The Courtesans of Bombay is a modest, 73-minute look at a little-seen corner of Indian society. Its subjects are singing and dancing ''courtesans'' who support themselves by entertaining small crowds in their living quarters, clustered in a tenement compound known as Pavanpul or Pavan Pool.
Ismail Merchant, the film's director and producer, takes an approach that falls between fiction and documentary - photographing real courtesans in their normal habitats and introducing fictional characters who discuss and explain them. I'd be happier if Merchant more clearly labeled the factual and fictitious elements, but I was quickly won over by some of the made-up characters, including a Julia Child sound-alike who shares with us her interminable pickle recipe.
It's a minor work. Still, it's nice to have a feature-directing debut from Merchant, who usually serves as producer in the filmmaking team of himself, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Their names also appear in the credits of ''The Courtesans of Bombay,'' which arrives just in time to celebrate the trio's 21st anniversary as collaborators - also being marked, incidentally, by a complete Merchant Ivory Productions retrospective (through Dec. 30) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at which ''Courtesans'' was an opening-day attraction.