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7 Indian female directors you should know about who in the last century decided to tackle patriarchy and took the role of filmmaker and moved behind the camera!
The Indian film industry has always been a place of contradictions. Through art, change has been invited time and again. But it was also a space that followed the patriarchal norms of the society. Here are 7 Indian female directors who decided to tackle patriarchy and took the moving camera!
They might have begun their career as actresses of their time, but never restricted their potential until there.
These Indian female directors; the first of their kind in the industry, they played around with ideas. Some of them stayed, some didn’t. But their courage to breakthrough has always remained, and inspires women of today.
Fatma Begum can be attributed as the first Indian female director of undivided India. Debuting into the industry first as an actor, and then as a director and producer.
She shattered not glass ceilings, but societal shackles that were tightly wound around a woman of her era. She remains as one of the leading figures in the history of silent films.
Born in 1892, in an Urdu-speaking Muslim family, her acting career began with her appearances in Gujrati and Urdu theatre. This was a choice made when even men did not have the liberty to venture into this craft.
Fatma was introduced to the world of films, and her subsequent success, in 1922 with her debut film Veer Abhimanyu by Ardeshir Irani. In 1926, she became the first Indian female director with the release of her film Bulbul-e-Paristaan.
The film was produced by her own banner named Fatma Films, renamed later as Vitoria-Fatma Films in 1928. Meanwhile, along with handling her managerial posts, she was also a mother to 3 children who continued her legacy.
Fatma Begum’s second directorial project was released in 1929 titled as Goddess of Luck, and continued with her acting for another decade. Her filmography includes a handful of iconic movies including Heer Ranjha, Love, Chandrawali, Shakuntala, etc.
Recently, Sonam Kapoor, while opening up about her struggles as a female in the production industry, named Fatma as an inspiration. She thanked her for making way for women to even dream of a career in this field, and urged her followers to recognize, acknowledge, and remember the first Indian female director.
The first female superstar of Telugu cinema, Bhanumathi Ramakrishna was a multi-faceted persona. It earned her the name of Ashtavadhani, for she tried her hand at the 8 major fields in the film industry.
Born in 1925, Bhanumathi was introduced to the field of acting as a child through her father, who worked on several stage shows. She made her industry debut in 1939 with the C. Pullayya’s Telugu film, Kalindi.
However, Swargaseema remains as her finest work, where she acted in a dual role and became the first Indian female actor to do so.
Since then, there has been no looking back. She went on to star in popular films like Chakrapani, Laila Majnu, Vipranarayana, Malliswari, Batasari, and Anthasthulu.
A decade later, she ventured into the Tamil industry with the film Ratnakumar cast opposite the superstar P.U Chinnappa and directed by Krishnan-Panju. Over her entire career, she was involved in over 200 Tamil and Telugu films.
Her directorial debut was in 1953 with the film Chandirani, which was the first film to be made in 3 languages (Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi) simultaneously.
The fact whether she had actually directed other movies is still somewhat misty; however, widely and truly regarded as the “Epitome of Self-respect and Versatility”, she has been an inspiration to many, including notable figures like Jamuna, Savitri, and others.
People say that there has not been another “heroine” who matched up to her. I say, why even try? She was an inspiration, not a benchmark to achieve.
A stalwart in the field of Bengali cinema, as an actor and a female director, Debi was quite a revolutionary figure if you place her within the context. Apart from gracing the screen with her versatility, she excelled as a director and was recognized by critics alike. She is still remembered as one of the finest that the Bengali industry has ever produced.
She was born in Barisal, which is now a part of Bangladesh, but had her educational training in the city of Calcutta. It was here where she was pulled into the world of cinema in 1952.
She debuted with the groundbreaking film called Mahaprasthaner Pathe by Kartik Chattopadhyay.
However, as much as she was loved by the audience as an actor, she was recognized supremely for her directorial projects. She had based her film on Rabindranath Thakur’s short story with the same name, Chhuti. She won her a National Film Award for Chhuti.
Her highest directorial work remains as Padi Pishir Barmi Baksho, based on the work of Leela Majumdar and was released in 1972.
A power woman, Debi remained undeterred and focused on livening up the best of Bengali literature on the silver screen. Her legacy survives widely in the Bengali industry, as she paved the way for the female directors of the present era to express their art.
Leela created history, not once but repeatedly; an enigma on-screen, an eternal beauty, and the personality who founded the stereotype of Indian mothers on-screen, Leela Chitnis had a flourishing and lived career in the film industry.
Chitnis was born in 1909 in a small town in the Bombay Presidency, now known as Karnataka. Stalwart Thespians like Shaw, Ibsen, and Stanislavsky influenced her greatly, and she joined a Marathi theatre group called Natyamanwantar.
30 years later, she was hired by Bombay Talkies. Chitnis revived the wobbling luck of Bombay Talkies with Kangan made in 1939. It appealed to the audience, while criticizing the caste-induced barriers, simultaneously. She starred opposite superstar Ashok Kumar to bring about romantic hits like Azad, Bandhan, and Jhoola.
She was the first Indian celebrity to endorse the brand Lux. For the next 2 decades, she continued her run in the industry being the self-sacrificing, melodramatic Indian mother that set standards for the society.
However, in a brief stint with direction, she directed Aaj ki Baat which released in 1955.
That was the first and the last film she had directed. However, she did write and direct a play based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Sacred Flame.
Known as the “Duchess of Depression”, she was a struggling mother, and probably that’s why she was able to handle the role better than anyone could ever have.
With her motherly image in films like Awaara, Maa, and the box-office hit Guide, she imprinted herself as the image of an idealistic mother. While being the unabashed lady that she is, she paved the way for the emergence of stars like Lalita Pawar and Nirupama Roy.
B.V Karanth is a name that every Indian would recognize. A towering figure in the field of Kannada theatre, cinema, and acting, he is a national personality.
However, his wife, Prema Karanth, was much more than a wife to B.V Karanth. She was a multi-talented visionary in art that helped her to navigate through the theatre and the film industry, and earn a name for herself.
Prema was born in 1936, and was brought up by her grandparents when she lost both her parents early. She was a determined girl with a fierce sense of self-sufficiency.
She continued in the line of education as a teacher. However, through and through, she had been directly associated with theatre. She constantly experimented with various theatrical methods with the aim of incorporating it within the education system.
Hence, she followed her husband to Delhi when he joined NSD. Her career started off as a costume designer with a repertoire of 120 plays under her name.
She ventured into the silver screen when she was roped in as a costume designer for G.V Iyer’s Hamsangeethe, followed by her role as an art director in 1977’s Kudre Motte.
However, she went on to become the Kannada industry’s first female director when she took on the directorial project of Phaniyamma in 1983, based on a Kannada novel. This won her several critical acclaims.
Prema’s legacy is much more influential in the field of educational theatre. However, one cannot really deny her the credit she deserves to be the beginning of the rise of Indian female directors in the industry.
“In the early days of Odia cinema, she single-handedly uplifted it to a new level. She was really a symbol of women’s empowerment when an idea like empowerment was unheard of.”
This is how the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, remembered the “…actor, director, and producer, at the same time”.
So did the entire state. One of those few women who had her husband by her side supporting her artistic ventures, Ghose was an unstoppable force and brought to screen a handful of films as director and producer.
Parbati Ghose, born in 1933 as Chapala Nayak, was a child voice actor for All India Radio before debuting as a child artist in the 1949 film Shri Jagannath. However, her first film as a lead actor was in 1953 titled Amari Gaan Jhua. It explored the theme of child marriages in villages, and brought her critical acclaim.
The next few years were a successful run for Ghose as a lead actress, and it drew her to the process on the other side of the screen. Along with her husband, Gour Prasad Ghose, she co-directed, produced, and acted in 3 films named Lakshmi, Kaa, and Stree, which won them three national awards for their work as producers and directors.
On an independent project in 1986, Ghose produced and directed a film titled Chha Mana Atha Guntha. Her last directorial venture was in 1998 with the film Salabega.
She was an artist who transitioned from the black-and-white era to the coloured motion picture. However, her legacy remains alive even till the day to inspire next generation of Indian female directors.
The Bengali artistic industry has been known for one of the leading makers of change. Hence, when it was possible for women to enter the sets as a director, there was no stopping the ones who liked to dream big.
Contemporary to Arundhuti Debi, Manju Dey is one such personality. Along with her brilliant on-screen presence, on a very strikingly similar note to Ray, she adapted celebrated Bengali literature into motion pictures.
Manju Dey was born in 1926 in Berhampore, Murshidabad, but came down to Calcutta to pursue her education.
Her debut in 1951 with the film Niyoti the silver screen was rather mediocre, but she is remembered for her role in Ajoy Kar’s Jighansa which released the same year.
Throughout the next two decades, she grew to be one of the leading ladies of the industry. In 1954, she started directing with a comedy titled Swargo Hotey Bidaaye. She returned to it later in 1967 when she adapted a film called Abhishopto Chambal based on a novel of the same name by Shishir Bhaduri.
Even 7 years later, she directed Shojarur Kanta, a Byomkesh Bakshi novella with the same name. Her last film directed was Putlibai.
Dey led a life that can be termed as eventful. She was a representative of India at the Jakarta Indian Film Festival in 1962.
Her contribution to Indian cinema is a legacy that is still recognized, and acknowledged by many in the industry, who are truly dedicated to the art.
The idea that a glamorous star can also be a good leader off-screen was a starter for a change in the industry. As we celebrate the rise of female directors, and the coming of more, it is important that we connect to the roots, and remember the ones who led the way.
It is true that we have covered some distance in terms of women empowerment, but we still have a long way to go.
Image source: Author, edited on Canva Pro
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The author is a Gen-Z kid who resorts to writing to vent out about the problematic ways of the world. Having majored in Theatre, English, and Psychology, I take a guilty pleasure in complex read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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