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5 Women Who Challenged the Status Quo To Become ‘Firsts’ in Indian Cinema

Did you know that India’s first female music director gave birth to a daughter who turned out to be one of the greatest gifts Indian cinema has ever got – the legendary actress Nargis!

While growing up, the majority of the movies I was exposed to, despite their different titles, actors, directors and to some extent story-lines, had a common thread running through them.

Most of them portrayed the idea of a woman being someone’s ‘dream girl’. The heroine was a girl who talks non-stop, is sanskari enough to make unrealistic compromises and is looking for someone who can rescue her from the “shackles” of the society, sometimes literally!

My fascination for the 70 mm wide high-resolution ran so high that for the longest time I tried to mould my personality according to such “filmy” notions that were far from reality.

Even now, the scripts clearly mirror the patriarchal society we continue to live in and the established roles women are supposed to lead even now.

Now imagine acting in movies that revolved around an elderly woman having an affair with a young man (Parama,1985), portraying someone who has a series of relationships and is prioritising her own happiness (Bhumika, 1977) or having an orgasm onscreen (Lipstick Under my Burkha, 2017).

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Irrespective of which era they were released, what remained the same was the flak that these movies drew from the society. How can women be shown to be so flawed . . . so human, perhaps?

So how did women first charter into these male-dominated waters, to dip their toes in each and every medium that the entertainment industry has to offer, and found popularity?

Here are five women who challenged the bizarre conventions for their love of cinema:

1) First Female Director

Image Source: 100+ Years of Indian Cinema/Facebook

The director is the creative force that binds the film together. Movie geeks strongly believe that it is the director’s vision that determines how well the script is transformed into a feeling on screen.

This held true for Fatima Begum back in the 1900s. Having written the script about an epic fantasy, she refused to trust anyone with its outcome and directed it herself in 1926. With ‘Bulbul-e-Paristan, the trained theatre artist became India’s first ever female director in Indian cinema. Fatima unlocked the doorway to the world of moving pictures for other female directors.

Not stopping there, she went on to direct many films like Goddess of Love (1927), Chandrawali (1928), Heer Ranjha (1928) and Shakuntala (1929). She even started her own production ‘Fatima Films’ breaking yet another stereotype.

2) First Female Actor

Image Source: Ek Arts/Facebook

Did you know that India’s first feature film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ has a man playing the female lead?

The Father of Indian Cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke, did everything to convince women to act in this film. He published advertisements in several newspapers for the cast and crew and even approached the nautch girls, but to no avail. Ultimately, he had to cast a man in the role of the female lead.

In Phalke’s second film ‘Mohini Bhasmasur’, Durgabai Kamat braved the conservative society and became India’s first female actor to act on the silver screen. Interestingly, her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale became the first female child actress by acting in the same movie.

3) First Female Comedian

Image Source: Film History Pics/Twitter

The reason why English comic actor Charlie Chaplin is celebrated worldwide is his ability to make people laugh without uttering a single dialogue.  Umadevi Khatri also banked on the comedy genre that does not adhere to the societal norms of how a woman should be.

Fondly known as Tun Tun, she became the first female comedian of Hindi cinema and later on, a playback singer. She worked in more than 190 films alongside renowned comedians like Johnny Walker, Bhagvan Dada and Dhumal.

While she did attain success as a comedian, unfortunately the roles that she played were mostly of an obese lady who is a nightmare for men. She was that lady who everyone despised and was considered to be the opposite of how an ‘Indian lady’ should be.

Khatri is a classic example of a talent that was underrated and to some extent even misused. Wish we had better roles and scripts back then!

Fun Fact: Her Birth Anniversary is celebrated today, i.e. 11 July.

4) First Female Music Director

Image Source: Wikipedia

Born in Allahabad, Jaddan Bai was a daughter of Daleepabai, a tawaif (courtesan). She was trained in classical music under famous singers including thumri maestro Moujjudin Khan. Genes and training, both played a huge role in perfecting Jaddan’s talent to compose music. After making her debut as an actor, she became India’s first music director and composed music for Talashe Haq (1935) and Madam Fashion (1936). Interestingly, she gave birth to a daughter who turned out to be one of the greatest gifts Indian cinema has ever got – the legendary actress, Nargis!

5) First Female Cinematographer

B R Vijaylaxmi was not only India’s but also Asia’s first woman to handle the camera and light crews in a film. She was born to B R Panthulu, a director and producer in South Indian films.

At a time when only men handled the technical side of making a movie, she donned the hat of Director of Photography in the 1980s. She worked as an assistant to cinematographer Ashok Kumar in the 1980 Tamil film ‘Nenjathai Killathe’.

Since then she has shot 22 films and in 2018 made a directorial debut ‘Abhiyude Katha Anuvinteyum’

Thanks to these fierce women who smashed stereotypes on multiple levels and challenged the status quo, the film industry is now celebrating the works of filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar and Gauri Shinde, cinematographers like Priya Seth and actresses like Vidya Balan and Alia Bhatt!


Also Read17 ‘Must Watch’ Bollywood Films That Were Way Ahead of Their Times!


(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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Written by Gopi Karelia

Gopi Karelia, a Mumbaikar, is a die-hard SRK fan, and believes that Grey’s Anatomy is a crash course on life. She finds dancing therapeutic. Her other means of satisfying her soul include travelling solo and exploring new places. She loves articulating human interest stories and has a soft spot for positive journalism.