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Pioneering International Actresses – the First Women of Indian Cinema

The first full-length feature film (four reels) made in India was 1913’s Raja Harischandra directed by filmmaker Dadasaheb Phalke. Phalke advertised in the local papers for actresses, but the only response he got was from prostitutes as acting was considered a disreputable occupation for women. The prostitutes did not meet Phalke’s standards for female beauty, and he amended his ads to say: “Only good-looking women should come for interview.” A suitable leading lady still didn’t materialize, and in despair, he went scouting in Bombay’s ‘red-light district. Finally, he cast a young man, a cook, he named Anna Salunke, to play the lead in his film.

But when this film became a hit, for his next film, Mohini Basmasur, Phalke had better luck. A Marathi stage actress, Kamlabai Gokhale, also known as Kamla Kamat, then only 13, took the lead role of Mohini, and her mother, Durgabai Kamat, played the goddess Parvati. Severe social ostracism followed the two in their conservative Brahmin community, and the practice of men playing women onscreen continued for a while.

The women who first defied the norms and accepted work in the film industry were from the Eurasian and Jewish communities in India which were more liberal in allowing women the freedom to work, so they could buck the prevalent patriarchal system. Since the films were silent, the actresses did not need fluency in the local languages. Others from local communities followed in their footsteps, mostly from wealthy families, who could afford to weather the ostracism that ensued until attitudes became more liberal.

The first woman to be a superstar was a telephone operator called Ruby Myers from the Baghdadi Jewish community, who assumed the screen name Sulochana.

Here are some other pioneering women of Indian cinema –

·  Patience Cooper (1905-1983) was an Anglo-Indian actress who started her career in silent films and made the transition to talkies. She began her career as a dancer and stage actress and acted in more than 40 films in her career till the mid-’30s. The film that established her as a star was 1920’s Nala Damayanti, a big-budget mythological production directed by the Italian Eugenio de Liguoro. She made another film with him, Dhruvatara, that aimed for an international audience by casting many Europeans in it; Cooper played the lead. Her biggest hit was the 1922 film Pati Bhakti which ran afoul of the censors because of a provocative dance. Cooper also played the first double roles in Indian cinema – that of sisters in Patni Pratap (1923) and mother-daughter in Kashmiri Sundari (1924). She retired in 1944 and migrated to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. She is said to have adopted or fostered 17 children.

·   Mary Ann Evans (1908-1996), known as Fearless Nadia, was born in Australia. Her father was an army officer who was posted to India and died in WWI. She was a natural athlete who toured with a ballet troupe for a while, and then joined the Zarko Circus in 1930. The founder of the studio Wadia Movietone took a chance on the blonde, blue-eyed youngster and gave her a cameo role in Desh Deepak and Noor-e-Yaman. Upon the advice of a fortune-teller, she changed her name to Nadia. She is best known for her role as Hunterwali (Lady with the Whip, 1935) as a crusader sporting leather shorts, a mask and cape, in which she performed several stunts such as fighting with lions and jumping from running trains that made her very popular with audiences. The film even became an international success making her the first crossover actress. A sequel, Hunterwali Ki Beti (1943) was the first sequel ever made in India.

·   Devika Rani Chaudhuri (1908-1994), known as Devika Rani, is considered the first lady of Indian cinema and the ‘Indian Garbo.’ Born into a wealthy and cultured family (her mother was the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s poet laureate), she grew up in England and married an Indian producer, Himanshu Rai, in 1929. The two made the bilingual Karma in 1933, both in Hindi and English that premiered in England, the first talkie in English made by an Indian. It became notorious for the longest kissing scene in a movie – four minutes – and that record still stands. Back in India, they set up a production studio, Bombay Talkies.

Their first film was Jawani Ki Hawa of 1935 which co-starred Devika Rani and Najm-ul-Hassan and was completely shot on a train. The two co-stars fell in love and eloped during the production of their next film Jeevan Naiya. She was persuaded to return to her husband when the future of their studio was threatened and she realized how ostracizing a divorce would be, but the two remained estranged while the lover fell into obscurity after his reputation and career were ruined. Devika Rani would be paired in future films with Ashok Kumar who would go on to have a legendary career in Bollywood. They made ten films together, among them Acchut Kanya (1936), Jeevan Prabhat (1937) and Durga (1939), most of them tragedies with socially relevant themes. After Rai died in 1940, there was a dispute about the ownership of the studio and Devika Rani retired from the industry soon after. She was reported to be nicknamed the ‘dragon lady’ for “smoking, drinking, cursing and hot temper.”

·   Zubeida Begum Dhanrajgir (1911-1990) was the first woman to act in talkies. After a successful career in silent films, she acted in India’s first talkie, Alam Ara of 1931. She hailed from a royal family – her father was the Nawab of Sachin State and her mother, Fatima Begum was also an actress and India’s first female film director.

Zubeida started her career at age 12. Along with her sister Sultana, she made a couple of silent films, Veer Abhimanyu (1922) and Kalyan Shajina (1924), then broke out on her own in films like Kala Chor, Devdasi and Desh Ka Dushman in 1925. She was directed by her mother in Bulbul Paristan in 1926. Her career in talkies lasted through the 40s. Especially notable were the mythological films she made, as well as a controversial film called Zarina in 1932 in which her onscreen kissing scenes drew condemnation from critics. In 1934, she set up her own studio, Mahalakshmi Movietone.

·  Esther Victoria Abraham (1916-2006), known by the screen name Pramila, was a Baghdadi Jew who left home at the age of 17 to join a theater company. According to thejewsofindia.com, her first job in the film industry was to keep the audience entertained when the reels were changed in the projector. As an actor, she mostly played seductress roles in films like Mahamaya (1936), Hamari Betiyan (1936), Sarla (1937) and the first technically successful Indian color film Mother India (1938). She was also notable in performing her own stunts; the first time was in the film Jungle King of 1939. She also set up a production company, Silver Films, with her husband, the actor Kumar, in 1942; she played the lead in their first film Jhankar in which she sang three songs. She continued working for the next two decades.

Pramila was a rebel in every way. She eloped as a teenager with a Hindu theater director, then married a Muslim actor (the afore-mentioned Kumar), and when he emigrated to Pakistan, lived with another man for forty years. She was the first Miss India in 1947.

·  Shanta Apte (1916-1964) worked in both Hindi and Marathi films after being discovered at age 9 in 1932. Her most famous roles were from the 30s – Amar Jyoti (1936) and Duniya Na Mane (1937) in which she played a woman who leaves her husband, a bold move back then. She worked until the late 1950s. She was also a singer and sang her own songs in her films – this was the era before the ‘playback’ singers who actually recorded the songs that were lip-synched by the onscreen actors. To get out of a punitive contract with Prabhat Studios, she staged a hunger strike at their gates in 1939. It is also reported that she visited a film journalist whose writing she did not like and hit him with a cane. Hers was one of the first autobiographies to be published of an actor Jau Mi Cinemat (Should I Join Films) in Marathi.

·   Naseem Banu (1916-2002) was known as pari chehra (angel face) and was the first bona fide superstar of Indian cinema. She was born into a wealthy aristocratic family and determined to be an actress from an early age when she visited a film set as a child. When she was offered a role in Hamlet by a famous Indian producer, her family was horrified, but the teenager went on a hunger strike till she got her way. Her career started in earnest when she found she that no college was willing to admit her because of the stigma attached to being an actress. She worked with two studios, Minerva Movietone where she made her finest movie, the historical epic Pukar (1939); and Filmistan; and she acted opposite all the leading men of the day in movies like Khan Bahadur (1937), Meetha Zeher (1938), Talaaq (1938), Vasanti (1938), and Begum (1944). Most of her leading men were a decade younger than her. She retired in the mid 50s; her daughter Saira Banu would also become a huge movie star.

The silent era of Indian films extended from 1913 to 1931. Of the 1,338 films made, aside from 29, the rest have been lost forever.