Article Hindi

Birthday special: When Tabassum interviewed Durga Khote

On the veteran actress’s 113th birth anniversary today (14 January), we recall her interview on Tabassum’s talk show.

Sonal Pandya

Actress Durga Khote was one of the first Indian ladies of Hindi cinema. Born Vita Laud on 14 January 1905, in one of highly regarded Maharashtrian families of Bombay, the young woman was educated at Cathedral High School and St Xavier’s College.

She always had a fondness for the stage and acting, but the financial conditions at home and later, the death of her husband when she was 26, forced her to look for a job. Overcoming a tragic personal life (she was a young widow who had to care for her two little sons), Khote made it possible that other women could dare to dream and respectfully join the film industry.

How Durga Khote conquered Indian cinema, without a whip

Her sister Shalini, who was a friend of producer JBH Wadia, managed to convince her to appear in a film he was producing. She did it for a lark and received much censure for a girl from a respectable family to appear in the film world. But better days were awaiting her as V Shantaram saw her and approached her to appear in his bilingual talkie, Ayodhya Ka Raja (1932).

Khote played Devi Taramati in the landmark film and her association with the pioneering studios of Indian cinema began. In an old black and white interview with child artiste-turned-interviewer, Tabassum, Khote shared some hilarious and revealing anecdotes about how the early days of Indian cinema operated.   

When Tabassum asked Khote about her nickname, Dimple, amongst friends, the modest actress had said, “Till now they call me that, but I don’t know if it’s true or not.” Tabassum then pressed on to ask why when Khote first joined films, she began playing mother roles from the very beginning. Khote attributed her typecasting to her height and personality which lent itself to those kinds of roles in mythological and period films.

Mughal-E-Azam (1960)

Khote talked about the inescapable duty actors and actresses had at the time of singing their own songs as playback wasn’t widely in effect as yet. But she felt the most difficult thing was to learn dialogues, especially learning hard Urdu words written in a poetic style.

Hilariously, she went on to say, memorizing the long dialogue got them in such a state that they forgot which was zameen (ground) or aasmaan (sky) and often pointed in the wrong directions. Even if they realized their mistake, they couldn’t stop. This wasn’t the era of multiple takes. But Khote was quick to point out that at Prabhat, they were quite particular about their methods. “But songs had no retakes, it wasn’t allowed only. They did have a position that could retake a song,” she said, reminding us of a time when the film stock was limited.

Thankfully, she also escaped the rigours of film dancing, as she often played queen in her films, requiring her to watch the dancers, but not actually dance in the festivities before her.

Tabassum then said audiences have come to associate Khote with sophisticated, aristocratic role she played onscreen. They could never imagine her as poor, she said, but Khote gave evidence to the contrary with the film Charnon Ki Dasi (1941) in which she played a washerwoman.

For that role, she actually went to observe real washerwomen to see how they worked and incorporated it in her performance. She also provided a dialogue from the film (“Kaate bhar doongi tere mooh mein” [I’ll put thorns in your mouth]) and said, “Ab aap bataiye mujhe sophistication kahaan aata hain [Now tell me how sophisticated I am].”

She explained to Tabassum how hard they worked to create their roles, be it for Charnon Ki Dasi (1941) or Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Khote also attributed her later success to the acting training she received at Prabhat, where they practised for hours in front of a mirror.

Khote had a long career spanning 52 years and even appeared in the television series Wagle Ki Duniya on Doordarshan during the late 1980s. She was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1983 for her lifelong contribution to Indian cinema.

Watch the interview with Tabassum below: