For many decades women were included in cinema to provide the glamour quotient or the sentimental angle. Sadly, that has not changed much even in recent times. However, the trend has started bucking and women have started to play much important roles in cinema – not the sort of roles in front of the camera, but behind it too. The director is considered to be the captain of any project, and this position was predominantly one held steadfast by men. This has been changing too. India’s first female director is said to be Fatma Begum, who turned to direction after being an actress herself. The mother of three daughters who were also into acting, first began by starting a production house. Then she made her first foray into direction with the 1926 movie Bulbule Paristan – making it the first Indian film to be directed by a lady. What Fatma Begum was to the North, was Kommareddy Savitri to the South. Better known by her screen name Savitri, she also started out with acting before foraying into direction. She was originally a theatre artist who made it big with her talent. Having worked in all the four South Indian languages, Savitri’s name and fame was well known all through the South. Her directorial ventures like Chinnari Papalu, Maathru Devatha and Chiranjeevi paved the way for a lot of women to think about a career in making films. Unfortunately, Savitri did not have much time to script a vast legacy as death claimed her as it’s own in just the 46th year of her life.
Savitri was followed by Bhanumathi. This legend went one up on Savitri and played a part in almost all aspects of cinema, including the technical aspects apart from direction. She started her directorial journey with the 1953 Tamil – Telugu – Hindi trilingual Chandirani and the last movie under her direction was the 1993 movie Asathyaralu. Banumathi not only blazed a trail for herself, but also set a platform for many other women to aspire and make it big. An important aspect of Banumathi’s movies were the way she boldly portrayed female sexuality on the big screens.
T. P. Rajalakshmi is considered to be the first female director in the Tamil cine industry. She was a true all rounder in cinema, in all senses of the word. She was an actress, a producer, a stage artiste and a novelist apart from being the first woman director in Tamil. Miss Kamala, the 1936 movie and the 1938 historic movie Madurai Veeran were directed by T. P. Rajalakshmi. One woman who should be credited for being the first to break the shackles of tradition and showed that women could compete with the best and hold their own was Ms. Arundhati Debi. Hailing from the ultra – traditional East Bengal, this bold lady hailing from a family rich in cultural values, entered cinema. After acting for over 15 years, she tried her hand at direction and aced it. Her movies inspired many women. Another such bold personality was Prema Karanth, wife of the famous director and dramatist BV Karanth. Prema Karanth is credited for becoming the first female director from the Kannada cinema industry. In the 14 years she worked as a director, Prema made movies in Kannada and Hindi and has given many gems like Phaniyamma, Band Jharoke, Appiko and Nakkala Rajkumari.
A child artiste who later went on to star in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu movies, numbering over a 200, Vijaya Nirmala has a unique distinction to her name. She is recognized by the Guinness Book of Records, as the female director to have made the highest number of films. Quite an honour indeed. Sai Paranjpye directed her first movie – Jadu Ka Sankh in 1974. The list of movies to her credit include classics like Katha, Sparsh, Saaz and Chashme Baddoor. Her movies serve as an inspiration to filmmakers of the present day, with her 1981 movie Chashme Baddoor being remade in as recent as 2013. Another talented filmmaker along the same mould of these bold ladies is Aparna Sen. With all her movies having a strong social relevance, Aparna Sen has influenced a whole breed of contemporary women filmmakers who have taken to making serious cinema.
Some of the most notable and talented women filmmakers of today are Revathy, Suhasini Maniratnam, Kalpana Lajmi and Tanuja Chandra. All the people who have watched movies of Revathy and Suhasini would know the bold women – centric themes they make movies on and the kind of intensity and strength they showcase their female characters to be having. One should not forget the current day lady filmmakers of the North, who are working wonders. Zoya Akthar, Farah Khan, Reema Kagti and Kiran Rao have each carved a niche for themselves in the intensely competitive world of Bollywood.
It is not just direction alone, but also production and other technical aspects too. MM Srilekha is considered to be the first female music director in Tollywood. Coming from a family consisting of some legends like MM Keeravani and SS Rajamouli, she has proven that she could establish herself as a music director and singer in her own right. Singing sensations Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle are truly legends. It would not be amiss to mention our own Aachi Manorama’s name here, as she is a legend herself. Having a Guinness Record for having acted in the most number of movies, Manorama’s is a place that can never be filled by anybody else.
There is a common belief that women filmmakers only make movies highlighting the plight of women and that these movies are more social conscious than commercially viable. However, the smart women of today have broken even this myth and shown that they can make commercially successful movies too. Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Arohanam, showcasing a middle-aged lady suffering from Bipolar Disorder, made it big at the box office. Aishwarya Dhanush’s 3 was critically acclaimed and also did considerable business at the theatres. Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi debuted with Vanakkam Chennai, a totally new-age movie with no social themes or women-centric storyline. It was an out and out commercial project. Coming soon is our Superstar Rajinikanth’s second daughter Soundarya Ashwin’s ambitious project Kochadaiyaan. Touted to be the first Indian movie to be using the highly advanced Motion Capture technology, and starring the Superstar himself, this movie has generated a lot of expectation across the country. Directors like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have taken Indian Cinema and its fame to the international stage. Their works are well recognized in the West and have impressed even the viewers from Hollywood.
The list of women achievers in Indian cinema is seemingly endless and will go on and on. These women have made India proud and have given quite a lot to their fellow women-folk in the process. As the writer Diane Mariechild has put it, “A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform!” We as a society are far from giving women their due, but things are far better than how they were.
To all the women who have played some role in my life – minor or major, I thank thee from the bottom of my heart for being there. A woman should not have just a single day to be celebrated on, for the sweet and alluring better half of Man needs to be celebrated on all days!