mein Bichi Hai, sung by Tikekar and Shubha Joshi, the scene marks Begum’s prowess as a performer, matching scale and pitch with her teacher. Hemraj ushers her into his house, much to the annoyance of his wife. Begum performs for his musical gatherings, where she sings the poignant tune Ghar Nahi Hamre Shyam, which catches the eye of Sadiq (Rajit Kapur).

Begum also performs on the dance track Chahe Maar Daalo Raja in Sadiq’s presence, when he decides to exploit her vocal calibre. This number is rendered in Asha Bhosle’s upbeat voice, implying Begum’s vocal range when singing a lighter melody. Sadiq romances her and whisks her away to Delhi, away from Hemraj’s baleful eyes, and promises her a career as a recording artist. Bhosle sings More Kanhaa Jo Aaye in a recording studio, signifying that when she is with Sadiq, her voice is put to commercial use and has a light timbre.

Chahe Maar Daalo Raja.

As the sarangi player recollects memories of the singer for Tehzeeb’s research, the flashback device is employed to stage yet another superlative performance, Ghir Ghir Aayi, sung by Tikekar. Here, the roles are reversed, with Begum teaching her daughter Sakina (Rajeshwari Sachdev) the ropes. Begum has split with Sadiq and her funds are drying up. Sakina, a pupil she is grooming in the tradition, is her only hope for financial security.

Begum wants to push her daughter into stage performances, but the crowd boos Sakina during a performance of Ghir Ghir Aayi. An irritated Begum storms out, but not before the brassy chanteuse lashes out at the unruly crowd for not encouraging a newcomer.

Ghir Ghir Aayi.

The final track that Begum sings, Huzoor Itna Karam Hum Par, is a message of rejection for recording studio manager Salim (Manik Sen), who offers to marry Begum. She is done with all the men who have tried to possess her. She wants to devote her life to her daughter. But Sakina is not done with Begum.

Huzoor Itna Agar Hum Par.

In her version of her mother, Sakina paints a grim picture of a woman who had hardened because of her suffering. Sakina mirrors the feelings of Tehzeeb, whose relationship with her father Jabbar (Shrivallabh Vyas), has soured because of her independent nature. The two women bond in grief.

In her dying moments, Sakina reveals, Begum requested her to sing, confessing that it was the only heritage a woman of her status could leave for her daughter. Sakina sings Chali Pi Ke Nagar so that the dying heritage may continue.

Chali Pi Ke Nagar.