Women Directors in Indian cinema – PART I

    As filmmakers, women date back to World War I, but in terms of numbers, they are minimal. If and when auteur critics and film scholars turn to the study of women directors, they typically look for ways in which women directors conform to or diverge from patterns followed by men directors. With the Western tradition of dividing human nature in dual but parallel streams, attributes traditionally associated with the masculine are valued, studied and articulated, while those associated with the feminine tend to be ignored.Male directors shift genres more smoothly and fluidly than their female counterparts. Judith Mayne observes that “surprisingly little attention has been paid to the function and position of the woman director.” In fact, the entire concept of authorship itself, traced back to Cahiers du Cinema’s auteur theory transported from France to England, and America, is historically encumbered with patriarchal overtones. Kaja Silverman has stated that Roland Barthes, while announcing the “death of the author”, sought to elide not only the author as an institution, but also as the occupant of an exclusively male position.

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    The Beginning

    Indian women began directing films from the silent era. Fatima Begum, the mother of actress Zubeida, formed her own film company, Fatma Films (1926) and later, Victoria-Fatma Films. She directed six films: The Nightingale of Fairyland, Heer Ranjha, The Goddess of Fate, Shakuntala and two others. She was the mother of Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, popular actors of the silent era. Fatma worked with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai before founding her own production company Fatma Films which was later rechristened as Victoria-Fatma Films. ‘Bulbule Paristan’ that released in 1926, became the first Indian film to be directed by a female director. However, acting remained on her wish list and she continued to act until the late 1930s.

    Jaddanbai, (1892 –1949), mother of, Nargis, formed Sangeet Film Company in 1936. Basically an actress and a singer, she directed Hridaya Manthan, Madam Fashion, Jeevan Swapna and Motion Ka Haar. Nargis was the daughter born of Jaddanbai’s third marriage. Jaddan Bai introduced her into films in Talash-e-Haq as a child artist when the little girl was only six. Jaddanbai played the leading lady in the film released in 1935 opposite Yakub and also composed the music for the film.

    Protima Dasgupta, an actress who entered films from the aristocracy, directed three successful films. One of them, Jharna, (Spring), was considered to be so erotic that it was banned by the then-CM of Bombay, Morarjee Desai after he had watched the films nine times in a row. She was the first among women from the film industry who wore western clothes and smoked in public. But her work as an actress remains completely unknown.

    Paluvayi Bhanumathi Ramakrishna (1925-2005) contributed in every department of filmmaking before making her presence felt behind the camera in Telugu and Tamil. Bhanumathi was associated with more than 200 films in her career but wielding the megaphone came her way in 1953 when she directed a tri-lingual film ‘Chandirani’ in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. She continued to direct films and her prolific direction career was acknowledged when she received the Nandi Award in 1986. Bhanumathi emerged as an important filmmaker because of her aesthetic sense as she never hesitated to experiment, Many of her contemporaries praised Bhanumathi for her brave portrayal of female sexuality. She called it a day with her last works Periamma and Samrat Ashok in 1992.

    Shobhana Samarth (1916 -2000), a star of mythological films and mother of Nutan and Tanuja, a dramatic actress of renown, turned to produce and directing Hamari Beti (1950) as a launching pad for Nutan, her eldest daughter. She directed two films, Hamari Beti (1950) and Chhabili (1960). One guesses that she may have lost interest in direction because the very purpose was to introduce her daughters in films.

    Kommareddy Savitri (1935-81), a famous star of the South started her own company Navabharata Natya Mandali. She gave several hit films with Gemini Ganesan as an actress but her directorial career took off with ‘Chinnari Papalu’, ‘Chiranjeevi’ and ‘Maathru Devatha’ during 1968-69.

    In Calcutta, Arundhati Devi, a noted actress of mainstream and off-mainstream cinema, ventured into direction with a lyrical film called Chhuti (Holiday) in 1967. She followed this up with two more films, Megh O Roudra (Sun and Rain)(1969) and a lovely film for children called Padi Pishir Bormi Baksho (Podo Aunty’s Burmese Box). She followed this with Deepar Prem (Deepa’s Love) and Gokul, a telefilm, in 1983. Chhuti won a Certificate of Merit at the 1967 National Awards for which she also wrote the script and the music score. She turned producer with Bicharak (1959) directed by Prabhat Mukherjee — it had her and Uttam Kumar in the lead was awarded a Certificate of Merit as the 3rd Best Feature film at the National Awards in 1960. This was a beautifully understated film based on a novel by Jnanpeeth award-winner Tarasankar Bandopadhyay and is one of Uttam Kumar’s most outstanding works as an actor.

    Manju De, a contemporary of Arundhati Devi, was a very powerful actress known mainly for her histrionic skills. Later, she took direction. Her first film was Swargo Hotey Bidaye (1954) a comedy with melodious music and songsThis was followed by Abhishoptoo Chambal (1967) based on a famous novel by Tarun Bhaduri. Manju Dey produced the film, wrote the screenplay along with Bhaduri and acted in it. Her third directorial film was Sajarur Kanta (1974), a detective thriller based on a Saradindu Bandopadhyay novel. She also directed and acted in Putlibai, a film based on a woman-outlaw The film was a miserable flop. She represented India in Jakarta Indian Film Festival in 1962.

    Lakshmi, a glamorous actress from the South, who acted in more than 400 films in all the four South Indian languages, won one National Award in addition to more than a dozen state awards from the language films she featured in, stepped into direction. Under K. Balachander’s supervision, she made her directorial debut with a remake of Yours, Mine and Ours: the Kannada film Makkala Sainya (1980 Tamil version Mazhalai Pattalam).

    The problem is that their films are not available across the digital world or in other forms today. So, it is difficult to discover what kind of films they made, what stories they narrated and what approach they took in terms of technology. The common elements that bind them are that (a) their directorial careers sprung basically from their work as actresses of no mean merit; (b) they bonded through good and strong storylines for their films (c) the versatility they proved through choice of subject, cast and crew, and (d) their wonderful knack for music for their films because most of these women directors either wrote their own music or chose their music composers with great care. Considering the times they worked within, the ambience within the film industry everywhere was not conducive at all to women directors. Producers chose them as actresses so most of them had to produce their own films at great risk.

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    Shoma Chatterji
    Shoma A. Chatterji is a senior journalist, film scholar and author based in India. She specialises in Indian Cinema, has won the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema twice. She has done her P.Hd and post-doctoral research on Indian cinema. She has authored 24 books of which more than half are on cinema.

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