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Fatma Begum, Jaddanbai: The earliest female filmmakers of Indian cinema


In the dawn of Indian cinema, these filmmakers were the multifaceted trailblazers who set the path for others to follow over 90 years ago.

Actress Shobhana Samarth and writer-music composer-director Jaddanbai. No image was available for Fatma Begum.

Sonal Pandya

In the early era of Indian cinema, it was hard for female artistes to gain a foothold in the new medium. For the first Indian silent film, filmmaker Dhundiraj Phalke had to cast a man, Anna Salunke, in the role of Taramati because no woman agreed to be a part of Raja Harishchandra (1913) as it wasn’t considered respectable profession for them.   

Ruby Myers

During the silent era, young women from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, Ruby Myers (aka Sulochana), Patience Cooper (the first woman to do a double role) and Fatma Begum became trailblazers in their own right. Myers and Cooper were bona fide film stars and Fatma Begum was most likely the first female director in Indian cinema. Sadly, her name and story have stayed hidden whenever the discussion of the history of Indian cinema comes up. Even now, no concrete photograph remains of the woman who was India’s first female filmmaker 91 years ago.

Born in 1892, Fatma Begum first gained fame on the Urdu stage and began her career with Ardeshir Irani’s Veer Abhimanyu in 1922. Within a few years she had set up Fatma Film Corporation (which became Victoria-Fatma Films) and directed her first film Bulbul-e-Paristan (1926). There is not much information available about the films she made, but the film featured her daughter Zubeida, who went on to star in India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931).

Bulbul-e-Paristan, was likely a big-budget fantasy film which contained special effects as the story was set in ‘Paristan’ [fairyland]. Her other two daughters, Sultana and Shahzadi, were also stars of the silent era and acted in their mother’s films. Reports suggest that she was married to the Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III, the last ruler of the Sachin State. But no record of their marriage existed and the Nawab did not recognise Fatma Begum or his three daughters.

However, this did not deter her in the least as she continued her creative pursuits even as she managed her daughters’ careers in films. Besides direction, Fatma Begum also wrote, produced and acted in her own films. She also acted for Kohinoor and Imperial Studios in their productions. With the advent of the talkies, she continued to take roles, appearing in films like Sevaa Sadan (1934) for Nanubhai B Vakil and Punjab Lancers (1937) for Homi Master. When Fatma Begum passed away at age 91 in 1983, no one was aware of the glass ceiling she had broken through in the 1920s.

Jaddanbai

Born the same year as Fatma Begum, Jaddanbai was another woman who decided to take the reins of her career in her own hands. She too started out as an actress, though not successfully. As a young child, she learnt classical music from Moujuddin Khan and Barkat Ali Khan. Jaddanbai joined Lahore’s Playart Phototone with Raja Gopichand (1933), but within four years, she set her own banner, Sangeet Films where she wrote, directed and composed music for her films like Jeewan Sapna (1937) starring Mehtab and Moti Ka Haar (1937) which also featured her daughter, Nargis, as the child artiste Baby Rani.

With her daughter Nargis

Introducing her daughter in Talash-e-Haq (1935), she groomed Nargis to become one of the leading actresses of the industry and was amongst the first women to compose music for Indian films alongside Saraswati Devi (aka Khorshed Minocher-Homji) and Bibbo (as Ishrat Sultana). It was fortuitous that Nargis’s career took off as most of the women who had started their own production banners, even Zubeida and Sulochana, had to shut shop in the 1940s. Devika Rani, the co-founder of Bombay Talkies, who took over after her husband Himanshu Rai’s death, was the only powerful producer left standing.

Shobhana Samarth

In the years to follow, other actresses delved into direction as well. Shobhana Samarth launched her own banner, Shobhana Pictures, with Hamari Beti (1950) to introduce her daughters Nutan and Tanuja as child artistes. She later directed Chhabili (1960) with her children in key roles. Samarth’s husband lent a helping hand in the films and she was one of the many women in the industry who balanced films and motherhood regularly.

Leela Chitnis

Likewise, Leela Chitnis, one of the first film stars to advertise for Lux soap, produced Kisise Na Kehna (1942) and directed a feature Aaj Ki Baat in 1955. Chitnis was famously referred by the newspaper Times of India, as the first graduate society-lady in the industry. But the number of female filmmakers decreased as the time went on.

Today, the Hindi film industry holds filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Reema Kagti, Gauri Shinde, Leena Yadav, Meghna Gulzar in high regard. They join the ranks of established filmmakers Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Sai Paranjpye and Kalpana Lajmi. Actress Konkona Sensharma (daughter of Aparna Sen) recently directed her first film, A Death in the Gunj, and leading actress Kangana Ranaut has been quite vocal about her desire to get behind the camera at some point in her career.

While their numbers might be low, their tribe may be growing. The past two years have seen the films of 19 women directors hit the theatres. None of their films broke the box office top ten but features like Margarita, with a Straw (2015) directed by Shonali Bose and Nil Battey Sannata (2016) directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, remained high on critics’ year-ender lists. Already in 2017, Aparnaa Singh’s Irada starring Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, and Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi starring Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao and Kriti Sanon are eagerly awaited.