‘Extraordinary ... details what makes women characters iconic in Hindi cinema and analyses them in relation to their directors arid, more importantly, to the society at that point of time’
Its been a long hundred years since Dadasaheb Phalke had to settle for a man to play the heroin in India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913) — and women in Hindi cinema have come a long way since then. Mother Maiden Mistress documents that journey: from a time when cinema was considered a profession beneath the dignity of respectable: women to an era in which women actors are icons and idols. Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli sift through six decades of history, bringing to life the women who peopled cinema and the popular imagination, and shaped fashion and culture.
Contemporary readers will also find here a nuanced historical perspective
— of the social milieu of the time, of the nation and of Hindi cinema itself.
Also riveting are the first-person narratives of a leading actress from each decade ( Waheeda Rehman, Asha Prekh, 1-fema Malini, Shabana Azmi, Madhuri Digit and Rani Mukheri) all close-up examinations of how some f the iconic characters of Hindi cinema came to be.
At once a guide, an archive and a cracking good read, the book records and reviews the woman in Hind, cinema — the mythical, the Sati-Savitri,
the rebel, the avant-garde and the contemporary. In a tourney through six decades of cinema, seemingly, the more things have changed,
the more they have remained the same.
Bhawana Somaaya has been a film critic for over thirty years and has contributed columns to publications like the Hindu, the Hindustan Times, the Pioneer and the Sunday Observer. She is the former editor of Screen and has authored ten books on cinema that include her latest book, Amitabh Lexicon (2011), her third on Amitabh Bachchan after Bachchanalia (2009) and The Legend (1999). Her books are a point of reference for students studying cinema at Whistling Woods and Manipal University. Somaaya is the film expert with the radio channel 92.7 BIG FM and has a link of Bollywood updates every morning. She has a weekly show on Zee Cinema every Friday. She contributes weekly columns to the Hans India and Janmabhoomi Pravasi, and is on the advisory panel of the Censor Board of Film Certification. She has two more books in the pipeline.
Off the brand management and marketing wagon, JIGNA KOTHARI turned entrepreneur with Natraj Creations/the WORD to provide qualitative research and niche writing services where her credits include working on The Making of Om Shanti Om and Still Reading Khan.
After fifteen years as a writer in print media, with stints at Mid-Day and the Hindustan Times, SUPRIYA MAD NGARLI has spent the past five years in research and writing for the WORD. Her area of interest is gender and film studies, specifically when the two converge.
The third of May 1913. The Coronation Cinematograph Theatre, packed to the hilt, watches a bevy of ‘women’ in wet saris cavorting around a fountain. The film is Raja Harishchandra, India’s first feature film, and the women are men in wigs and costumes. This was not what the director Dhundiraj Govind Phalke had wanted. He had hoped to find ‘real’ women to play the role of Queen Taramati and the other female characters in the film but had failed. He had advertised in the newspapers, and even visited women in the red-light area. But the women there didn’t fit into Phalke’s vision for they were ‘dark, ugly and emaciated persons’.1 Queen Taramati’s role was reluctantly given to a young man, Anna Salunke, who became quite well known for his female impersonations, playing both Sita and Ram in Phalke’s Lanka Dahan.
Sometime later, when Phalke heard that a travelling drama company was going to pull up its tents for six months, he requested the director to lend him two of his actresses for his next film, Mohini Bhasmasur. SaysKamlabai Gokhale (née Kamat), who was all of fourteen years at the time, ‘Phalke Saab had heard that our company was closing down for six months. So he came and requested our director to allow my mother and me to act in his film. That’s how I got to play the lead role. My mother played Parvati.’2
Kamlabai and her motherDurga thus became the first women to act in an Indian feature film, one of the many testaments to the pioneering spirit of Phalke. He was also the first to set up a studio — Phalke Films — a space which included shooting stages, post-production labs, residential areas, a canteen and apparently even a zoo. The company later became the Hindustan Film Company when Phalke accepted an offer from some textile industrialists of Bombay to run the studio as a partnership.
A scene in Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory (2009),a Marathi biopic which lovingly recreates the era, has Phalke and his family, having watched The Life of Jesus Christ, discuss what to call what they had had just seen: chitra malika — a photo serial; pardevarchi natak — a play on screen; or haiti chitra - moving pictures. In those early days that’s what cinema was — a series of moving pictures put together with a basic shooting script. The camera was static and all the action happened inside the frame. The stories told were the ones audiences were familiar with — mythology, folklore and stories they grew up on.
However, as the industry grew, cinematographic practices began to change. The 1920s saw the film business booming, with exhibitors targeting not only cities but regional centres and villages too. Films often had bilingual cue cards — dialogues written in Urdu, Hindi, Marathi and English — giving the exhibitor the flexibility to traverse between Bombay and villages in the interiors of the country. The Hindu in 1926 writes of a cinema car attached to trains that would have the required equipment and would busy itself ‘regularly touring all along the lines, giving open-air shows to audiences varying from 1,000 to 10,000’. In the cities, the early shows were held in marquee tents, then in converted theatre halls. In Bombay, it was the Opera House or the premises of buildings with enough space like Framji Cawasji Institute at Dhobi Talao, Watson’s Hall or the Town Hall. By the 1930s, with the advent of sound, the business of cinema in Bombay had exploded with eighty-five film companies with well-equipped studios. Correspondingly, exhibition spaces came up, art-deco-style theatres like Regal (1933), Plaza (1935), Central Cinema (1936), Broadway (1937) and Eros (1938).
The world changed radically for film industries across the globe In 1927, with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, which starred Al Jolson and which had the memorable tag line: ‘See him — and hear him sing.’ It was only a matter of time before the talkies came to India. On the first day of the release of India’s first talkie — Imperial Film Company and Ardeshir lrani’s Alam Ara, starring Master Vithal and Zubeida and featuring ten songs — Majestic Theatre was surrounded by huge mobs fighting to buy tickets. Black market vendors did brisk business, selling the tickets at twenty times their price. On 2 April 1931, the Bombay Chronicle noted that ‘with due restraint and thoughtful direction, the players could by their significant acting and speech evolve dramatic values to which the silent cinema cannot possibly aspire’.
Sound raised the question of language. Silent films allowed one the freedom of holding up title cards that could be customized to the language of the audience. At times there were narrators who became performers in their own right, and who would read out the cards in the particular dialect of the region. With sound, there was a need for dialogues, and the directors turned to old friends of the silent era — eminent playwrights of the Urdu—Parsi theatre of the time like Aga Hashr Kashmiri (Chandidas, Yahudi Ki Ladki) and Narayan Prasad Betaab (Miss, Barrister’s Wife, Keemti Aansoo) — who not only wrote actory and dialogues but lyrics too. Sound also gave birth to film music. Sound technicians, musicians, music directors and, more importantly, singing actors were added to the roster. To act in a Hindi talkie meant that the actors needed to master the language, which meant training in lirdu and Hindi. Directors scoured the stage to source actors who could orate, pull off monologues, and do justice to the dialogues.
One aspect of women in the early days of Indian cinema needs to be highlighted. It was white-skinned actresses (mostly referred to as Anglo Indians) who were more popular and in demand, with advertisements of plays often highlighting the presence of a ‘Gori Miss’ (white lady) or ‘houris’ (fairies) from paradise. For one thing, films were considered a disreputable business and women from traditional Indian households would not have anything to do with them. In contrast; women of Baghdadi
Jewish origins and Anglo-Indians were willing to step into films. At the same time, in her paper, Kathyrn Hensen attributes the audience acceptance and desire for these actresses to the fact that ‘the male Indian spectator could possess the “English” beauty, and in so doing enact a reversal of the power relations that prevailed in British- dominated colonial society’.3
Ruby Meyers, aka Sulochana,was a telephone operator before she was discovered and introduced in Kohinoor Film Company’s Veer Bala (1925) directed by Mohan Bhavnani. One of the reigning stars through the late 1920s and the early 1930s, her claim to fame included the fact that at one point she earned more than the governor of Bombay. Esther Abrahams, aka Pramilla, came to films from a Parsi travelling theatre company. A well-educated girl, with pre-university art certificates from London, she became famous for her roles as a vamp and a stunt star. Patience Cooper, who used her own name, worked as a dancer for a Eurasian troupe, the Bandmann’s Musical Comedy, and also with Madan Theatres and the Parsi Theatrical Company before being introduced to films. Her roles were mostly of a naïve, sensuous woman caught in the web of passion.4 She was famous for her role in Madan Theatres’ Pati Bhakti (1922), as the devoted and submissive wife Leelavati whose antithesis was the other woman played by an Italian actress Signora Minelli who was apparently dressed in semi-transparent costumes. Renee Smith also worked as an actress with Madan Theatres before assuming the pseudonym of Seeta Devi in Himansu Rai’s Prem Sanyas. Other actresses included Iris Gasper, aka Sabita Devi; Susan Soloman, aka Firoza Begum; Effie Hippolet, aka Indira Devi; Bonnie Bird, aka Lalita Devi; Beryl Claessen, aka Madhuri; and Winnie Stewart, aka Manorama.
A significant event for the film industry in India was the arrival of Durga Khote in Ayodheycha Raja (1932). A highly educated, English
speaking Brahmin girl, she changed the perception that it was only ‘)low caste’ or outcaste women who entered the film industry, and made films an acceptable proposition for women from ‘respectable’ fillmies. Her contemporary Devika Rani, the daughter of Indian Surgeon General M.N. Chaudhry, was not just an accomplished actress but also well versed and trained in cinematography and film-making. By the mid 193Os, ‘Indian’ actresses were beginning to make inroads into Hindi films. Shanta Apte, trained classical singer, became well known pa s singing star. Introduced in films in 1932, she shone in Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane. Then there was Shobhana Samarth who was introduced in 1935, and was most known for her role as Sita in Vijay Bhatt’s highly acclaimed Bharat Milap (1942).
The era of the studios offered an eclectic fare — social melodramas, costume films (quasi-historical and fantasy) and stunt films (adventure stories, revenge sagas). Nationalist films gained ground in the late 1930s and 1940s. Studios such as New Theatres in Bengal looked to literature, adapting novels written by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and Mankim Chandra Chatterjee. Contemporary India and its class distinctions began to be presented. New Theatres and Barua’s Devdas — first in Bengalil927) and then in Hindi (1935) — was a case in point, presenting to India and Hindi cinema a legendary icon as potent as any mythic hero. Authors like Narayan Apte and Dayaram Shah were on the rosters of studios such as Prabhat and Ranjit Movietone, and were highly successful in presenting contemporary issues in social films (often with a reformist agenda). Mythological films continued to be made, but more importantly, myth and folklore provided religious and historical events as plot points for love stories and also influenced ‘modern’ stories, where contemporary issues were taken up. The early films — from the silent era up to the 1930s — use these plot points to uphold patriarchy. These films showed the dangers of exposing women to the capitalist, ‘modern’ system, and the fear of discarding tradition for female autonomy. However, there were an equal number of films where the female protagonists were used to dissect patriarchal norms, show the corruption of the feudal hegemonic practices in villages and the newly created capitalist culture in the cities.
Imperial Films’Samaj Ki Bhool (1934) has a father selling his daughter to a rich man. When widowed, she is forced into prostitution by circumstances. The film ends with her married to the hero, a former suitor. Indira MA (1934) has the heroine rejecting the good husband for a more educated and rich playboy. In Inquilab (1935), the heroine goes against her lover, a businessman, when she finds that he had been profiting from the victims of an earthquake. She allies with Musafir, a blind traveller. It comes to light that she had been engaged to Musafir as a child but the engagement had been broken when his family came to know that she belonged to a lower caste. In the end, she dies in Musafir’s arms after a violent confrontation with her erstwhile lover’s goons.
Ranjit Movie tone’s dominant genre seems to be social films. Though presenting conflicting images of women, most of them have reformist themes. Gunsundari (silent, 1927) portrayed the tradition-bound housewife, who loses her husband to a dancing girl, stepping out into society — she needs to be a ‘modern’ woman to ensure her husband’s fidelity. The remake of the film in 1935 followed a more regressive mode, with the wife playing a far more submissive role. She is shown as the ‘bahu’ trying to hold the joint family together. In Keemti Aansoo (1935), the writer—heroine is derided for her progressive ideals and kicked out of the house by her oppressive mother-in-law and vampish sister-in-law. Barrister’s Wife (1935) follows the story of a mother and daughter. In love with an artist, the mother is forced to marry another. When her beloved falls ill, she nurses him. Enraged, her husband casts her out and severs her connection with her daughter. Years later, the daughter, educated in the West and a lawyer, has to defend her mother against murder charges while facing her boyfriend who is the prosecutor and her father who is the judge.
Prabhat Film’s offerings — the ones directed by V. Shantaram — had strong feminist underpinnings. Dunzya Na Mane (1938), based on the Marathi novel Na Patnari Gosht by Narayan Apte, is about a woman forced to marry a man old enough to be her father. The heroine refuses to consummate the marriage and is supported in her cause by her husband’s widowed daughter. Shamed by his wife, the old man commits suicide so that his wife can marry again. Despite fears to the contrary, the controversial subject was both critically and commercially appreciated. Shantaram’s Amar Jyoti (1936) has a queen-turned-pirate who rebels against the orthodox system and an evil minister when denied legal custody of her son after the death of her husband. His Aadmi (1939) followed the love and fortunes of Moti, a constable who falls in love with Kesar (Shanta Hublikar), a dancing girl. The female lead is shown as a strong, independent woman who does not want her reputation to be a burden on Moti. The film ends with her killing her evil uncle and refusing her beloved’s help, preferring to stay in prison.
Bombay Talkies had unusual heroines, not surprisingly given that it was headed by Devika Rani. In Achhut Kanya (1936), the heroine is an untouchable who falls in love with a Brahmin man; in Jeevan Naiya (1936), she is the daughter of a dancing girl, brought up by a social worker; in Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), a crime thriller that includes a murder, she runs away with her childhood sweetheart on the day of her wedding. When her sweetheart stands accused, the heroine, Kamla, promptly confesses to the murder, though all ends well. In Jeevan Naiya, when the protagonist’s husband comes to know of her past on their wedding day, he rejects her. Later, he is blinded by an explosion and she nurses him back to health and all ends well.
Another studio that re-rewrote the rules as far as women on screen were concerned was Wadia Movie tone. It came into being in 1933 with brothers J.B.H. Wadia and Homi Wadia entering into partnership with film distributor and exhibitor Manchersha Billimoria, and members of the Tata family. The Wadia brothers are best known for giving Indian cinema its first and only truly ‘action’ woman, the original ‘khiladi’: Fearless Nadia. Films like Hunterwali (1935) and Miss Frontier Mail (1936) introduced a woman the likes of which Indian cinema has not seen.
The Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), established in 1935, had a deep impact on films. Mohan Bhavnani’s Mazdoor (1934), scripted by Premchand, is credited with the first realistic portrayal of workers in Bombay. Members like Kishen Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were often engaged as scenarists and writers in films, and poets Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi provided the lyrics. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) also produced films - like K.A. Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal and Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, and supported V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani — which addressed progressive themes.
The 1940s saw the beginning of the end of the studio system. The war years witnessed the entry of profiteers who poured in money to finance film-makers and stars, who had begun to chafe at the increasingly autocratic nature of the studio bosses. Film-makers who had separated from their parent studios began to flourish. Mehboob Khan, who made films under the banner of Sagar Movie tone, now began his own production outfit, Mehboob Khan Productions, which made some of the successful commercial films of the time, including Jhoola and Bahen (1941), Roti (1942), Anmol Ghadi (1946), and Andaz (1949).
After the death of Himansu Rai, Devika Rani split Bombay Talkies into two units - one under the charge of Amiya Chakravarty and the other under Shashadhar Mukherjee. Shashadhar Mukherjee made movies under S. Mukherjee Productions but broke away in 1943 to form Filmistan which is credited by the Encyclo paedia of Hindi Cinema (edition 2006) with introducing to Hindi films ‘a Hollywood notion of genre’ and revolutionizing ‘distribution with mid budget genre productions selling mainly on star value and their music’ by the early 1950s. The year 1949 saw the birth of Raj Kapoor’s company RK Studios with Barsaat, and Navketan Films with Afsar.
With the change in the profile of the financers came a change in the way women began to be represented in cinema. The idealism and progressive outlook of the PWA and of studios like Prabhat, New Theatres and Bombay Talkies gave way to more commercial considerations and increasingly male-centric themes. There seem to be fewer women-oriented family socials in the 1940s, the trend towards the traditional ‘SOs already rearing its head. There were a few notable exceptions such as Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal in 1949 (financed by the Film Corporation of India), and the films made by IPTA, but it is Mehboob Khan’s Aurat (1940) and Andaz (1949) that see women begin and end the decade in traditional mores.
Aurat and Andaz have heroines at either end of the spectrum. Aurat is the tale of a peasant who works in the field with her husband and lnars the burden of the land. She is the predecessor to Mother India and establishes <>bMehboob’s ideal of Indian womanhood, ever ready to sacrifice her identity and self for the family, but standing firm on Principles and morality. In Andaz, the heroine belongs to the educated, modern upper class where the ‘freedom’ given to women takes away from their chastity and humility. Nina (Nargis) befriends Dilip (Dilip Kumar) and maintains her slightly flirtatious relationship with him, disregarding her father’s warning. Dilip falls in love with Nina but is shocked to find that she is engaged to Rajan (Raj Kapoor), whom Nina has never even mentioned to Dilip. Dilip confesses his love to Nina on her wedding day and she refuses him saying he was just a friend. Her marriage is increasingly fraught with tension and the climax has an obsessed Dilip advancing towards Nina, insisting that she loves him. She shoots him. The film ends with Nina in prison, ruing her modern ways, and asking her husband to bring up their daughter in a way that she does not commit her mother’s mistakes.
Nina seems to be the 1940s’ legacy to the 1950s, where the ideal of self-effacing womanhood is seen in most successful films of the decade. Even as cinematic practices in form and technology sought to break away from conventions and adopt realistic formats and plot, the content, and the texts and subtexts when it came to women, returned to their mythological and religious roots.
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