We are witnessing a regular arrival of films focussing on gender issues recently. At times, some prominent women voices talk about the internal dynamics of the film industry, harassment faced by women in general, remunerations and gender-based imbalance. It is interesting to know that during the early decades of our cinema, some women artistes earned more than the men in the industry. The subject was discussed in the public sphere. Artistes had opinion on matters concerning the industry. The opinions were expressed freely through periodicals of that time.
Some actors even talked about emotions that shaped their work. This aspect of our cinematic journey is interesting, inspirational, and a vital part of cinema’s history. Revisiting this material after almost a century is an enriching experience.
Sulochana, a well-known actor of her times discusses love in the special ‘puja’ issue of Filmland, a journal, in 1934. She categorises love as a prerequisite because it “distils the art of an actress.” In the article titled ‘Love’, she says that it is not the same as something between a man and a woman or the feeling of close kinship. For her, love “is the idyllic, unselfish love of friendship and understanding”, and “art cannot thrive without it.” During those times, actors occasionally wrote articles in film magazines.
In the annual issue of Moving Picture Monthly in 1935, Chandravati Devi, another leading lady of that period shares her thoughts on cinema. “I regard it as a sacred profession. Life of a film star is not so free and easy as most of my sisters might think. To cater for the millions with varied taste and fancies, to shake the very depths of human feelings through tears and laughter, hatred and anger, sighs and sobs are harder jobs — much harder than what you can hardly dream of!”
The debate on women and films takes its roots in the 1930s. This decade has a profound place in the recent history of our nation. The struggle for independence intensified with social issues at its core. The themes in cinema changed rapidly, from mythological subjects to contemporary, social issues and aspirations. In such a scenario, the discourse on cinema could not be immune to issues concerning women.
Few articles on cinema written by women and some reports and comments published in various periodicals in the 1930s give us a fair idea of the public sphere. Woman actors were well-recognised in the public discourse for their talent. Their achievement was duly celebrated.
Shila Devi Kumud, a commentator, wrote ‘Choice of Heroes from a Lady’s Standpoint’ in Filmland. In the article published on 7th February 1931, she draws upon many films, criticising directors for lack of judgement while casting male actors. “Sometimes, an actor does his best in one film, and wins the laurels of the year. The director chooses him in the next also without regarding if he suits the character or not.” Kumud also blames the actors for not competing among themselves because they “are not paid as high a salary as a female”, and asserts that “heroes should be as befitting as heroines.”
Certain reports on the earnings of Sulochana aka Ruby Meyers underline the popularity and importance of some woman actors. On November 14, 1931, Filmland reported that Master Vithal and Miss Sulochana are the ‘two highest paid artistes in India’. Same year, in January, the journal reported on Sulochana shifting to the Maharashtra Film Company, Kolhapur, on Rs 2500 per month. It was, according to the report, a big jump — from “Rs 60 to Rs 2500 per month in seven years”. Till the late 1940s, artistes and technicians were salaried employees of the studios or film production companies. They could work in other projects after special permissions from their employees.
In June, 1931, Filmland reported, “Miss Sulochana works on picture contract basis. Rs 3000 per picture to be shot within a fixed time is her present rate.”
The advent of talkies brought new anxieties with the release of Ardeshir Irani’s Alam-Ara, on March 14 that year. On 15 August, the journal stated: “Sulochana and Madhuri are on the pinnacle of popularity in silent pictures, but where will they stand in the talkie world?”
There were transitional anxieties. A report about Rampiyari, a leading actor states: “She is 22 years old, speaks Telugu, Marathi, Canarese and Hindusthani. She is fed up with the takies and is not satisfied with the recording which, she complains, has distorted her actual voice. Indian producers in her opinion have not yet advanced in the production of talkies. She hopes to come back to talkies again when the recording will improve, though at heart she prefers silents to talkies.”
Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, in 1913, can pin point the exact moment when cinema witnessed drastic changes in multitudes. None, however, has been more continuous and contentious than women’s portrayal, presentation and participation in films.
Phalke’s film did not have a female actor. Perhaps, he could not find any. Acting in films was a social anathema. The few women who applied for the roles withdrew later. But, the success of Raja Harishchandra impacted the perception. Phalke and other filmmakers were joined by many actresses.
By the time talkies arrived, stars like Zubeida, Devika Rani, Sulochna, Mehtab, Shobhna Samarth, Durga Khote, Shanta Apte and others had joined the industry. Many of these ladies were from educated and affluent backgrounds. They received huge payments for their work.
The talkies threw a huge challenge. Actors who spoke and sang well could really fit in. As a result, a lot of successful careers belonging to the silent era were devastated. The talkies unleashed a number of singing talents, Kajjan, Gohar, Jaddanbai and Jyotsna Bhole, on the horizons.
Moving Picture Monthly’s editorial in its annual issue, 1935, mentions Gohar and Sulochana as holding “the supreme places, with Madhuri coming for a close second.” That piece throws light on several remarkable performances of Sabita Debi, Molina, Ratanbai, Mehtab, Zubeida, Gulab and Bibbo, and the attainment of “full-fledged stardom with one picture” by Shanta Apte and Umashashi.
The woman artistes were comfortably superior. However, many people, including the woman actors were not really convinced that acting in films was a respectable profession. In Filmland, 1931, ‘a lady artiste’ accused those in film business for having motives “to satisfy their lust and passion, to enjoy life and make money, and to misuse the public money.” She responds to an article that refers to screen and stage as a new career for girls. This artiste calls the scenario “horrible” and “disreputable”, and terms the producers and directors as “accustomed and habituated to low morals”. She speaks against “any society girl” joining the profession “unless and until the present low morals of the studios is changed for the better” which, according to her, is “invisible to the outer world”.
These charges, countered by a much-admired actor Sabita Devi the journal, in 1931, underline the veiled identity of the artiste. Sabita expresses her displeasure over attacking “a whole industry yet in its infancy at a time when it needs our greatest support and cooperation.” Counting her experiences, Sabita Devi writes that times were changing, and “the actors and the principals are gentleman of the East in the truest sense of the world, and the actresses have not flung their morals to the airs.” She writes that a woman should care for her own integrity of character, her actions, words and manner, and “if she is true, womanly and modest, no man can approach her any other spirit than that of the deepest reverence and respect, and in my opinion no man is so bereft of these instincts which help in recognizing true womanhood, than to dare approach her in any but the manner I have described above.”
The annual issue of Moving Picture Monthly, 1935, has an article by Irene Nicholson, reviews editor, London’s Film Art. She shares her opinion on Indian cinema and its various aspects, concluding that “suggestions may come to you through the European and American film, but your films must eventually be created not with reference to others’ present but to your own historic development.”
Discussions centred on women and cinema, and the opinions of women in the 1930s provide us a tremendous entry point to look into the conditions of the industry. Today, we like or loathe a film depending on how it treats women at the different levels of story, actors and focal issues. Debates on women’s presence in films, their depiction, appearance and beauty standards, are as old as cinema itself. We can map our present looking at past through an opportunity this material provides.