Franz Osten almost washed his hands off his hero, urging him to go back to law. The young man indignantly reminded him that he had come to Bombay Talkies to be a director, not an actor. “Only prostitutes and pimps become actors,” he spat out in an angry moment and stomped off.’ – Ashok Kumar during the making of Jeevan Naiya (The Ark of Life, dir.
Franz Osten, 1936).1
THUS spoke Ashok Kumar ‘in an angry moment’ and summed up the general impression of a cross-section of contemporary society. The controversy surrounding the entry of women on the silent film screen has been frequently recounted.2 This controversy was couched within the bourgeois discourse of ‘respectability’ and stemmed from a suspicion of cinema itself as moral contagion. Women who were professional performers, like courtesans and dancers, saw the film business as a lucrative option. Their visible participation in the industry helped to crystallize the vague panic about the cinema. Ashok Kumar’s spontaneous comment reveals how easily an entire workforce got socially branded.
It was way back in 1914 that a woman played a female part on the Indian film screen for the first time (Kamalabai Gokhale in D.G. Phalke’s Mohini Bhasmasur). However, dominant attitudes towards women as professional actors remained negative for decades after. In this essay I take a look at women’s work in the 1930s Bombay film industry through the lens of female stardom. Much historical research has now been done on women’s work in the Indian rural sector, but the understanding of a woman as an urban worker remains restricted to an orthodox Marxist focus on early capitalist industries such as textile mills and jute factories.3 A close reading of newspapers, autobiographies, literature and indeed movies of the times reveals a Bombay that was consciously trying to modernize itself.
One of the key protagonists in this process of modernization was the woman. There was a palpable excitement about a new breed of public women ranging from typists to telephone operators, novelists to political activists.4 Women in the 1930s film industry occupied a tenuous space on the social terrain, at once distanced from their sisters in more socially acceptable jobs and accorded a dubious status within their own workplace. A nuanced look at this situation might afford a productive approach to the social history of urban women’s work in India.
Late 19th and early 20th century Bombay was undergoing transformative changes in various ways. A new type of publicness was emerging, one mediated by mass production, mass circulation and mass consumption. Popular culture, whether print or theatre, contributed to the emergence of a public sphere marked by heterogeneity and mobility. By the 1930s, cinema had become a firm presence on the city’s topography through physical sites of production (studios), circulation (posters across the city’s walls, film journals) and exhibition (prominent theatres). Many of these venues engendered possibilities for employment and social interaction that did not exist before.
The film studios that dotted the city made for dynamic physical spaces that radically altered the texture of their immediate neighbourhoods and simultaneously created new modes of publicness. Who were the individuals that entered these new work pools? How did women negotiate these spaces? Early Bombay cinema has received scant historiographic attention over the years. Research on women in this period is even more pitiable and can be evidenced in the fact that basic profiles of several leading female actors are non-existent.5 Many ‘stars’ of the 1930s now reside in the black hole of public amnesia. In this context it is fascinating to read accounts of women working in early film industries in other parts of the world. The Antonia Lant edited Red Velvet Seat offers a crucial portrait of the diverse work opportunities available to women in the initial years of Hollywood cinema.6 From negative cutters to continuity girls, directors to theatre ushers, women were a highly visible part of the official cinematic workforce.
Talking about Shanghai cinema in the 1920s, Zhen Zhang writes: ‘The cinema created new vocations for women as well as significant social positions and public images. Because many women contributed substantially to early film ventures in capacities that went beyond acting, it is not too far fetched to consider them pioneers of Chinese cinema and film culture as well.’7 These histories prompt one to ask: Were there women in Bombay who worked in capacities other than actors? Where are their stories? Brief sketches might be inferentially put together – D.G. Phalke’s wife, ‘Kaki’ Phalke, is known to have collaborated with him on various aspects of film production.
8 As Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy detail, she ‘loaded and unloaded the camera, rushed film to the laboratory – a portion of the kitchen area – and supervised all laboratory work.’9 She was also responsible for much of the developing and processing work in the home-made lab. Given the artisanal nature of early film work in India, such domestic partnerships are significant. However, anecdotes such as these are few and far between.
During the last year I have come across brief references to certain women in the 1930s and ’40s Bombay film industry who might rightly be hailed as pioneers. Saraswati Devi nee Khurshid Homji, resident music composer at the Bombay Talkies; Jaddan Bai, producer and director, betterknown as Nargis’ mother; Protima Dasgupta, director; Enakshi Rama Rau, screenwriter and actor; are just some women whose profiles surprise us because we have not heard such narratives before. Against this backdrop let us now look at the figure of Devika Rani, perhaps the only female actor of the period whose iconic star status has been nurtured in official histories over the years.
Her story has always been cited as a simple story of class and conformism. It might be time to cast a more critical eye upon this tale. Devika Rani Chaudhuri (1908- 1994) has often been described as the ‘first lady of the Indian screen’. Born into a privileged upper caste Bengali family, Devika Rani was famously the grandniece of the poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore. While still in her teens, she won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. During this period she also attended the Royal Academy of Music, got a degree in architecture, studied make-up at the Elizabeth Arden Workshop, and for some time made a living as a textile designer.10 She soon met Himansu Rai, a lawyer by training, who was interested in the new creative opportunities of the cinema. Rai advised Devika Rani to concentrate her energies on film craft.
She joined the prestigious UFA Studios in Germany and learned the ropes of film making in various departments like art direction, costume and makeup. 11 At UFA she assisted Marlene Dietrich on The Blue Angel (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930) and closely observed the techniques of directors and actors such as Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst and Emil Jannings. Devika Rani became a sensation in London’s elite circles after she starred in Himansu Rai’s exotic Oriental costume drama, Karma (dir. J.L. Freer-Hunt, 1933).12 The stories of this grand debut gained notoriety back in India for a sizzling on-screen kiss. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, a newly-married Himansu Rai and Devika Rani moved to Bombay and set up the Bombay Talkies Studio13 in 1934. Devika Rani may have faded from public memory today but no major history of Indian film is complete without a mention of her film Achhut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl, dir.
Franz Osten, 1936), a film that Jawaharlal Nehru is rumoured to have watched at its gala premiere. Achhut Kanya is the tale of Kasturi, a demure village belle whose love story with a brahmin boy is destined for tragedy because of her lower caste status. In the climax of the film, Kasturi is killed by an on-rushing train as she attempts to save her battling suitors. On its release in 1936, the film became an instant success with both the paying public as well as the intelligentsia.
It was celebrated for its progressive message against the social injustice of untouchability and its lead actor, the glamorous international star Devika Rani, was lauded for her charming portrayal of a selfless dalit girl. The fact that this role was played by a married brahmin woman of impeccable pedigree, heightened the adulation. Let us now look at another female star of the time, Mary Evans aka Fearless Nadia (1908-1996). Blonde and big-boned, Nadia was launched by the Wadia brothers in their ambitious stunt film Hunterwali (Woman with the Whip, dir. Homi Wadia, 1935). Nadia came from mixed stock; her father was a British soldier, while her mother was a Greek belly dancer. At the age of 18, Nadia found herself saddled with a baby boy and increasing expenses. She chose to become a professional performer and worked variously as a circus acrobat, a vaudeville singer and a touring dancer.
Despite reservations about Nadia’s white complexion and fair hair, J.B.H. Wadia was convinced that Nadia would be the perfect stunt heroine for his studio and his gamble paid off. Hunterwali became one of the biggest grossers of the decade and ran for more than 25 weeks. In an essay titled ‘Not Quite (Pearl) White’,14 Rosie Thomas sets out to explore ‘the construction of one form of modern Indian femininity in the late colonial period, examining Nadia within the film production context of 1930s Bombay and, in passing, drawing comparisons with her shadow persona, Devika Rani.’15 Thomas presents Nadia as a ‘thoroughly post-modern hybrid wonderwoman… an ebullient virangana16 in a modern world’,17 who disciplines the bad guys, leaps from the roofs of high-speed trains and 10. Devika Rani never wrote an autobiography and a first published biography came out only last year.
The details in this section are culled from interviews, obituaries, nostalgia articles and fan websites. Significant is an extensive interview of Devika Rani by Amita Malik, published in Filmfare magazine, 14 March 1958. 11. Talking about her time at UFA, Devika Rani says: ‘Whatever department I worked in, my notes as a student had to be written, with progress jobs to do. [I would write notes on] the different make-ups used by the stars, why the lighting had to be done in a particular way, why for a particular close-up the lips had to be softened… It was also not enough to know how to make a set. I had to visit universities to get the background and study the history and architecture of the period, and the manners, customs and ways of the locale of the picture.’ Filmfare, 14 March 1958, p. 35. 12. Karma was a bilingual Anglo-Indian co-production shot at the Stoll Studios, London and released on the continent as well as in India. The effusive reviews Devika Rani received from the British press for her performance in Karma are unprecedented: ‘Devika Rani is one of the most delicately glamorous cinema stars we have ever seen’ – Sunday Pictorial. ‘You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction, or see a lovelier face. Devika Rani is a singular beauty’ – The Star, London.
13. Bombay Talkies became of the most powerful and respected talkie studios of the pre- World War II period. As the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema notes, ‘…it was the only major [studio] launched as a fully fledged corporate body with a board of directors made up of about a dozen individuals who by their control over banks, insurance companies and investment trusts, occupied commanding positions in the industrial life of Bombay’ (Rajadhyakshya and Willemen, op cit., p. 68). Bombay Talkies also set the mould of the musical melodramatic narrative structure that still lingers in Hindi cinema today. 14. Rosie Thomas, ‘Not Quite (Pearl) White’, in Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha (eds.), Bollyworld: Indian Cinema Through a Transnational Lens, Sage, New Delhi, 2005. Much of the biographical information about Nadia in this essay is thanks to Thomas’ seminal research. 15. Ibid., p. 38.
16. Trans: warrior woman. Thomas refers here to Kathryn Hansen’s description of a virangana tradition in Indian literature and theatre where we have images of strong, martial women informed by historical and legendary figures from different times and parts of India. To quote Thomas: ‘The virangana prototype describes a good queen, who takes over the throne when a male kinsman dies, leads her people into battle dressed as a man, displays astonishing military skills, and dies defending her kingdom against invaders’ (pp. 52). 17. Ibid., p. 67. is unabashed about her sexuality. An important intervention in the understanding of the stunt film genre of the Wadia Brothers, the essay is a detailed study of an alternative prototype of femininity in the 1930s. However, a problem arises in the straight contrast created with the figure of Devika Rani, Nadia’s ‘shadow persona’.
Rosie Thomas uses Partha Chatterjee’s home/world thesis articulated in his essay, ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question’,18 to set off the freedom of Nadia’s ‘gender ambivalence and multiple models of femininity’ against the ‘new Indian woman’ whose power ‘lay ultimately in embracing a more limited and essentialized femininity and was consequently comparatively constrained.’ 19 This new woman, according to Thomas, is best embodied in the figure of Devika Rani. The opposition of these two versions of femininity becomes problematic in statements such as: ‘Whilst Devika Rani’s attempts to challenge traditional orthodoxies in Achhut Kanya left her crushed under the wheels of an oncoming train, Nadia championed the oppressed and effected change in the world from the giddy heights of the train roof, empowered rather than crushed by technology.’20 Rosie Thomas, drawing from post-colonial and Subaltern Studies interventions by Homi Bhabha and Partha Chatterjee, insists on the ambivalent and multiplicitous nature of Nadia’s screen persona, but stops short of reading Devika Rani’s persona against the grain. The literal textual reading of Kasturi’s character in Achhut Kanya ignores the fact that both women were actually a combination of multiple writings.
Just as Devika Rani was carefully fashioned by her studio as the ideal of Indian womanhood, so was Nadia crafted by her studio as a powerful symbol of nationalism. 21 It is easy to interpret both women as being delimited by these attempts, but their status as stars complicates this. Nadia’s fans could reconcile her blonde hair with her on-screen patriotism just as easily as Devika Rani’s fans could accept her off-screen ‘westernized’ behaviour. What I signal here is an approach to questions of women’s representation in the cinema that moves beyond fixing ideological intent in texts and instead, encompasses the areas of spectatorship, fandom, stardom, journalism, fashion, and film publicity.
To read Devika Rani’s persona as the emblematic new woman who sacrifices herself in the battle with modernity is to disavow the performative power of such a discourse, a power that spills across and beyond the screen. Stardom debates within film studies beg a rethinking of traditional notions of the unified speaking self. It has been convincingly argued that multiple media texts contribute to the construction of the star persona.22 These texts are informed by the economic concerns of the studios/producers as well as the desires of the audience/consumers. While the function of the star image, according to Richard Dyer, is to ‘variously manage or resolve contradictions within and between ideologies’, the star text ‘often exposes these very contradictions.’ 23 It is important in this context to also acknowledge the participation of the stars themselves in this activity.
A study of stardom unmasks the forces that create the illusion of glamour and deity, but it is the added prism of gender performativity that enables us to unpack possibilities for subversion within a discourse of female stardom. Judith Butler asserts that gender categories are performatively enacted and create an effect of stable selfhood through reiteration. She says, ‘It is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of the subject.’24 Butler begins with a Foucauldian understanding of power as discursive and 18. Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Nationalist Reso- notes how the subject is produced lution of the Women’s Question’, in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds.), Recasting Women, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1999. This essay looks at the ‘contradictory pulls on nationalist ideology in its struggle against the dominance of colonialism’ (p. 237) which in the social domain, translated into an ambivalence towards modernity.
This ambivalence was resolved by the construction of the false binaries of home/world, spiritual/material and feminine/masculine. Chatterjee is talking here mainly of the middle class ‘new woman’ who was granted a restricted amount of freedom and mobility once she accepted the new nationalist version of patriarchy. 19. Ibid., p. 55. 20. Ibid., p. 56. 21. Talking about the ‘Nadia persona’, Thomas says: ‘From the very first her ethnicity was an issue for the Wadias and Indianizing her was a conscious project: hair color, name, Hindi diction were all areas they sought to control. …Although she was adamant about refusing a wig, in posters her hair was sometimes handcoloured light brown and, in black and white films, shadows could render her coloring ambiguous’ (2005:50-51).
This Indianizing project coupled with Nadia’s on-screen virangana persona enabled the Wadias to allegorically present her as a patriotic figure fending off the advances of the colonizer. 22. See Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, British Film Institute, London, 1986; Christine Gledhill (ed.), Stardom: Industry of Desire, Routledge, 1991; Jackie Stacy, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Routledge, 1994. 23. Richard Dyer, Stars, British Film Institute, London, 1979, p. 38. 24. From ‘Gender as Performance: an Interview with Judith Butler’,by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, London, 1993. Extracted from the website http://www.theory.org.uk/butint1. htm in April 2008. Full version originally published in Radical Philosophy 67 (summer 1994).
within discourse. She continues, ‘Then I take a further step, through the Derridean rewriting of Austin [speech acts], and suggest that this production actually always happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation. …So what I’m trying to do is think about the performative as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names.’25 This is a characterization of discourse and power as productive.
Achhut Kanya is one of the few extant films from Bombay Talkies and one immediately notices the visual incongruity of Devika Rani as the untouchable rural damsel. ‘Devika Rani with her sculpted eyebrows, elaborate coiffeurs and rich costumes was unlike any gaon ki chhori26 one had seen in real life, but still earned rave reviews for being in sync with the character.’27 The pale make-up, pencilled eyebrows and artfully arranged ringlets framing the face speak of Devika Rani’s exposure to European styles of hair and make-up.28 The Achhut Kanya team is said to have done considerable research on the setting, dialect and customs of the rural milieu portrayed in the film.29 Why then were so many ‘unrealistic’ touches allowed in the main protagonist’s appearance?
These touches highlight the artifice of Devika Rani’s rural look, and the attempt at authenticity is contested from within the look itself. If the performative is that which has the capacity to ‘produce what it names’, then the mixed markers on Kasturi/Devika’s person produce a cacophony of identities. Himansu Rai, a canny entrepreneur, was conscious of the dominant perceptions about film studios. Worried that talented workers were wary of film work, he set out to carefully construct an image of his studio as a family, with him as the benevolent patriarch and Devika Rani as the presiding bahu.30 He often used Devika Rani’s ancestry and education as currency to validate film work and assert its ‘respectability’.31 Rai’s concerns were shared by several film journalists who saw themselves as spokespersons of the industry.
32 For example, in a letter to the editor in February 1940, a fan asks filmindia magazine’s Baburao Patel: ‘Is Leela Chitnis an Anglo-Indian girl? Is she married?’ Patel replies that she is a ‘Jewess’ and, ‘Yes, she is married and is a happy mother of four children.’33 Such questions reveal how personal histories interacted with the characters on screen to construct a complicated star image. Patel’s reply to the reader’s question contains within it an anxiety about the social reputation of actresses and the phrase ‘happy mother’ is ideologically loaded. Such public discourse exerts pressures on film professionals, especially women, to conform to particular models of behaviour.
Thus we see Devika Rani tread the fine line between tradition and sophistication in her public life. Always dressed in saris, she allowed herself slight flourishes in terms of dramatic lipstick and wellironed hair. She took up the role of the symbolic spokesperson of Bombay Talkies and played the charming diplomat conferring with politicians and bureaucrats at official functions. But lurking behind every gesture was the threat of excess. The darkly painted 25. Ibid. (http://www.theory.org.uk/butint1. htm) 26. Trans: village belle. 27. Roshmila Bhattacharya, ‘Breaking Barriers: Ashok Kumar’, in Screen online. http:// www.screenindia.com/old/archive/ archive_fullstory.php?content_id=6805. 28. In her off-screen avatar she was loyal to a 1930s sleek hair look with soft waves on either side of the middle parting, perhaps a variation of the Marcel Wave popularized by Marlene Dietrich.
29. Information based on an interview with Ram Tipnis, who used to be the chief makeup artiste for Bombay Talkies in the 1940s. Interviewed in Bombay on 18.08.2008. 30. Trans: daughter-in-law. The term refers to a woman of the house who symbolizes the prestige, values and reputation of the family. 31. ‘Me, a hero? Oh no, sir!’ he wailed. ‘I won’t be able to do it.’ ‘Why not?’ Rai frowned. ‘It’ll give me a bad reputation,’ Kumudlal whose father was negotiating his marriage back in Khandwa, pointed out. … Rai agreed with him that actors were looked down upon in the country but pointed out that his wife, who was the grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, came from a well-respected and cultured family. So did Gyan Mukherjee. Even the technicians at his studio were well educated.’ Cited by Roshmila Bhattacharya in ‘Breaking Barriers’.
32. filmindia magazine was launched in 1935 and swiftly became one the most popular and respected English-language film journals in India. It had a wide readership in the country and abroad, and it was frequently priced at nearly three times the cost of other film magazines. Edited by Baburao Patel, the monthly magazine served up trade news, reviews, gossip, and interviews and turned its editor into a celebrity and itself became a collector’s item. 33. Question asked by Matadin Narnoly, Bhagalpur. ‘The Editor’s Mail’ section was one of filmindia’s selling points and was known for Baburao Patel’s witty, irreverent, acerbic replies. In this context, the reply about Leela Chitnis is exceedingly tame and striking.
mouth was seldom seen without its ivory cigarette holder. The diplomatic duties led to rumours of romantic liaisons.34 Inscribed in reminiscences by the actors and technicians of Bombay Talkies lie anecdotal accounts of Rani’s notorious bad temper and bad language.35 Contrary to Devika Rani’s official sobriquet of ‘First Lady’ of the Indian screen, she was known to her colleagues and studio staff as the ‘Dragon Lady’.36 These accounts highlight the performance of certain modes of behaviour which allow other taboo acts to slip through. It is impossible to hermetically seal the cinematic persona from the public woman. The two interact in subtle ways and the meanings generated by the filmic text are rendered unstable. The contradictory desires of the fan also allow the star a fair degree of performative freedom.
Just as a fan may want to see Devika Rani perform subaltern, melodramatic roles in every film, she may simultaneously be gratified by gossip about Devika Rani’s latest affair. Rather than being limited by her generic cinematic avatars, the star’s transgressive acts fulfil certain fantasies of the spectator-fan. Devika Rani created a huge public scandal during the shooting of Jeevan Naiya (The Ark of Life, dir. Franz Osten, 1936) by eloping with her leading man.37 Strangely, only a couple of months later, she was hailed as an icon of traditional values on the release of Achhut Kanya. Therefore, the female actor is not so much circumscribed by the nationalist constructions of the new woman, as she is aware of them. This awareness enables a performative engagement with ideals of femininity and can be seen as a peculiar kind of work required from female actors. At the same time, ‘the significations of the body exceed the intentions of the subject’38 and the body generates meanings that cannot be controlled.
Rather than posit Devika Rani and Fearless Nadia as oppositional subjectivities, we can see certain affinities between their experiences of film work. Theirs was a form of work that was an intensely ‘gendered’ experience, and both women negotiated urban modernity using performative strategies to switch between acts.39 The huge differences in cultural status and class notwithstanding, we see that similar claims were being made on the bodies and lifestyles of both actors.40 Both women are required to 34. There are suggestions of flirtations with the Governor of Bombay, Lord Brabourne, and Sir Richard Temple in Colin Pal, Shooting Stars, Screenworld, Mumbai, 2004, pp. 49-51 35. Interview with Ram Tipnis, make-up artiste, Bombay, 18.08.2008. 36. This information is culled from various sources including: Interview with former actress Dr. Sushila Rani Patel, Bombay, August-November 2008, and Nabendu Ghosh, Ashok Kumar: His Life and Times, Indus, New Delhi, 1995.
37. This incident is described in Sa’adat Hasan Manto, ‘Ashok Kumar: The Evergreen Hero,’ in Khalid Hasan (ed. & trans.), Stars From Another Sky, Penguin, New Delhi, 1998. Devika Rani famously eloped with her handsome co-star, Najamul Hussain, on the way to an outdoor location. She was tracked down in a hotel in Calcutta and brought back to Bombay by Himansu Rai. Ashok Kumar was then cast in Hussain’s role. 38. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. Routledge, New York, London, 2004, pp. 199. 39. To go back to Judith Butler, ‘gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self,’ whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority’ (‘Performative’ 279).
40. So Nadia’s donning of a sari and bindi in a particular filmic sequence, works as a compensatory gesture to the whip and breeches in the very next scene. Such switching strangely mirrors her switch to marital domesticity with her director, Homi Wadia, while also traversing spaces like race courses and cosmopolitan clubs in the city. 41. Partha Chatterjee, op cit., p. 250. 42. See Maggie B. Gale, Auto/Biography and Identity (Women, Theatre and Performance), Manchester University Press, 2008.
In a history of being written, why did she not use a writing of her own? Perhaps the writing, as they say, is on the wall. It is written on the body, in the ‘transparent innocence’43 of her face. The woman constantly produces herself. Devika Rani has consciously and unconsciously written herself into various texts, images and documents. This is a public archive of histories that need to be reclaimed; they cannot be neatly classified either as stories of passive exploitation or as stories of active agency. The story of Devika Rani is simply one among many. The Bombay film industry positioned women workers in a new, unfamiliar mould. It thrust upon them a new publicness, be it as stars or as crew firmly placed within the urban public sphere. Film studios saw the coming together of women from a wide range of economic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
Within this secret public archive are contained hints of struggle, transgression and negotiation. Our job is to push for a re-reading of these signs. Film historiography in India today is at an exciting turn. There is a commitment to reading history as contingent and contradictory, an understanding of the plurality of evidence, of the power of memory. Now is the moment to push for a new impulse in writing and understanding the politics of gender. This task includes nuanced and recuperative readings of women’s lives and work with an awareness of the polyphonous nature of the self, the diverse experiences of different women and most importantly, the inconsistency or rather inconstancy of gendered acts. Sure, bad girls can be good, but good girls can also be bad.