You might think that Durga Khote, Madhubala and Shabana
Azmi have one thing in common: all leading actresses
of their time. They certainly are that, but they are
something even more important: they are all path-breakers,
each in their own way, each a symbol of cinema's new
directions. Khote was the pioneer. In the early 1930s
when she went into films, she made her first impact
just by being there: cinema had an uncertain reputation,
even a dodgy one, so that when Dadasaheb Phalke made
Raja Harishchandra, he had to cast a man in the role
of Rani Taramati. While gradually women's roles began
to be played by women, film acting was not considered
a suitable profession for girls from "good families".
then came Durga Khote, upper- crust Brahmin from upper-crust
family, educated at Mumbai's elite Cathedral School,
taking up cinema grease-paint instead of genteel matrimony.
Appropriately, her first important role was of Rani
Taramati, in V. Shantaram's remake of the Phalke film
background made it suddenly acceptable for other women
from a similar social milieu to think of a film career.
Not only that, her presence and bearing and the confidence
a privileged upbringing bestows, made it possible for
directors to think of movies featuring dominant women.
A still from Maya Machindra which she made for Prabhat
Studio around the same time, shows her dressed as a
warrior queen in armour, sword in hand, crown in place,
a cheetah at her feet, the martial effect softened by
the presence of elaborate jewellery.
warrior queen image wasn't just play acting. The story
is told of a shoot in Kolhapur in 1935 featuring lions.
One of these went out of control, pounced on a minor
actor and began clawing his shoulder, whereupon Durga
Khote caught the animal by its mane and struggled with
it till its trainer arrived on the scene.
inspired by such real-life bravado, directors like Shantaram
began to make films with heroines who really were heroines,
like the 1936 Amar Jyoti where Khote played a wronged
wife, wreaking terrible vengeance on her tormentor.
Her last film in this mould might have been Acharya
Atre's 1941 Charnon Ki Dasi, but she was by no means
finished with cinema, embarking on a second innings
when she played character roles, often the good mother
to Lalita Pawar's bad mother-in-law. Her most famous
essay in this phase was as the Queen Mother in Mughal-e-Azam.
is, of course, remembered as Madhubala's film. Not just
because it was her finest achievement as an actress,
but because her role had so many parallels with her
own life: childhood spent in poverty followed by a satisfying
recognition of her abilities. And then the love affair
doomed by patriarchal opposition. That her thwarted
lover in the movie was played by Dilip Kumar meant that
they were not play-acting but living out their real-life
drama. And the death sentence imposed on her dancing-girl
character of Anarkali by Emperor Akbar too had a tragic
echo: Madhubala knew then that she had an incurable
heart disease which would give her only a few more years
-- and this is a quality Madhubala has in common with
Durga Khote and Shabana Azmi -- in spite of her tragic
life, she was no victim. She so easily could have been.
Take the ingredients of her life story and you have
a fillum tear-jerker: the poor family of 11 children,
her singular beauty and desperation persuading her orthodox
father to put her into films. When she became famous
(and rich), the whole family tagged along to share in
her prosperity. Her father opposed her marriage to Dilip
Kumar, it is said, not on grounds of community or religion
-- both were Muslim -- but because the bread (and cake)
winner would be lost forever.
is also said, but there is no way to corroborate this,
that Madhubala's medical treatment was delayed because
news that she was seriously ill would have affected
her career. Yet her trademark smile deserted her only
when she was laughing. Her giggling fits on the set
were notorious. This is perhaps why she displayed such
a talent for comedy in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Half Ticket
and Mr & Mrs '55 and also why she married Kishore Kumar.
Monroe was a contemporary of Madhubala and both stars
shared more than just the letter M. They were glamorous,
had a tragic personal life culminating in early death
and a paradoxical flair for film comedy. Above all,
both possessed that improbable combination of utter
and complete sensuality with utter and complete innocence.
(The only star of today who has this quality is another
M -- Madhuri Dixit. But she is a product of our times
and mercifully there is no tragedy in her life).
Monroe, though, was a victim. Madhubala wasn't. Whether
it was a film project or her latest romance, it was
she who took the initiative and usually got her way.
For the dozen years or so that she dominated Hindi cinema
from Mahal to Mughal-e-Azam she was more her own capricious
woman than people imagined. Towards the end she had
even taken up direction (Farz aur Ishq) in order to
have complete control over a film.
the seeds for a change from romanticism were being sown.
When films influenced by the Italian Neo-Realism and
the French Nouvelle Vague were shown in festivals in
India, they had an immediate impact. People like Satyajit
Ray saw what the medium could achieve while students
like Shyam Benegal were inspired to start film societies
in their colleges. His films introduced actors like
Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi.
remarkable thing about Azmi's has been that even when
playing exploited women (Ankur, Nishant, Fire) her characters
managed to assert themselves. This emerging feminism
became an intrinsic part of much of the New Cinema movement
of the '70s and the '80s.
we look at the careers of Durga Khote, Madhubala and
Azmi, we find that in all three, their screen persona
merged with their real personalities: Khote, playing
the warrior queen on the screen, battles with a real
lion on the sets; Madhubala as Anarkali accepts from
Prince Salim played by her real life prince a prize
of thorns for winning a singing contest. And Azmi, in
a defining moment, playing Godmother, as strong a woman
as you could get, and in real life playing a battling,
if benign, godmother to a whole slew of causes, culminating
in a seat in the Rajya Sabha where she gives voice to
is a Mumbai-based columnist.