The turn of the century in India saw the emergence of a newly configured public sphere dotted with the presence of women. Bombay Lahore, Calcutta and Madras at this time were spaces consciously invested in a process of modernisation.
This kinesis of modernity was accentuated by new technological inventions like automobiles, airplanes, telephone, gramophone, radio and cinema. Public life had acquired dimensions previously unknown as the cities made possible new modes of cognition and articulation. Though colonialism played a crucial role in the way cities shaped up, there is no denying that these cities were rejuvenated by a peripatetic labour force that transformed its topographic landscapes. In this changing demography of towns and cities, the public woman became a crucial presence. Women in this period were employed in a variety of professions. Colonial rule had dislocated and transformed the traditional economic systems to allow new, modern sites of production such as industries, mills and offices to take precedence. With education and emancipation effected by the social reform movements, other professional opportunities were made available for women. They entered employment as teachers, lawyers, doctors, secretaries, typists, salesgirls and telephone operators.
In the matrix of the modern city, cinema was slowly and steadily creating a strong foothold. And, in the most fascinating ways, cinema marked the spatial and mental registers of the cities through its myriad sites of production (studios), circulation (posters and journals) and exhibition (theatres). This indomitable presence of the cinema in the public sphere created a crucial nexus between cinema and city. For women, cinema became one of the many sites for change and transformation. The possibility of reinvention enabled by cinema was essential to the way in which women’s selfhood was refashioned and articulated in the public sphere. The ubiquitous presence of women in the public sphere activated a series of frenzied regimes of affect. Women shared a contentious relationship with the public sphere, which was catalysed by their presence. However, the public sphere also worked in myriad ways to contain them. Women’s experiences were constituted by a plethora of agents. Their interaction with modern modes of entertainment displays the diverse ways in which women actively used the technologies emerging in the late 19th through the first part of the 20th century to participate in the public sphere.
Women came to cinema from a variety of backgrounds looking for work, survival, fame and self-transformation. Cinema was an attractive vortex that drew peripatetic groups into its transformative processes. It allowed for the possibilities of self-refashioning the previously unknown. The prevalence of women, peppered on and off the silver screen in various generic combinations and permutations, was astounding. The role that women were to play in the film industry in the 1920s-40s was defined by an ambiguous unease. It is common knowledge that in the initial years women who worked in the film industry were considered to be from ‘dubious’ backgrounds. Though cinema was barely respectable, as the ‘film world’ was deemed as the den of vice and evil-doers, these numerous disputations were embroiled in a symbiotic relationship that bordered on fascination and suspicion. Thus, initial hesitations put on hold, the film industry had many women employees working in various capacities as actresses, dancers, character artistes, extras, directors, producers and, in the sound period, also as singers, composers and musicians.
In the period 1925-1947, three kinds of women dominated the screen. In some ways, the first group of women to join films without inhibition were the women from Anglo-Indian, Jewish and Eurasian communities. The second group of women who came to the film industry were part of a long-standing tradition of performance—nautanki, theatre, nautch and gana. The anti-nautch movement was gaming momentum and in the wake of the weakening power of princely states and the gradual decline of older forms of patronage, women from these traditions came to the cities looking for new sources of livelihood and hoping in the process to reinvent themselves. The coming of sound, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, had created a demand for singers, musicians and dancers. Cinema needed these women as much as they needed cinema, as these women from older performative backgrounds were known for their prowess in music and dance-they brought to cinema their repertoires of performance which transformed film music and film aesthetics. The third group of women to join films were the ‘educated’ society ladies who were to endow their ‘charm’ and ‘chastity’ to cinema and alleviate it to bourgeoisie taste and approval.
Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender. (Butler, 1990)
Judith Butler, in her highly influential text, Gender Trouble, suggests that the categories of gender are performatively enacted and stabilised through acts of reiteration and re-citations. Gender identities are constructed and constituted by language; Butler draws from Foucault’s notion of power as discursive where the body is not a ‘mute facticity’, i.e. a fact of nature and, like gender, it is produced by discourse. But because there is no ‘interior’ to gender, the law cannot be internalised, but is written on the body through a ‘corporeal stylisation of gender’. For Butler, like gender, there is no body prior to cultural inscription. Sex and gender can be performatively reinscribed in ways that accentuate its constructed factitiousness rather than its ‘facticity’, i.e. the fact of its existence. Such reinscriptions, or re-citations, as Butler will call them in Gender Trouble, constitute the subject’s agency within the law: in other words, the possibilities of subverting the law against itself. Butler collapses the sex/gender distinction in order to argue that there is no sex that is not always already gender. All bodies are gendered from the beginning of their social existence (and there is no existence that is not social), which means that there is no ‘natural body’ that pre-exists its cultural inscription. This seems to point towards the conclusion that the ‘substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by regulatory practices of gender coherence’, into not something one is, it is something one does, an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a ‘doing’ rather than a ‘being’. Thus, in Butler’s words, ‘within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative, that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be’.
Actresses enjoyed freedoms unknown to women from other socially sanctioned respectable professions in this period. The actresses, by virtue of their publicness, elicited an ambiguous response as they presented different models of behaviour and codes for others to emulate and refashion themselves. Their unconventional work, lifestyle and the intimacy with which actresses circulated as cinematic entities produced deep-seated moral indignation and anxiety. These women performers occupied tenuous boundaries of repute and disrepute. Cinema held a certain kind of appeal for women, which allowed for the performativity of gender. Cinema allowed for the construction and production of images of women, not merely mimetically as symptomatic of a narrative regime, but also as performative bodies. This enabled women to reinvent and redefine their subjective experience of being in a modern world.
The notion of reinvention, however, holds within its crevices the struggles and hardships of women as well. It highlights the precarious balance between women’s hopes and claims in modern society. This chapter attempts to engage with women performers who tried to negotiate societal constraints and found ways to refashion themselves through cinema. Cinema overshadowed the differences between women through processes of masquerade and disavowal which flattened hierarchies of ethnicity, class, caste and lineage. The possibilities of reinventing themselves that were intrinsically linked to the interaction of women with cinema provided them with the opportunity to work and earn a living.
Ruby Meyers was working as a telephone operator when she was spotted by Mohan Bhavnani of the Kohinoor Film Company Though excited by the offer, she turned him down because of the social opprobrium against working in films. Bhavnani persisted with his offer and Meyers finally agreed. She was rechristened as Sulochana under Bhavnani’s direction at Kohinoor and later moved on to the Imperial Film Company. Sulochana was the highest paid star in the country in the 1920s, surpassing even her male co-stars.4 Such stories of rise to spontaneous fame were innumerable and attracted a large number of pretty and not-so-pretty girls to the industry. In her evidence to the Indian Cinematograph Committee, Sulochana mentions how often she got letters from girls seeking advice on possibilities of work in the film industry. She said:
I receive many letters from up-country asking to join … from their letters they must be of a very good class. From Muhammadans mostly, and I have had one or two Anglo-Indian girls who wanted to join.
In the period between the 1920s and 1940s, many Anglo-Indian, Eurasian and Jewish women worked in the film industry: Ermeline Cordozo; the Cooper sisters—Patience, Violet and Pearl; Madhuri (Miss Beryl Claessen); Seeta Devi; Sabita Devi (Miss Iris Gasper); Rose; Manorama (Miss Winnie Stuart); Indira Devi (Miss Effie Hippolite); Iris Crawford; Kumudini (Miss Mary); Lalita Devi (Miss Bonnie Bird); Vimala; Mumtaz (Miss Queenie); Yasmin (Betty Gomes); Nadia; Pramilla (Esther Victoria Abraham); and Romilla (Sophie Abraham) were some of the women who played with, and played out, the fantasies of the Indian populace on screen. But nobody could really match up to the success of Sulochana. Among her popular films were Telephone ni Taruni/Telephone Girl (1926); Cinema Queen (1926); Typist Girl (1926); Balidaan (1927); and Wildcat of Bombay (1927) where she essayed eight roles, including that of a gardener, a policeman, a Hyderabadi gentleman, a street urchin, a banana-seller and a European blonde. Three romantic super hits in 1928-29 with director R.S. Chaudhari—Madhuri (1928), Anarkali (1928) and Indira B.A. (1929)—saw her at the peak of fame in the silent-film era. In fact, so widespread was her fame that when a short film on Mahatma Gandhi inaugurating a khadi exhibition was shown, added alongside was a hugely popular dance sequence by Sulochana from her film Madhuri (1932).
Women from Anglo-Indian, Eurasian and Jewish backgrounds, by virtue of their particular ethnicity, occupied a distinct place in the public domain. This familiarity with urban space was crucial to adapting to modern modes of entertainment and employment. Publicness and performativity were crucially tied together. The contrast between the habituation of Anglo-Indian and other Indian women of the time was more than apparent. Despite impressive reforms in the social sphere, purdah and an increasing seclusion of Hindu and Muslim women was perceived as a sign of respectability. It took ‘shy’, ‘educated1, ‘Indian’ ladies under stringent norms of decorum and propriety almost two decades after the birth of cinema in India to appear on screen. Until then, cinema exploited the possibilities opened up by the greater degree of freedom of dress and action that was allowed by Anglo-Indian actresses like Sulochana.
With the advent of the Talkies in 1931, the nebulous film industry was in a chaotic process of conversion and expansion. The Talkies had opened up the field of performance to a variety of performers. It was assumed that Anglo-Indian/Eurasian actresses would be wiped out as the discord of tongues would necessitate actresses who could ‘talk, sing and dance’. Women from these backgrounds, however, continued their journey well into sound cinema. They were accompanied by another kind of professional public woman. These women, from a variety of performative traditions and lineages such as the koiha, the theatre, nautanki and music recording companies, came to cinema with similar hopes for self-fashioning and transformation.
An examination of archival material from the 1920s onwards reveals the overwhelming number of women who came to cinema from the performative traditions of the kotha and the theatre that had been capitalised on by the gramophone industry. In fact, it was the star order already set up by the theatre and gramophone companies into which cinema hoped to tap. Fatema Begum’s daughters Sultana, Zubeida and Shehzadi; Jahanara Kajjan; Miss Vlushtari; Goharbai Karnataki and Amirbai Karnatakr Mukhtar am; Sardar Akhtar; Miss Moti (Sushila); Miss Bibbo- Miss Anvari; i ttan Bai; Khursheed; Miss Gulab and Zebunissa were some of the singing stars of their time.
Despite the influx of new stars and performers, Sulochana continued to be a popular actress. In fact, in 1933, a film titled Sulochana was released. It drew a fair amount of hype in the press and film magazines because of its leading lady’s popularity. Sulochana’s silent hit films were remade with sound such as Indira M.A. (1934), Anarkali (1935) and Bambai hi Billi (1936) which were fairly successful at the box office. During the mid-1930s, Sulochana established her own film studio, Rubi Pics, but it did not do very well. Sulochana’s unique star appeal, however, persistently outshone the others. She was sexy, provocative and fashionable, and the modern woman seemed to have emerged most spectacularly in her films.
Jaddan Bai had shown great potential as a singer and performer from an early age. Her mother Dilipa, who was also a gaanewali, realised that a rigorous training in music would reap rich dividends. She therefore entrusted Jaddan’s musical taleem to the legendary doyen of the Banares gharana, Ustad Moijuddin Khan. Jaddan was also taught music by Ustad Barkat Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana. The instructions by her mentors shaped Jaddan’s musical expression and the various inflections in her singing. According to Kishwar Desai, Jaddan made her public debut in Banaras as a teenager. From then on, she became a popular songstress and invitations for mehfils and performances began pouring in from wealthy patrons and connoisseurs of art.
Jaddan Bai was one of the many women from a tawaif background who had sensed that a career in cinema would bring possibilities of reinvention devoid of social opprobrium that the kotha had come to represent by the 1930s. She clung to her roots to create a niche for herself in the Talkies. She played on her identity as a courtesan to strengthen her foothold in an industry which was, to a large extent, influenced and vitalised by the tradition of the kotha. In 1932, she received a rousing welcome from the industry when she decided to join Playart Phototone in Lahore. Journalist Amjad Hussain wrote ‘the film industry is to be congratulated on enlisting the services of such an eminent songstress of India as the famous Jaddan Bai’ (Hussain, 1932). Jaddan Bai was extremely shrewd and understood that opportunities lay ahead in this new
medium, not only m terms of achieving financial security at a time when her resources were drying up, but also that cinema held the promise of social recognition and respect. She did not shy away from experimentation. Prior to her tryst with cinema she had tried her hand at recording discs for gramophone companies. She joined the film industry in her mid-thirties in 1932, an unusually late age to make a debut as a heroine. She was driven by a fierce need to succeed and to transform conditions for her family. In a move of expediency she set up her own production house, Sangit Movietone in 1936, and became a composer, a director and a producer. She did very few films, but her ambidextrous talent is apparent in the various roles she adopted throughout the production of many of these films. She was the lead heroine and sang her own songs. In addition, she was also a music composer, scriptwriter and producer. The films produced by Jaddan Bai at Sangit Movitone did not fare particularly well at the box office. The films, however, did well enough for her to sustain and maintain her household. The central theme in her films like Nachwali (1934), lalash-c-Haq (d. Chimanlal Lahore, 1935), Hriday Manthan (1936) and Madame Fashion (1936) was the travails of the modern woman in her various avatars as a tawaif/prostitute/wife. In this imaginative universe, the modern woman inhabited the ambiguous space of desire and sexual agency. These films complicated the problematic splitting of the image of the modern woman—as a carnal prostitute and the modest wife-through the ‘fallen woman’ routine that was a popular trope in the films of the 1930s.
Cinema was aligned to the discourse of nationalism and reform in the 1930s. This produced an inherent ambivalence within cinematic discourse and around cinematic work. Cinema strove to be adopted within the bourgeois cultural order and be recognised as a legitimate form through the manufacture of star discourses, mechanisms of genre differentiation, characterisation and realism. The body of the actress became a contested site for a plethora of subterfuges to be enacted for the recasting of cinema. As reiterated throughout many contemporary sources, the Talkies were tied up aesthetically to the desire for verisimilitude/realism and this was connected to the demand for ‘respectable’ labour. Simply put, in order to represent middle-class respectable ‘reality’, actors from the same ‘cultured’ class were sought out. Devika Ram, Durga Khote, Leela Chitnis, Shanta Apte, Renuka Devi, Sadhona Bose, Nalini Turkhud, Enaxi Rama Rao, Shobhana Samarth and Maya Bannerjee were among the few who were celebrated as the first crop of educated, cultured actresses. Their entry into cinema was publicised and their ‘respectable’ lineage was a constant topic of discussion in newspapers and journals as part of the industry’s attempt to forge new perceptions about film work. Prior to this discourse of respectability, we see that in the absence of players from an apparently ‘respectable’ class that cinema strove to represent others, like those from the Anglo-Indian community or women from the kothas who were groomed and trained to masquerade in place of this class. As the Talkies did not destroy older traditions from the silent era, women from a variety of backgrounds kept coming to the film industry in search of work and reinvention.
The ease with which Jaddan Bai shifted careers from the kotha via the gramophone to cinema makes us see her as a fiercely independent woman who never seemed hesitant about taking risks. Women like Jaddan Bai were negotiating the spectrum of performative idioms to craft an identity for themselves, articulating their presence both in professional practice and in day-to-day self-presentation. Her status as a producer enabled her to establish a strong foothold in the industry, and she commanded a lot of respect in the film world. Like the baijis, with their matriarchal gharana system where daughters were trained by their mothers as performers, Jaddan Bai turned her energies to preparing her daughter Nargis as an actress in the film industry. Ironically, even though her sons joined the business, they came nowhere close to their mother’s or sister’s success.
Search engines on the internet without hesitation herald Durga Khote as ‘one of the first women from respectable families to enter the film industry thus breaking a social taboo’.8 In her autobiography, Khote herself repeatedly reiterates her lineage with the ‘respectable’ elites of the Marathi community; she belonged to the Laud-Khote clan in Maharashtra. Khote, through her status and tag of respectability, was believed to dilute the stigma attached to cinema; her association with cinema was to endow it with ‘charm’, ‘beauty’ and, most of all, ‘chaste’ sensibility providing the spiritual basis of Indian femininity and nationhood to legitimise the film industry.
Khote’s first film, J.B.H. Wadia’s Farebi Jaal (1931), the first sound production of Mohan Bhavnani, who had directed the Imperial action-hit The Wildcat of Bombay (1925) was sold through advertisements as ‘Introducing the daughter of the famous solicitor Mr Laud and the daughter-in-law of the well-known Khote family’ Her role in the film was minute, lasting for only ten minutes; she played the heroine’s older sister who gets beaten up by her drunken husband in a fit of anger and sucumbs to death. She was made to sing in a ‘weepy voice’, and she confesses she wept a lot in the scene, pouring her heart out to perform. She was paid INR 250, which was perhaps insufficient, but it took care of her ‘immediate problems’ (Khote, 2000:). The film flopped at the box office, charged with morally poor content promoting decadence and debauchery; the Maharashtrian community tore her to shreds; newspapers attacked her for being ‘falsely pampered’ (in Marathi ‘laud’ is translated as pampering and ‘khote’ as false) bringing disrepute to her family name and status. But it was her parents who stood by her and she writes how her father complimented her by saying, T don’t care what the rest of the film is like. But you have shown a way for women to earn a living’. She was 26 years old, a mother of two, a housewife with a home and family to run—such a woman would hardly be considered suitable for the heroine’s role in Bombay. It was director V. Shantaram who was scouting for new talent for his new Marathi-Hindi film for Prabhat Films who chanced upon the sequence in Farebi Jaal and, impressed with her performance, he offered her the lead role in the film Ayodhyecha Raja in 1932.
The dawn of Prabhat in her life seems to have turned Durga Khote’s fortune in the film industry. After the disaster with Farebi Jaal, her family was determined to hear no more about the film industry. V. Shantaram was conscious of the dominant perceptions about film studios and so he set out to carefully construct an image of his studio as a family, trying to reassure Mr Laud into allowing Durga Khote to act in his film, he says, as narrated by Khote:
Mr Laud, it makes good business sense in our profession to get the best work out of our artists. [Y]ou can make any arrangements you like for a companion to ensure her comfort. It is unfortunate that Durgabai’s first encounter did not turn out well. [W]e will treat her like one of the family.
Mr Laud relented and Durgabai became the new ‘star’ for Prabhat Films. The studio in Kolhapur was indeed organised around a joint family setup. Khote s anecdotal stories of her experience in Kolhapur and the way that work was organised reveal just that.
The shooting and every other part of the work was done in such a warm and congenial atmosphere that one was filled with sadness when it was over. It was not the owners of Prabhat alone but also their families and the Company workers in general who had treated me with great respect and love. They would inquire solicitously after my food, health and other arrangements. [W]hen Bakul and Harin (her two sons) visited Kolhapur, they made much of them. With what words can I express my gratitude to them all?
This romaticisation of Prabhat through various anecdotes feed into the myths that circulated about various studios and their working procedures. This was part of the grand narrative that sought to restore the film industry from notoriety to respectability. Locating work and career within the domain of the home, the studios were cleansed of their excessive vulgar associations with sex and scandal to allow respectable women like Durga Khote to venture into film work. After the success of Ayodhyecha Raja, Khote worked in Prabhat’s Maya Macchindra (d. V. Shantaram, 1932). The film was based on the mythical story of princess Kilotala, the queen of a kingdom of men-hating women. In the end, her kingdom turned out to be only an effect of maya (magic). Although the ending of the film reinstated social patriarchal order, it allowed for some amount of gender bending through the figure of Kilotala. Prabhat was not the only studio that Durga Khote worked with in the 1930s at the height of her career. She writes that during 1934 and 1935, she acted in four films in Calcutta. She worked in Rajrani Meera (d. Debaki K. Bose, 1933); Seeta (d. Debaki Bose, 1934); Inquilab (1935); and Jeevan Natak (d. Debaki Bose, 1935). She signed a four-month contract for each film and was paid INR 2,500 per month. At the end of each shooting schedule she would return to her family in Bombay.
In that period she says, ‘I earned INR 40,000.’ But work was beginning to take its toll on her family life. Khote refused offers from Lahore and Calcutta as she wanted to stay close to her family in Bombay. In 1936, she started work in Shalini Studio at Kolhapur. The studio was owned by the Princess Akkasaheb, Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj’s sister. Work at Royal Studio was regal in style and pace and was governed by whim. She acted in two films in Kolhapur — Ushaswapna and Pratibha (both d. Baburao Painter, 1937).
Khote started a production house Natraj Films with director Parshwanath Atlekar, music director Govindrao Tembe and actor Mubarak as production manager. Associated Productions, owned by a wealthy solicitor, Natwarlal, was to handle all the financial responsibilities and according to the contract, would not meddle in the creative process of film-making. Soungadi went on the production floor. There was a lot of speculation in the press with regard to the film, as expectations were high from the ‘illustrious staff. Work was progressing; with half the film already shot, a series of mishaps stalled the production of the film. Durga Khote’s husband had a heart attack and passed away while he was sitting in a parked car at Grant Road Market. Natwarlal promised her, on behalf of the company, that she would be released from the contract without demanding compensation for losses. She was in shock, but there was work to be finished. Her father was there to comfort her; she gathered herself and shooting was resumed. In 1938, Soungadi was released and was a moderate success. According to a review, the film held a particular appeal to ‘the intelligentsia from the society’.13 By the 1940s, Durga Khote had established herself firmly within the top star order. She was a freelancer and worked at her own pace. In a broadcast for All India Radio, she said ‘Every role, I played, had a higher, purpose in it and I liked everyone of them for one reason or the other’ (Abbas, 1940).
The induction of women into films signalled their emergence and participation into an economic sphere which was very different from other spheres of work like education, medicine and social work that were becoming popular arenas of employment for women in the 1930s. Women chose to be part of the film industry for many different reasons. Some came looking for sheer survival, some for the promise of luxuries like fashion and travel, and some for a passion for the performative. Cinema became a means through which women could articulate themselves and participate in public and social life. While they brought to cinema their own charms, skill and talent, cinema conditioned their experiences and the way they lived their lives. This chapter, through a discussion of women performers, highlights the vital ways in which cinematic intervention and work reinvented women’s experience of modernity which has been varied for women, as the three stories suggest. Cinema became a means through which women earned a livelihood, survived and took part in activities of leisure. They were allowed access to the public sphere in new and radical ways. Even though this relationship to the public sphere was fraught with complexities, they made an indelible mark on the public through their work and personae.