How Durga Khote conquered Indian cinema, without a whip

While Kangana Ranaut parades the screen with her whip weilding look in Rangoon, the cry for more dominant heroines has become louder. Incidentally, the film is set in the 40s, a time which had a plethora of strong female heroines like Durga Khote, Devika Rani and Fearless Nadia on the screen. Durga was born in 1905. On her 111th birth anniversary today (14 January), we look at how one of Indian cinema's strongest heroines shaped her career, without a whip. 

Shriram Iyengar

The legend goes that in his struggle for the first film, Dadasaheb Phalke covered every stratum of society to find a female to play the role of Taramati, Harishchandra's pious queen. Eventually, he found his queen in Anna Salunke, who would gain fame by portraying female characters with great elan. By 1920s, this trend was edging towards its end. Durgabai Kamat, Sulochana, Patience Cooper, Sabita Devi and Nadia were some of the pioneers who set the screen ablaze with their performances. Yet, the upper-class India looked down upon the industry as one without morals and surrounded by scandals and rumours. While Kangana Ranaut's reprisal of a Fearless Nadia lookalike in Vishal Bhardwaj's Rangoon is a reminder of the bold personification of female actresses, it takes away from the courage of Durga Khote, who empowered a similar change without a whip. 

It was Khote and Devika Rani who changed the scenario for female actresses in the early years of Indian cinema. Both were pioneers for liberated women in Indian cinema. While Nadia was an icon, she continued to be a representation of an exotic foreign woman, whose attitude and personality was perceived as un-Indian. Hence, her roles in the films were not seen as breaking the taboo by many. However, for Durga and Rani the case was different. Born in prominent upper-class families, educated and married into elite surnames, they directed the course of Indian cinema during its infantile years. While Rani chose to act and manage a studio, Durga was pushed into it by circumstances. It is here that her courage deserves more recognition. Having completed her BA, Vita Laud (Durga Khote's birth name) became the daughter-in-law of the millionaire Khote family. But fate had something else in store for her. Her husband, Vishwanath Khote, died at a very young age, leaving Durga, 26, a widow and with the responsibility of two very young children. Any other woman would have returned to the comfortable climes of her maternal home, rich enough to afford Durga another comfortable marriage. But that was not the stuff Indian cinema's first lady was made of.

Looking for a job to provide her independence and stability, Durga turned to cinema. Working with Prabhat Talkies, she made her debut in a silent film, Farebi Jaal (1931). At a time when the industry was often looked down as beneath the status of the elite middle class, Durga's choice to work in films was a sign of her courage. An article in the DNA quotes historian Firoze Rangoonwalla saying, "At that time, when cinema was taboo and female stars came only from the lower strata of society, Durgabai brought respectability and opened up the industry to more women."

Durga Khote in Mughal e Azam (1961)

The fame did not come easy. One of her first films was 'Trapped (Farebi Jaal, 1931) by JBH Wadia. Speaking of the film in an interview, Durga said, "The name of the picture was ‘Trapped’ and that is just how I felt when I saw it. It was a terrible film." But the trouble did not end there, it also brought her fame, or infamy as it was viewed in those days. The actress says, "...and my position was more than awkward. I had suddenly achieved a fair measure of notoriety. I just couldn’t walk around in Girgaum without people pointing at me." However, the film did bring her to the notice of V Shantaram. 

It was her second film that established her talent. Given free rein at Prabhat, Shantaram embarked on one of his most ambitious ventures with Ayodhyecha Raja (released in Hindi as Ayodhya Ka Raja, 1932). It was Prabhat's and Shantaram's, first talkie film. The film's story was based on the epic of Raja Harishchandra. It is somewhat symbolic that Shantaram opted for the same story as Phalke for another first in Indian cinematic history. Alongside stalwarts like Baburao Pendharkar and Govindrao Tembe, Durga Khote delivered a classical performance that captured the imagination of an audience that was only beginning to understand cinema. Over the next few decades, her performances in Amar Jyoti (1936), Mahatma Vidur (1943), Veer Kunal (1945) and Sairandhri (1933) depicted a remarkable range of her talents. 

Durga Khote as the pirate queen in Maaya Machindra (1932)

Her roles also set her apart from any other actress. Durga Khote's characters were women who took on the world, and faced the odds. In Amar Jyoti, she played a female pirate out to overthrow a kingdom. In Bharat Milap (1942), she played the machiavellian Kaikeyi, conniving, justly angry, and adamant at procuring the kingdom for her own son. Her verve, beauty and flashing eyes convinced audiences of her screen presence. Even in her most memorable onscreen performance, as Rani Jodha in Mughal e Azam (1961), she is no conservative housewife. Her declarations to Dilip Kumar's Salim are those of a queen, unwilling to see her son destroy a kingdom. Even as the rest of the cast kept changing as the film was delayed, K Asif did not change Khote's role in the film. Throughout her career, the actress played a diverse range of roles from warrior princesses to pirates and queen mothers. She took part in historicals, mythologicals, and social realist films with equal ease.  

Cinema was not the only stage on which Durga's performances shone. She was a part of the esteemed IPTA movement alongside Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, KA Abbas and others. Her performances on stage as 'Lady Macbeth' in VV Shirwadkar's Marathi adaptation, Rajmukut, deserves special mention. Her determination and character inspired many women like Shobhana Samarth to take to films as a career. Not only was Durga a capable actor, but also an astute business woman. In the early 40s, she established what was India's first advertising company run by a woman, Durga Khote Productions. In an age when women shied away from stepping out in public places alone, Durga, like her namesake goddess, took on the world alone.

One of her most memorable roles was as the mother of Prince Salim in Asif's epic, Mughal-e-Azam. Her grace, stature and presence ensured that she proved the right queen for Prithviraj Chauhan's indomitable Akbar. Public memory, short-lived as it is, remembers her for the short screen time as the kind, old, mother to actors like Dilip Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. But Durga was far more than that. Once upon a time, when Indian cinema had still not discovered stars and kings, she was its undisputed queen.