ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

'Moving beyond Themselves'

The first female roles enacted on stage were played by men. The first women who tried to break the boundaries and appear on stage were those who came from communities seen as "marginal" or too "forward", for instance, the Anglo-Indians. Those who came from "respectable" communities, such as actors from established Parsi families, faced the threat of being ostracised. Acceptance by the audience and a female actor's ability and success in playing roles other than the merely conventional also belonged to those who could physically claim a distance from India and Indians, as seen in Nadia's success in the stunt movies. But as more and more women came to dominate the stage and later, even films, they had to pay the price for breaking the bonds of convention. Most of them faded away after a short screen life and were later berated for their inability to settle down as conventional "wives" and "mothers". This article traces the careers of some women, a few who came to dominate the stage, those who played memorable roles in the silent film and talkie era and others who distinguished themselves as singers, only to fade into oblivion a few years later.

‘Moving beyond Themselves’

Women in Hindustani Parsi Theatre and Early Hindi Films

The first female roles enacted on stage were played by men. The first women who tried to break the boundaries and appear on stage were those who came from communities seen as “marginal” or too “forward”, for instance, the Anglo-Indians. Those who came from “respectable” communities, such as actors from established Parsi families, faced the threat of being ostracised. Acceptance by the audience and a female actor’s ability and success in playing roles other than the merely conventional also belonged to those who could physically claim a distance from India and Indians, as seen in Nadia’s success in the stunt movies. But as more and more women came to dominate the stage and later, even films, they had to pay the price for breaking the bonds of convention. Most of them faded away after a short screen life and were later berated for their inability to settle down as conventional “wives” and “mothers”. This article traces the careers of some women, a few who came to dominate the stage, those who played memorable roles in the silent film and talkie era and others who distinguished themselves as singers, only to fade into oblivion a few years later.


n the beginning was the Hindustani Parsi theatre. Picture this… The crucial third bell peals, the velvet curtains roll up and the background music is struck for Chandravali Natika. A pretty young flower girl steps out of the wings with a basket in her arms, and begins to mince her way across the stage, singing the hit song, ‘Do phool jani le lo’ (buy two flowers from me my love!) in a high soprano voice. The all male audience goes into a frenzy. Admirers whistle, blow kisses and roar, ‘Wasi too zinda wasi’! (may you live long dear Wasi!). If stage legend is to be believed, some fans of Wasi were so overcome by emotions that they ripped their sleeves and fell in a dead faint in the aisles.

This pretty vendor of flowers men were ready to kill for, was a young boy, master Wasi of Lahore. He was not the only one. There was also master Nisar, a young boy, whose money and alcohol loving father kept him under vigil day and night. His golden soprano, it is said, could rise above the scales available on the keys of the harmonium. He dominated the stage from 1915 to 1935 but died of various kinds of addictions including opium and alcohol.

To present-day readers news of such behaviour might seem kinky or bizarre. But it is vital that we recognise the interconnections between these young baby-faced Parsi theatre players of female roles and the present-day portrayal of women in Hindi films. Their femininity may be different in scope and degree, but not in kind. As women in the accepted sense of the term in India, they have all been created, not born. The Hindustani Parsi theatre which polished and polished the art of female impersonation by male actors, was not only the real precursor of Hindi films but also formed the nursery for most of the early stars later to grace the silver screen in India. From Parsi theatre Hindi cinema also inherited its audiences and many of its histrionic traditions. And certainly there was much more to this womanhood than a mere stuffing of bosoms.

Early Years of Theatre

India of the 1920s was a society where sexes were firmly segregated. Women from good families dared not come out into the ‘mardaan khanas’ (spacious living rooms for men) of their own house, where their husbands sat smoking their hookahs, chewing pan and watching nautch girls dance and sing with their male friends. Yet all communities, including the otherwise progressive Parsis, believed that the presence of real flesh and blood women in theatre groups and on stage would corrode moral values and lead to extremes of debauchery. So not only female impersonators but also editors, thespians, directors and theatre owners, all came together in blocking real women from joining commercial theatre companies and enacting female roles on stage. Men, even company men, it was said, were so unused to serving women at close quarters within their theatrical territory, that poor Jamshetji Batliwala (of Victoria Company) had suffered a stroke when he woke from sleep suddenly, and found a woman (one Miss Fatima) in his room.

The basic reason for such extreme reactions lay in the nature of marital relationships between man and wife in “respectable” families. Marriage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was mostly a euphemism for a socially sanctioned tie-up based less on individuals and more on considerations of caste and class, not romantic love. Sex was for procreation (‘prajapatye’), and the perpetuation of the family bloodlines. There were many large joint families where husband and wife could come together only in the dead of the night, to part before dawn like strangers. Most adults had no opportunity for sexual experience before marriage, and millions of married couples when the husband had to migrate to another city for work of trade, faithfully endured long separations – two to three full years or a decade or more, in separate provinces.

The Indian script for romance, therefore, decreed that an ideal man-woman union must be 90 per cent loyalty and mutual respect and 10 per cent sexual gratification. And since sex was not the glue of love, and abstinence caused by frequent segregation was supposed to impart much spiritual cleansing, it was but natural, that, in theatre and poetry, thoughts of love between man and woman, should turn to fantasising. So we have plays about old forgotten kings and queens, gods and demi-gods/and goddesses, who could love with great abandon. They did not have to indulge in lovemaking only to bear children. They also did not seek permanent partnership to appease the souls of one’s forefathers. They also could, and did, resolve all disputes if need be, not by lovers’ quarrels or dialogue, but direct divine intervention.

Still humankind being prone to frequent libidinous transgressions, discipline for young female impersonaters, and later for female actors, was often extreme and harsh. The man who was most feared as a stickler for discipline, was Sohrabji Ogra, also known as Sorabji Seth, of Victoria Natak Mandali. He was strongly opposed to the idea of women playing themselves in plays and quit the Alfred Company in protest when others insisted on having them. Later he founded a new company, The New Alfred, which did not employ women till as long as Ogra was in charge.

Sometime ago while collecting material for a book on Hindustani threatre, I came across Master Champalal, an erstwhile player of female roles in various travelling Parsi theatre companies for nearly a decade. He recounted in great detail the intense “sadhana” that was required of young thespians to become the perfect woman on the stage, whose ‘chal dhal’ (gait and graces) even women from good families secretly emulated. Why, in Maharashtra, women copied Bal Gandharva’s style of draping the nine-yard sari, and walking, didn’t they?

Master Champalal himself had still retained some of this acquired “feminine” airs as he reminisced about his past, fluttering his eyelashes, moving his eyebrows up and down suggestively, and making delicate gestures with his hands as he shared a particularly juicy piece of stage-gossip. For the most part, the strange transvestite world, as this talk revealed, was almost conventional, of which parts such as the following would be especially familiar to all women:

  • You must never, ever cut your hair short. Long silky tresses are a must for being a woman.
  • As long as you play at being a female, proximity to males must be a big no! no! If you must meet boy friends or male members of the family, take care the threatre-goers never see you – meet other men, and you risk getting a “reputation”.
  • While travelling, you must sit in separate compartments from male actors and stay in your tents upon arrival. You must never invite men into your tents, whether from the troupe or from the audience.
  • The dance and music teachers would teach you how to modulate your voice and carry yourself. Their word is your command.
  • You should neither drink nor eat spicy food. They
  • spoil the complexion and your voice, and make you manly and “hot-tempered”.

    Thus all communities in India were opposed to women on stage. The credit (then mostly discredit) for introducing women upon the Parsi stage belongs to Dadi Patel for which he received support from Kaikhushrooji Nawaji Kabra (b1842), the editor of the Parsi paper Rast Guftar. The other supporter of women in commercial theatre was the well known actor Kawasji Khatau, who later married the Anglo-Indian actor Mary Fenton and allowed her to act on stage despite mumbled protests from his colleagues. Kawasji was also a great admirer of Shakespeare and was instrumental in getting several of his plays translated (and adapted) in Urdu. Several of these plays went on to become a hit on Parsi stage: Hamlet as Khoon-e-Nahak, Romeo and Juliet as Bazm-e Fani, Winter’s Tale as Murid-e-Shaq, Measure for Measure as Shahid-e-Naaz. Later Kawasji founded his own Alfred Natak Mandali. In 1916 he travelled to Lahore with his troupe to stage plays based on the epics, Mahabharat and Ramayana. An editor, Lalchand ‘Falak’, who asked for free tickets and was miffed upon being denied, spread nasty stories in the city about one Muslim nautch girl (Gauhar) being presented in roles of noble Hindu women such as Sita and Draupadi. The result was an attack on the company and the destruction of its valuable stage props which upset Kawasji deeply and he died soon after a stroke.

    First Female Actresses

    After Batliwala’s Victoria Theatre Company introduced the dazzlingly pretty Anglo-Indian, Miss Mary Fenton, many others followed. Among them were Miss Gauhar, Miss Fatima, Miss Jamila, Miss Bijli, Miss Kamali, Miss Gulab, Miss Ganga and Miss Umda Jan. However Mary Fenton remained the most sought-after female actor. She was the daughter of an Irish soldier who after retirement went around presenting magic lantern shows in Delhi. Mary and after she met Kawasji accidentally and agreed to join his troupe, she rose to be a real star. She played the role of Jogin in the Hindustani play Harishchandra (by Talib) and Bholi Gul (Gujarati) in a play by the same name and both the plays went on to become runaway hits. Miss Gauhar and Miss Khatun were sisters who created a brief flutter by doing female roles in Victoria Company. Miss Khatun had a large circle of passionate admirers, one of whom, it is said, cut off Khatun’s nose after a spat and nipped her career in the bud. The New Alfred Theatre, owned by the Parsi comedian Sohrabji Ogra, held out till the end, against hiring women. It was only after Sohrabji Ogra retired, did the company open its doors to women. Among the women actors, marriage and having a family still exercised a great appeal. Mary Fenton marrying the owner of Victoria, Kawasji Khatau, then quitting the stage to become a respectable Parsi wife, mirrored the aspirational trajectory of a female star.

    According to the testimony of the veteran Parsi theatre actor, master Fida Hussein “Narsi” (the title was bestowed on him for his memorable role as “Narsi” Bhagat) women first entered the commercial theatre around 1910-11. And the actor who heralded the end of female impersonation by young boys was one Miss Bijli who joined the Batliwala Theatre. She was subsequently to shift to another company, the more pro-female New Alfred Theatre where the famed actor-singer Gauhar Jaan’s mother Putli Bai and her sister Sultana were also employed. Dadi Patel eventually managed to bring two Muslim nautch girls from far away Hyderabad, to Mumbai, to act in the musical Inder Sabha (by the 19th writer Amanat). One of them, Latifa Begum, was a dancer and created such a sensation (she danced, we are told till her socks tore), that the playhouse on Grant Road could barely contain the audiences that poured in to see real woman dance in a play. Passions ran high, and came to a head, when one day a rich and unnamed admirer arrived backstage and according to theatre legend, hid the demure Latifa Begum in his overcoat and sped away in his horse carriage. Two other actresses Amir Jan and Moti Jan (both from Punjab) became singing stars. She too finally married one of her many admirers and left the world of theatre along with her sister. Both were not heard of after this.

    By 1926-27, song and dance item numbers by groups of young women had caught theatre goers’ fancy in a big way. The Madan Corinthian Company had a group of 12 Anglo-Indian girls groomed by the company’s dance teacher master Champalal. Among them was one “pari chehra” (fairy-faced) Patience Cooper, who soon became a rage all across north India where the company presented its plays. Patience later married a tea estate owner, one Isphahani Saheb and in 1947 migrated to Pakistan with her husband. Another Anglo-Indian beauty was Molly. She created a sensation but disappeared early, as she could not cope with the extremely harsh discipline of Fida Husein’s company. In those volatile years when theatre artists were considered playthings for the rich and famous, and theatre groups regularly “stole” good actors, dancers and singers from each other, the owners kept a hawklike vigil on their human resources. What was a trickle in 1911 became a flood by 1931. Several of the actors like Angoorbala, Sita Devi, Indubala, Harimati and Kamala Jharia, were also patronised and groomed by His Master’s Voice (HMV) music company, and rose to become famous singing stars. As the company travelled from one state to another and the need for localisation grew, these singing stars and the company’s music directors became invaluable to the company. Together they would pick up and polish some local folk songs and introduce these as a “special item” in whatever plays that were being staged then. These songs became a big draw. Thus Sitadevi’s Punjabi song, ‘Daal galay main bainyan main roye roye jaaniya’ (I would hug you around the neck and weep and weep, my love), in the play Chalta-Purza, brought many “once morein” (once mores), from the audiences in Punjab, and Alexandra Company Heera Bai’s patriotic, ‘Khuda yeh Kaisi museebaton mein, yeh Hind waley padey hue hain’, (oh god what hardship the people of Hind face!) had the audiences yelling “once more !!” in Delhi. Among the famous singing stars were the two Zubeidas, known also as Zubeida one and Zubeida two. The first was the daughter of a Burmese mother and one Hashain Mir. She was born in Rangoon and rose to fame as a singing star in Calcutta’s Moonlight Theatre in the early decades of the 20th century. Zubeida II was the niece of another famous actor Putli Bai. She later joined the silent films and played the lead in the first “talkie” Alam Ara. Angoorbala, who hailed from a family of singing women, had such a lovely rich voice, that she was chosen to play a male lead as Inder in Inder Sabha (by Amanat). The recording company HMV, cut several discs with her. For these, she was paid the princely sum of Rs 80 per disc. It was later when a fiery Bengali musician, K C Dey took up the issue of paying decent royalties to singers, song-writers and music directors, that the company relented and started paying the singers 2.5 per cent of the total sales as royalty.

    World of Motion Pictures

    It was in an atmosphere such as this, that D G Phalke made and released the first Indian motion film, his historic Raja Harish Chandra on May 3, 1913 at the Coronation in Bombay. In the film the role of the selfless king Harish Chandra’s tragic queen Taramati, was played by a young boy Salunke whom Phalke had discovered in a restaurant. Salunke was employed there as a cook on a salary of fifteen rupees per month. The film went on to become a hit and as the first world war broke over Europe, the young cook Salunke became the first “female” star of the Indian silver screen.

    They say, Dadasaheb Phalke like, Sorabji Ogra before him, had initially not been too keen to have a girl to play the female part in his films. Like most Indians in the show business, he had misgivings about women who fraternised openly with men, and danced and sang. But shrewd businessman and sound judge of the brand new medium that he was, he also realised that the camera image was going to be a relentless destroyer of the willing suspension of disbelief that had made female impersonators acceptable to Indian audiences. But in the early years of the 20th century, even prostitutes were unwilling to play female roles upon the silver screen. After much persuasion, one such “professional” woman did agree, but gossip has it, that when Phalke began coaching her, her pimp materialised upon the scene and whisked her away. Her loss was Salunke’s gain. And so pleased was Phalke with his star performer that for his next film he conferred on him honorary bi-sexuality for the silver screen. As Ram and Sita in Phalke’s Lanka Dahan, Salunke became perhaps the first film star in the world to bag the roles of both man and wife in the same film.

    Soon, however, the relentless exposures and close ups of the cinematic image began to reassert the demand for women in women’s roles. Also as the courtly ethos that made transvestitism a socially accepted eccentricity of the “rich”, male actors also become reluctant to play women’s roles. The legendary V Shantaram, in his autobiography, registers his deep sense of humiliation and hot resentment when he was made to don a sari and play the role in a theatre company. When he later made his film debut in Surekha Haran (1921) he saw to it that he played a male role. The female lead opposite him, however, was played by another young boy V Pagnis.

    By the time Dadasaheb Phalke made his film Bhasmasur Mohini (now lost) he had managed another miracle by acquiring not one but two women to play the female roles in his new film which was to be shot at three locations. This was the historic mother-daughter team of Durga Bai and Kamala Bai Gokhale. Kamala Bai Gokhale had already made her debut on the stage as a dancer and actress although stalwarts like Bal Gandharva

    – who enjoyed the hegemony over female roles – put up a tough resistance against her entry into “their” world.

    In an interview given to Cinevision magazine, the octogenarian actress said:

    No one encouraged a girl to take up film acting as a career… we faced fierce opposition, particularly from actors who were playing female roles on the stage. We were their first natural enemies. They hated us. Some companies actually would not have women performers as a matter of policy... like Bal Gandharva. He wanted my husband to join this company, for major male roles opposite

    his female roles, and when my husband accepted only on the

    condition that myself and my mother should also be taken into

    the company, Bal Gandharva refused.

    (Cinevision, Vol I, p 25)

    Women in Films

    This was the internal irony of the performing arts from the Parsi theatre era to the beginning of Hindi films in Dada Phalke’s time. A caste of “shameless women” was necessary so that ‘honest women’ could be treated with the most chivalrous respect; both upon the stage and within the society. Yet it was necessary not to let the “bad” female outshine the “good” and become respectable in real society, and so the actresses and singers might win plaudits for their role of a “good” woman but they were firmly showed their place outside and cast off stage when their time come.

    The double standards observed by even the theatre-folk in according respect to men and women appear sharp and clear in master Fida Hussein’s memoirs [recorded by Pratibha Agarwal 1986]. He narrates how the awesome Agha Hashra Kashmiri, the playwright, had made his eccentricities and addiction to alcohol so much irrelevant so that once when a dead-drunk Agha Saheb dressed in a satin lunghi, stood urinating in the middle of the road, in front of the palace, his ardent admirers Sir C Y Chintamani and Sir Mirza Ismad, asked their chauffer to turn off the headlights and silence the engines so “Baba” may not be disturbed. But when Raja Bharatpur’s favourite mistress, a nautch girl Shyama Bai, reserved the prime seats for herself and her entourage (including her English secretary) for a play being staged by Sorabhji Ogra’s New Alfred Company, all hell broke loose. When the lady, looking like an absolute angel in a turquoise sari came and sat on the sofa in the “special class”, one of the eminent males from among the audience went to the owner and asked him if the laws of the company had been given the goby? How dare a lovely nautch girl come and occupy a prestigious special seat in the area where the bigwigs sat? The owner asked his men to withhold the performance and rushed his man, one Amrit Lal Mehta, to Shyama Bai to request her to leave the hall quietly. A livid Shyama Bai refused to leave, saying that she had bought the tickets and was entitled to her seat. Ultimately a deputy superintendent of police, from Delhi, Devi Dayal Malik, who also happened to be in the audience, suggested that she be physically removed by the company’s bouncers. He promised he would take care to see, that no case could be filed against the company by the lady. This was duly done, and despite loud protests (in English) from Shyama Bai and her secretary, the ladies were ejected and no case could be filed, despite Shyam Bai’s great clout as the Maharajah’s favourite mistress.

    In an interview to Lokmanya Tilak’s Marathi paper Kesri on August 19,1913, during a trip to Poona, D G Phalke lays down the law:

    ...It’d be better if female roles are enacted by women.. this is the conclusion I have come to after spending 20 years in this (film) industry …my five year old daughter acted in my film like Kaliya Mandan and Krishan Janma …and when I needed help, my wife too acted in female parts ...god willing, if one day these prostitutes can be removed and replaced with women from good families, our studios will no longer be compared with whore houses and the prestige of the filmmakers and their teams will be salvaged. ...Then it will no longer be embarrassing to see films accompanied by one’s mother, mother-in-law, daughter or daughter-in-law…

    if unfortunately women with good characters (‘charitravaan’)... find their entry blocked by male wolves, I will request my sisters to stare them down and chase them away. If this is still not enough they should take to carrying sharp knives and use them in an emergency (quoted from Patkatha in Nai Duniya, special number on films October 4, 1988).

    Inasmuch as this was a paid job, over the years, the actresses went on to become the first group of working women to acquire a certain financial independence. But this, instead of chasing away the “wolves” as Phalke had termed them, and easing their passage into respectable society, made female actors doubly suspect. The strange, and yet not so strange story of India’s first woman music-composer for films, (and also possibly the first woman playback singer) Khurshid Minocher Homiji, a woman from an educated middle class Parsi family, is illustrative of how Phalke’s advice notwithstanding, even the most liberal and liberated communities in India closed ranks when their own women made forays into the film world. Khurshid, a Parsi girl, was the disciple of the famous musicologist – teacher Pandit V N Batkhande. Khurshid’s mother was a good singer herself and secretary of Pandit Bhatkhande’s famed Sharada Sangit Vidyalaya. She escorted her gifted daughters Khurshid and Chandraprabha to the music school regularly where their considerable talents were further groomed and honed under the indulgent eye of the great musicologist. The Parsis as a community, have always been in the vanguard of liberal change. The Hindustani Parsi theatre, in fact owed its existence to this extremely intelligent and innovative community. And yet so terrible was the stigma of the cine-world that when the Meherhomji sisters sang for an early Bombay Talkies film, Jawani ki Hawa, the entire Parsi community rose against them. The famous Parsi community paper Jam-e-Jamshed launched a vicious compaign against them and forced the girls into changing their name to “the Saraswati sisters”. In an interview with Saraswati Devi (nee Khurshid) recalls,

    My god, when I think of these days, my hair stands on end.. They (the community) were determined to get us out of the films. The newspapers added fuel to the fire…the result was the Himanshu Rai and his unit were threatened, even their lives were threatened.. It feels very nice to see that things have changed today but the memories of those days still arouse fear.

    (Cinevision, Vol II, No II)

    It would be several decades before film-women would be invited into homes of the “bhadralok” and only a half century later could one of them (Shabana Azmi) confidently challenge the violent and suppressive anti-artist tactics of the ruling party at a public function (the VIIIth International Film Festival) to general applause. But one (unscheduled) speech on the Doordarshan does not signal a radical change in public attitude to “filmwalis”. Shabana was also subsequently hooted, criticised and generally ridiculed for a perfectly spontaneous and justified outburst by many media men and women, and called immature, publicity-conscious and ungracious to boot. We have certainly not come a long way from the time Phalke gave the following interview to Lokmanya Tilak’s paper Kesri in 1913:

    ...Women from good Samskari families alone should act in films.. Brothers, how would you feel if Sita and Draupadi were to be played by someone who is in the habit of using obscene gestures, making lewd eyes and has a half-revealed bosom and a wiggling behind? Would you not be enraged?…studios are not brothels…with their innate breeding and aura of a respectable marital status, women from good families (as actresses) will add a glow to the mythical devis and to the atmosphere in and around our studios...Then no one shall feel bad watching our movies in the company of one’s mother, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, wife or daughter.

    (Translated from the original)

    Sustaining Stereotypes

    Strange as it may seem, it was also around this time the Gandhian non-cooperation and Khilafat movements were bringing about a rethinking on prevailing socio-political mores in some quarters. However, instead of emphasising Gandhi’s views on women’s emancipation, Gandhi’s emphasis on temperance was cunningly seized by both the film-world and the British to justify censoring out what they felt “threatened” womanhood, (white womanhood to be precise), namely love between man and woman.

    The majority of films, which are chiefly from America, are so sensational and daring, “…(full of) murders, crimes and divorces and on the whole degrade the white woman in the eyes of the Indians.” So appeared a statement in the London Times quoting a bishop from India in 1925. Another report said:

    In every province and state visited by the delegation the evil influence of the cinema was cited by educationists and the representative citizens as one of the major facts in loweing the standard of sex-conduct, and thereby tending to increase the dissemination of disease.

    (Neville Rolfe of British Social Hygiene Council)

    In view of such “moral” questionings, it was decided to lay down guidelines for censorship of films. A subterfuge was quickly designed and a brilliant lawyer T Rangachari was chosen to head the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927, when the Indian film industry was barely a decade old. This committee sent out 4,325 questionnaires and examined 353 witnesses. One among them was Dadasaheb Phalke. An excerpts from the interview follows:

    Chairman; Do you think cinema has got a pernicious influence upon the public? Phalke: No. I don’t think so. I think, though, the love subjects should not be shown as largely (sic) as they are at present.

    How did the actresses react to all this, one wonders. Most of them were no lily-white maidens, unsullied by worldly wisdom. One guesses that these film actresses learned to sniff in the heady dreamstuff of the new medium, and came to practical terms rather quickly with their new masters – the film directors and producers. This meant playing the same traditional feminine game of arranging and lending their egos and values totally around the personalities of whoever happened to be the male masters of their little world. This explains Kamalbai repeating after Dadasaheb Phalke:

    …One observes norms of propriety. I was 13 at that time and my mother Durgabai who acted as Parvati was also in the unit. Everyone participated in the routine of the unit… though a film unit was a professional organisation, the inter-personal relations between its members were modelled after the prototype of family relationships.

    This little ditty, “we – work – because – we – have – to but

  • we – are – good – little family – loving – girls – at – heart
  • and – will marry – and settle – soon – as – we – can”, continues to be sung in the film-journals even today by starlet after starlet, star after star. This also perpetuates the system of star mothers and brothers who accompany the actresses even on the sets since
  • the days of Kamlabai and Suraiya, whose, ‘Thehro! Baby kiss nahin karegi!’ is about as familiar as the “baby”, confessing coyly how she was tricked into giving a particularly sexy shot. Maintaining the façade of a “family atmosphere” and emphasis on “khandan” by actresses are, thus, no mere quirks of temperament and eccentricity on the part of artistes, but a carefully laid out strategy for legitimising the independence of the actress by making it seem less than perfect, less than real.

    The problem of the independent actress having thus been tackled somewhat, the next major dilemma Hindi filmmakers faced was, how to depict non-procreative sex between man and woman, without being censored. Here the gods came to their help, literally.

    Until recently what is called popular Hinduism did not seem worthy of scholarly attention on the part of serious students of cinema, despite the runaway success of films from Raja Harishchandra to Jai Santoshi Maa, and despite the recent mindboggling success, first of Ramayan and then of the Mahabharata, on the television. These myths explain the central truths of the Indian tradition more clearly to the average film-goer than any formal philosophical system. Love in the accepted sense being deemed a four-letter word, the myth surrounding goddesses and other goddess types in Hindi films became to a great extent, a means by which the Indian mind could also express its core thoughts about sexual roles and sexual identity.

    The film world of Mumbai in the 75 years since Phalke, has continued to milk audience interest in sexual attraction between men and women, by relying strictly on a set of myths, nearly all of which had been worked out within two decades of Raja Harish Chandra.

    While sex and the Indian woman was a taboo subject, the white woman as a subject of sexual fantasy was acceptable. By the time Hindi cinema entered its second decade, Eurasian girls on screen had become a craze. Of these Patience Cooper and Ruby Myers were the most famous. Ruby Myers – (christened Sulochana on screen) – was a telephone operator and when she made her debut in 1925 in Veer Bala (The Valiant Girl) a star was born; and the very next year Sulochana went on to make eight films! She ruled the Indian celluloid world for 15 years and made some 50 films for different companies, including her own Ruby Pictures. Her career spanned two eras, that of the silent films and the talkie.

    The peak of Sulochana’a glory also epitomises Bombay films’ fatal fascination for Hollywood and its heroines. Sulochana became in films such as Bombay Ki Billi and Typist Girl, at once a titillating presence for the Indian libido, starved of social interaction with females, and also an accessible white woman, such as the white masters alone could have had a real life.

    Sulochana, the fifth recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, betrayed no great joy at being honoured for her contribution some four decades later. She is reported to have said “I remember nothing : I can not, I should not…”

    (Sulochana, by Hamiduddin Mehmood Filmfare, October 15-28, p 17,1976) This was a woman who made 50 films in 15 years and was paid a four figure salary when most popular male stars were earning only a few rupees. (People in fact used to grumble that she was paid more than the governor of Bombay). In her heydays, Ruby Meyers was the rage of her times. Scripts like that of Sulochana were written specially for her, in one film, Wild Cat of Bombay, she had not one or two but six roles. Then the

    downslide came. She tried her hand at production with Prem Ki Jyoti, which flopped. Once called the star of stars, she was forced to do bit roles. No wonder she did not wish to recollect her past with all its memories of insecurity and ridicule.

    Actress Fatima Begum was the first woman to turn to production and direction, by forming the Victoria Fatima Film Company that made silent films such as Bulbul-e-Paristan. She had three daughters Sultana, (labelled Sultry Sultana), Shehzadi (called loveable Shehzadi) and Zubeida. The last named would have sunk into nothingness like the mother, the Victoria Fatima Film Company and her two sisters, but for the lucky break she got in acting in the first talkie Alam Ara. At the age of 10 she shot into sudden fame (after seven years of unreported work in silent films) and was immortalised as the Talkie Queen Zubeida. Another intelligent actress Gauhar, was also to face bankruptcy in her effort to run a film company along with her mentor Chandulal Shah. However, in the case of Gauhar, almost all contemporaries blame Chandulal Shah’s extravagant habits and gambling for the downfall of the company Ranjit Talkies.

    Hierarchy and Convention

    One similarity that strikes you in the lives of these stars of the yesteryears and stars of today is their utter, often bitter, isolation from the society. Be it Gauhar, or Sulochana, Meena Kumari, or Rekha, one finds that if they have no husband or children to give them a public identity once their star-appeal begins to fade, the actresses simply cease to exist for the public and friends alike. On screen, in their heydays, all these women have been lively, outrageous, full of energy and innovation. All have earned enormous amounts of money and perks, and yet their long stint in the film world never allowed them to develop the self-confidence that comes from knowing you could win admirers with your talented performance. While they ruled, the actresses, like young mothers of sons, were made to feel special, privileged by their ‘star status’. Once they had given their best, they became forgettable, or worse, pitiable creatures like an Indian motherin-law. The double irony was that housewives who scrub floor and raise children were (and still are) made to feel dumb and lacklustre in comparison to these screen goddesses; but the same goddesses were put down in their later years for not having had a house and babies “like real women”. The ultimate irony is, that both sets of women, the housewives and the film stars, mostly accept this stigmatisation and the envious rages and the terminal guilt that go with it. Even today, the bitchiest pieces on actresses in film-journals are penned by women. Hindi cinema has had a longer lead time than the Parsi theatre of the 1930s, in absorbing the gender politics of the Indian society that cuts across all castes and communities. The escalating fees of the performers make our producers even more inclined to tailor their message to justify differential wages paid to female actress. In a typical theme, (also borrowed by TV serials) women are still being set against women and their anger at the circumstances of their lives is depoliticised and flashed as their personal angst. Most blockbusters (like Hum Apke Hain Kaun and Dilwaley Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Sarkar) are morality tales where good mothers win and bad (read anglicised) liberated women are home breakers.

    Though they were reluctant to concede this, but women like Gauhar and Fatima Begum ultimately owned their survival to the gutsiness of the very matriarchal “tawaif” tradition they worked so hard to escape. Gauhar Jaan’s first film was the 1921 silent movie Beggar Girl, the next was Pati-Patni, both directed by the flamboyant Chandulal Shah. After the talkies arrived, Gauhar created a stir by her role of a stormy young Rajput wife in the film, Rajputani within four years of her arrival. She had made a name for herself and in 1925 she set up her own Ranjit Film Company with Chandulal Shah. Like Gauhar, the blue-eyed beauty Kajjan was another celebrity from the Parsi theatre who made it big on the silver screen. Kajjan was the daughter of a well known dancing girl Suggan, who was the mistress of Nawab Chammi Saheb of Bhagalpur. Kajjan’s “knife-dances” during the interval hour in the age of silent movies kept the movie goers spell bound. She also acted in Alam Ara with Zubeida, the niece of the actor Putli Bai. The world of dancing girls also gave early cinema the trio of Sultana, Razia and Minu, who came to Calcutta in 1939 and joined Manik Lal’s company. Sultana was a five comedienne, whose daughter Amita later joined Bollywood. The matriarchal family backgrounds of all these women had taught them never to be taken for granted or taken for a ride, and to have their professional talents honed all the time. Here is Gauhar, part owner of the Ranjit Studios and actress of several runaway hits in an interview with Girish Karnad:

    ...The arrival of sound (in motion films) hit some actress very hard ...Madhuri just faded away...even Sulochana, Sulochana and I have always been good friends and I used to tell her; Madhuri at least is an Anglo-Indian, who speaks English at home. You speak Hindustani. Why don’t you polish it up?…My last film was Achhut in 1939…I decided that I should leave while I was still at the top before they threw me out. Besides I was fairly well off.


    Gauhar could also afford a surprisingly shrewd and frank appraisal of her co-professionals and professional standards, and is warm and appreciative when discussing the younger generation:

    Actors work so hard these days. They work three shifts a day and yet give such good performances. We were not so polished. We overacted...We were more disciplined, perhaps more attached to our studies. But they work harder… (Ibid)

    Study in Contrasts

    The popular films in those days were basically of two kinds

    – socials and stunt. A good example of a social was Gauhar’s Gunsundari or “why husbands go astray?” In this film, the simple and unsophisticated wife treats the husband’s habit of straying from the straight and narrow by faking a “westernisation” which brings him running back to her. This has been a perennial theme of Hindi films since. Between 1925 and 1940 three versions of this were made, all of them proved hits.

    In direct contrast to Gauhar, who played the simple traditional wife on the screen as per requirements but saved her native shrewdness and sense of humour for living her own life outside the studios, we have the frail, green-eyed Miss Vanmala (more famed also for the educational qualifications affixed to her name BA, BT) who displayed a different kind of strength. Her dreamy eyes won her the role of the legendary Roxana in Minerva Movietone’s blockbuster Sikander, and led Motilal the “casanova” of those days, to call her “Bright Eyes.” At 21, she was a graduate and teacher before she became an actress. One of her memorable roles was in Charanon Ki Dasi – a forerunner of socials like Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki, in which she interpreted her successful interpretation of a homeloving wife’s role to her innate longing ‘to have a home.’ And yet few have known that this supposedly demure homebody was also a fearless and staunch nationalist who unflinchingly sheltered freedom fighters such as Aruna Asaf Ali during the freedom movement. In what now seems a symbolic gesture, she is said to have exchanged her clothes with Aruna Asaf Ali to help her escape the ever-watchful British police. She was to take a quiet and graceful retirement and recede into religious meditation. When asked to sum up her career, she said, “My life has been like a leaf in the storm”. When asked further she missed her life of earlier days, she is said to have just smiled.

    Nadia, the star of the stunt movies in the 1940s burst upon the scene like a meteor. Christened Mary Evans, she was born of a Greek mother, who was a circus star and an English father who was a soldier. A fortune-teller at Lahore is supposed to have told her that fame would come to her if she took on a five letter name. So she became Nadia – a five letter word. The Wadia Movietone launched her initially with “socials” but her runaway big hit was Hunterwali (1934). The release of this film which cost Rs two lakhs to make and grossed Rs 10 lakh, marked the peak of Indian stunt films. Along with John Cowasji, Nadia became a sensation overnight. Her blonds looks made amends for her faulty and faltering Hindi, and perhaps made her uninhibited style, her physical prowess more acceptable to the Indian audience than if she had been a brunette. It is said once on someone’s suggestion that she dye her hair black, she snapped back, “that’s not part of my contract”.

    Nadia’s career that began with a bang in Hunterwali went from one high to another in films like Hunterwali Ki Beti, Rolls Royce Ki Beti, Himmatwali, Stunt Queen and Bombaywali. Packed with action and daring, her films dazzled Indian spectators with her portrayal of Durga spouting lines such as: “Look Mister, if you want Hind to be free, the women of Hind should also be free” (Hunterwali Ki Beti, 1942).

    In Diamond Queen, Nadia was shown rescuing a girl from the clutches of villains singlehandedly and holding them at bay all by herself before help came. Resilient, lithe and graceful, Nadia gave lie to the traditional Indian belief, that women need protection all the time. But it is doubtful if the audiences would have swallowed a native girl doing the kind of roles that she did. The film makers and their audiences in these days had worked out neat little compartments in which they fitted the white and non-white women. What one could do another could not. The white woman could dazzle by her physical prowess and uninhibited love-making, and the oriental could shake one to the core by appealing to the emotions but the roles allotted were exclusive. In a conventional “social” where Nadia was cast opposite an “emotional” star like Pahari Sanyal and Kaushalya in a love triangle, she failed miserably because the scene demanded that she cry and the audiences would not tolerate their fearless Nadia, “the hunterwali”, shedding tears. So ultimately Nadia retired quietly as (Mrs) Homi Wadia and has not been replaced since.

    Few Who Broke Convention

    One native actress who did bring back to the screen part of Nadia’s spark and gutsy rebellion, was Shanta Apte, called the “stormy petrel” of the Indian films. On screen and in life Shanta defied many conventions. In the days of contractual assignments, she was perhaps the first female freelancer of films, the first female cine-star to write her autobiography Jaoo-mi-Cinemat (Should I join films?), and also perhaps the first woman star to drink publicly and beat the daylights out of a film critic with a cane for having attacked her in print. V Shantaram in his autobiography places most of the blame for Shanta Bai’s degeneration from a fine sensitive actress to a querulous, eccentric alcoholic who broke contracts, upset musicians and hit out at her colleagues, at her older brother Baburao’s door. Baburao was a precursor of the many star brothers and “managed” Shanta Bai’s affairs by forming with her Shanta Apte Concerns, and lived off her for many years. He later got married and dumped her, and died a year after his miserable sister.

    Shanta Apte’s life is salient evidence, that whether in life or in a particular profession, equal remuneration without equal power for women usually means their returning or being forced to revert to their usual slots in the hierarchy once they retire from their chosen profession. It also proves, as many working and non-working women will testify, with regard to exploitation, the most dangerous place for the woman is her own home, not the streets. A closer look at the life of this talented woman begins to reveal strange parallels between her life and that of Meena Kumari. Both were betrayed by the men they loved and trusted and were generous to; both took to the bottle to get over the loss of their men, and the sad end of both underscores the need for women to look for and perhaps create a system for mutual protection.

    Generally the fire and brimstone vitality of Nadia’s kind and the cooing concupiscent postures of Vanmala, so fancied by the 1930s and early 1940s audiences, have fallen into oblivion, but the class-distinctions in sexual preferences evinced by Indian audiences that these movies highlighted, still persist with few variations. Actress still starve, steam and sweat their bodies to shape them to male specifications. The working classes like them fair and curvy but the rich pay respects to “Nazakat”, a delicate appearance, even thinness verging on collapse. In either case, both parameters of attractiveness have made unnatural demands on the physiques of females aspiring to become popular stars. A precursor of the neurotic bulimics of today such as Dimple and Parveen Babi, was Raj Kumari, the singing star, who confesses in an interview, “listen to me attentively – it (dieting) was not a laughable matter, I wanted to be slim. I was put off food and I had to consume Brooklaw (as chocolate type laxative) daily. I had to live on black laxative daily. I had to live on black tea….when my mother cooked rice or potatoes, I’d stealthily eat the food up...I could not give up food, for which I’ve always had a weakness” (Cinevision Vol II, No II, p17).

    SPECIAL ISSUE ASPECTS OF HEALTH INSURANCE September 17, 2005 Social Health Insurance Redefined: Health for All through Coverage for All – Indrani Gupta, Mayur Trivedi Health Care Financing for the Poor: Community-based Health Insurance – Akash Acharya, Schemes in Gujarat M Kent Ranson Emerging Trends in Health Insurance for Low-Income Groups – Rajeev Ahuja, Alka Narang For copies write to: Circulation Manager Economic and Political Weekly, Hitkari House, 6th Floor, 284, Shahid Bhagatsingh Road, Mumbai 400 001. email: WEEKLY Ei�:�11il: ;�L111ilL

    For the traditional Indian mind, as specified before, sex is for reproduction – ‘prajapatye’. So the familyline would continue and the ancestors continue to be propitiated. The fact that human beings have a memory, a will and understanding to experience the pleasures of sex and to desire it for itself has been a thought repugnant to our filmmakers and filmgoers generally. The resultant stereotype who loved and kissed and desired men on the screen was a being sought by most men, The ultimate value of this perfect creature was attested by the demand she excited in the audiences, as she innocently drove men to madness and war on screen. But one must remember that at no point does her dominion entail the rule of female stars in the world of films. She is not a human being. Her lips never look stale, her eyes are never puffy from crying. Even when in throes of pain, her composure is perfect. She must not portray humour or curiosity, but either hauteur of an absurd kind, smouldering lust or idiotic children glory. A hot-blooded actress like the dancer Sitara Devi, was accepted as good by almost none, except perhaps by rare madcaps like Sadat Hassan Manto:

    Sitara is a woman who knows men. She knows all the wiles that attract a man, but which you may say, render him useless and impotent for other women… I’ve written this article, and I know Sitara will be angry with me – but after a while she shall forgive me, for her heart is wide and although she is diminutive to look at, she is a tall woman...I consider her a woman who is born perhaps only once in a hundred years” (Translated from Urdu Meenabazar).

    Songs came into Hindi films with the first talkie Alam Ara (1931),and with it began, the golden period of female singing stars. For a long time film songs had to be sung in films by actors and actresses. Playback singing was to come much later. Here also it was theatre that supplied the talent like Bibbo, Kajjan, Amirbai Karnataki, Kamla Jharia, Munni Bai Faizabadi and Sita Devi. All the female singers came from professional singing families since no others would permit their girls to sing in public. Most had husky voices and the deliberate and mannered style inculcated by traditional ustads and their mothers and aunts.

    Then came the legendary Noorjehan, the singing sensation of such 1940s films as Anmol Ghadi. In those days, with singing stars like Gohar Bai, Shamshad Begum, Zohra Bai Ambalewali, Hansa Wadekar and Shanta Apte, Noorjehan was still ahead of most having been given a classical ‘talim’ and groomed with great care. Partition uprooted this talented star from her motherland and forced her to accept another. For her also, notwithstanding her fame and financial clout, one finds that the decisions were made for her by men and enforced by them as well. She was like many other women of whether Hindu or Muslim of their generation, at this crucial juncture, unable to make a choice of her own. During a visit she made 35 years after this cruel wrenching, (during a function at Shanmukhananda Hall), she recalls:

    Thirty five years ago, till the last moment before we left the country Yusuf Bhai (Dilip Kumar) tried persuading my husband not to go, that it was not right to leave one’s home land. Finally, when he found all his attempts were futile, he said, ‘Us Waqt Allah beiman ho gaya tha’ – (then god cheated).

    Ironically the era that was the beginning of the end of the system of singing female stars, was rung in by a woman playback singer. This was Saraswati Devi (nee’ Khurshid Minocher Homji). Once in 1934, when talkies were barely two years old, and songs were recorded routinely during the shooting, Saraswati Devi’s sister Chandraprabha – who was a singing star – had to sing in a film being made by their mentor Himanshu Rai. On the crucial day Chandraprabha landed with a sore throat. Since the song had to be picturised that very day, Rai suggested that Saraswati Devi sing the song into the microphone while the sister would only move her lips. Thus the first playback song was recorded.

    Saraswati Devi was later to achieve success and fame as a music director herself. The first song she composed was ‘Kya Janoo Kahu Ki Baat Sakhi.’ (Raag Durga), for the movie Miya Bibi. She also composed all time favourites such as ‘Chana jor garam babu (Bandhan) and ‘Mein ban ki chidiya’ (Achhut Kanya). Music direction was, however, a low-key affair with no credits mentioned in the films or the discs. In an interview Saraswati Bai modestly shrugs off the need for such acknowledgement:

    When the firm (Miya Bibi) was released, a lot of people wrote to us and asked us (Himanshu Rai’s unit) about that particular song (‘Kya janoo kahu ki baat’) and who had composed it. They wanted to buy the record, but we hadn’t cut any discs of it. The point I’m making is, that in those days we used to lend our voices to other artists but, did not make a big issue out of it.

    Ultimately, art, literature, music, are attempts to found the world anew on the basis of human liberty : that of the human creator. It also means that the artist must transcend all bitterness, recrimination and ill-will. Saraswati Devi is one of very few women, one realises, who miraculously retained their innate simplicity, their womanly generosity of soul, even after the harrowing experiences of their initial years, and memories of all those intrigues and the traumas of being part an industry that was its aesthetic and commercial teeth simultaneously. She, says looking back, not in anger but in contentment:

    ...Today I have no regrets! Even today my music can be heard somewhere or the other. I am also proud of the fact that I played an important role in establishing an institution like Bombay Talkies. I was able to popularise my Guru, Bhatkhande’s music all over India. Songs like, ‘Na jane kidhar meri nav chali re’, have found a permanent place in the heart of my fans. I consider that a great achievement [Cinevision II, Vol II].




    Agarwal, Pratibha (ed) (1986): Master Fida Hussein, ‘Parsi Theatre Mein 50 Varsh’, Natya Shodh Samsthan, Calcutta.

    Manto Sadat Hasan (nd): Meena Bazaar, A collection of writings on Mumbai’s film world and its women translated by Sharad Dutt, Hind Pocket Books, New Delhi.

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top