From Raja Harishchandra in 1913, when an effeminate male cook (Anna Salunke) donned a saree and played the leading lady roles for first six years of movie making, we have come far.
With the recent release of Bhandarkar’s “Heroine”, we pay homage to five women of substance who shattered the glass ceiling in Indian cinema with poise and grace to make way for the Kareenas and Vidyas of today.
Had it not been for their guts and gumption in pre-independence India, being a heroine would still be equated with the lowliest profession known to mankind. And as due recognition, four of them, except Nadia, were bestowed with the pinnacle of cinematic achievement; The Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
Here’s to the women who were and shall forever be, the first amongst equals.
Devika Rani (1907-94) – With many faux claimants to the throne, there will always be only one First Lady of Indian Cinema. Tagore’s grand niece and western educated in applied arts, she trained in make-up, costumes and set design in Germany’s UFA studios.
Married to the visionary producer Himanshu Rai, who co-starred in her first Indo-British co-production “Karma”, the power couple founded Bombay Talkies in 1934.
To the manor born, she gleaned fame by playing roles of rural belles like that of an untouchable in Achyut Kanya. Described by Birmingham Post “as beautiful as any woman who has ever appeared on the screen”, she symbolized attributes diametric to the film industry: soft-spoken, elegant serenity.
Retiring at the height of her career in 1945, she was the first recipient of the Phalke Award in 1969.
Durga Khote (1905-91) – Undeterred by her voluntary early marriage and two children, Durgabai gate crashed the stigma of married women working as leading actresses.
A graduate with an impregnable feminist streak, she played liberated characters that were strong willed and opinionated.
Regal in bearing and with conviction in the medium, she neutered the anathema associated with working in films for educated Hindu upper caste women. In a career spanning fifty years she played diverse roles from a female pirate in Amar Jyoti to Jodha Bai in Mughal e Azam.
Active till her late seventies, she played the lovable grandmother to Rishi Kapoor in Karz (1980).
Tough and tender by turns, this tigress of a woman once yanked the mane of a lion which misbehaved on the set.
Sulochana (1907-83) – The first Indian pinup super diva was a Jewish Eurasian, Ruby Meyers, christened Sulochana (of mesmerizing eyes) who had a frenzied nation bow at her feet.
The first actress to be paid more than the heroes she was discovered, when fate turned the dial, working as a telephone operator. She played an unprecedented eight roles, including a Hyderabadi gentleman, in “Wildcat of Bombay” and was also cinema’s first “Anarkali”.
Precursor to the sex symbols today, she oozed sexuality without the modern day mandatory skin show.
Kanan Devi (1916-92) – Before Nurjehan and Suraiya, there was Kananbala, the first bonafide singer-actor sensation of India.
Her own Cinderella story is the stuff of folklore; from being an illegitimate child to a child artist in Bengali films to rubbing shoulders with Vivien Leigh. Like her contemporary K L Saigal, she was untrained in music when she joined films but naturally gifted. Setting aside the disappointment of not bagging Paro’s role in Devdas (1935), she embarked on a glorious career in films like Mukti and Bidyapati. Her rapid tempo style of singing set her apart and she was amongst the few Indian stars featured in Hollywood magazines.
She created a furor by having a short lived marriage in one of Calcutta’s elitist families, thus underlining the prejudice actresses faced in pursuit of their profession.
Fearless Nadia (1908-1996) – An Australian circus acrobat Mary Evans (real name) marries an Indian Parsi film director and creates the female equivalent of Tarzan, Robinhood and Zorro, all rolled into a single screen persona.
She was feisty, jumping on train roofs and swinging from chandeliers, symbolizing fierce physical strength and courage as she clobbered villains in films like Hunterwali and Diamond Queen.
Married to Homi Wadia, it was said that the combination Nadia and Wadia spelled gold at the turnstiles.
And in Bollywood’s true integral nationalistic tradition, her on screen pet horse was called Punjab ka Beta.