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Durgabai Kamat: First Cinema Actress Of India!

Durgabai Kamat was the first actress in Indian cinema history who boldly shattered societal norms of 20th Century!

Durgabai Kamat was the first actress in Indian cinema history who boldly shattered societal norms of 20th Century!

Even in 2023 there are many gender norms and stereotypes that are pervasive in the film industry, which many Indian actresses have successfully attempted to smash.

Contemporary situation makes me wonder what kind of struggles a woman had to face in the initial times when every field was completely monopolized by men, and how did one get past that? And who was the first woman to make such bold decisions at a time when the society was submerged in the ideas of conservatism.

Durgabai Kamat was a Marathi theatre actress who became the first actress in Indian cinema. In the early 20th century, when cinema and theatre were trying to break their way, due to various social restrictions on women, those spheres were only meant for men.

Due to ‘no woman allowed in acting’ policy of the society, In 1913, The Father of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, could not find a single actress for India’s first film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and cast a male actor, Anna Salunke as the female lead.

It was during the same year his second film ‘Mohini Bhasmasur’ was released where the country saw its first actress, boldly going beyond the societal restrictions.

Durgabai Kamat’s early life

Unfortunately, not much is documented about Durgabai Kamat apart from the facts told by her daughter, Kamlabai Gokhale to the media.

According to the reports, Durgabai was born in 1879. She did her schooling till 7th standard and soon after was married to Anand Nanoskar who was a history teacher at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai.

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They had a daughter together, Kamlabai, however they soon separated in 1903. At a time when women had no freedom in private and public sphere and when they were forced to live according to societal norms, Durgabai made the dauntless decision to raise her daughter single-handedly.

In present times as well, single mothers face a lot of backlash from society as well as their own family and have to face plenty of challenges to find well paying jobs; so it’s not that difficult to imagine the plight of a single mother back then.

The work opportunities that came her way were very limited, and it was during those times when she got an opportunity to act in films which changed the discourse of Indian cinema.

However, her choice of acting led to her further alienation in society, because acting was not perceived as an ‘honourable’ career for women. Her own Brahmin community as well turned their back on her.

A remarkable acting career

In the initial days of her acting career, she joined a travelling theatre company and travelled with her daughter. Since they were consecutively on the move, her daughter could not attend school regularly, so Durgabai homeschooled her.

Worried about her daughter’s education, it was during that time she decided to take up Dadasaheb Phalke’s offer to act in his second film ‘Mohini Bhasmasur’ (1913).

With this film, she made her debut in the Indian cinema. She played the role of Parvati. Her path breaking choices and resilience served as an inspiration for the upcoming actresses.

‘Mohini Bhasmasur’ was not a debut film only for her, but her daughter, Kamlbai, who acted in the movie, as well became the first child actress of Indian cinema.

Her bold choices led men in the film industry to develop prejudice against her, she received brutal opposition from them, as there was an increase in competition for them in the industry; a fact they couldn’t handle.

‘Mohini Bhasmasur’ was her first and last film, however her daughter Kamlabai Gokhle went on to become a popular actress.

It is disquieting and upsetting to know that, like many inspiring women in history, Durgabai’s journey and achievements are not documented and talked about. Her legacy is remarkable and should remain immortal.

Image source: From Indianfilmhistory.com, edited on CanvaPro


About the Author

Ishita Varma

Hello! My name is Ishita Varma and I am in the final year of Political Science honors. I am always up for any feminist discussion and do not believe in only talking about gender equality read more...

17 Posts | 5,751 Views

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