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Durga Khote, the formidable trailblazer of Hindi and Marathi cinema: Anniversary special

The first educated woman to enter the world of Indian cinema, Durga Khote, who was born on this day 115 years ago, broke through traditional barriers to pursue a memorable career in the movies.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In popular memory, the name Durga Khote would bring to mind the determined and formidable character of the empress Jodhabai in K Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960), but Khote had been an accomplished actress in Hindi and Marathi cinema long before that.

Though she hailed from a progressive Brahmin family, it would have been unimaginable for the well-educated young woman to have joined the world of moving images at a time when appearing on the silver screen was considered disreputable. But she did just that and thus became the first educated woman to join the film industry.

So, when the great filmmaker V Shantaram decided to cast Khote, or Durgabai as she was known in the industry, as the heroine in his remake of the Raja Harishchandra story in 1932 — Ayodhyecha Raja in Marathi and Ayodhya Ka Raja in Hindi — it was no ordinary move.

In fact, the novelty of someone of Khote’s background acting in films was so immense that advertisements for her debut film proclaimed, ‘Introducing the daughter of the famous solicitor Mr. Laud’! And Laud was truly progressive, for when his daughter’s first film Farebi Jaal (1931) sank without a trace, he reportedly told her, “I don’t care what the rest of the film is like, but you have shown a way for women to earn a living.”

Indeed, Khote came into the film industry at the age of 26, as a mother of two sons. She was widowed at an early age and sought work in the movies to provide for her family.

Beginning her career with silent films, Khote joined Prabhat Film Company and went on to work extensively with Shantaram, starring in the first Marathi talkie film, Ayodhyecha Raja (1932), which was based on the story of Harishchandra, also the subject of the first ever Indian feature film, produced and directed by the pioneering Dadasaheb Phalke. While Phalke had had to cast a man in the role of queen Taramati, Shantaram cast the regal Khote.

With the success of Ayodhyecha Raja, there was no turning back. Khote became the Prabhat heroine in films like Maaya Machhindra (1932), where she played a fearless queen who rules a kingdom where men are hated.

Durga Khote on the poster of Maaya Machhindra

By the second half of the decade, social films were being sought out by the audience, films that engaged with contemporary life and concerns instead of the past. Shantaram concentrated particularly on the oppression of women and the film Amar Jyoti (1936) was one such. In the adventure film, Khote plays the role of queen Saudamini who becomes a pirate and rebels against patriarchy, declaring war on a tyrannical state. 

Durga Khote in Amar Jyoti (1936)

Khote’s roles complimented her regal, undaunted personality as she held her own in the presence of formidable actors like Chandra Mohan, Sohrab Modi and even Prithviraj Kapoor. She acted in films spanning from the historical and the social to the mythological, making each role memorable.

Khote played the eponymous role in Debaki Bose’s Seeta (1934), the first Indian film to be screened at the Venice festival. Later, in Vijay Bhatt's Bharat Milap (1942) (Bharat Bhet in Marathi), she played the opposite role, being cast as Kaikayee against Shobhana Samarth's Seeta.

Other films included Narsi Bhagat (1940), Sohrab Modi's Prithvi Vallabh (1943), K Asif’s directorial debut Phool (1944), Dev Anand’s debut film Hum Ek Hain (1946), Seeta Swayamvar (1948), Har Har Mahadev (1950), Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1954), Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954), SS Vasan’s Raj Tilak (1958) and the film she is remembered for the most, Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Playing the feisty Jodhabai, Khote illuminates her scenes with ferocity, making it evident that she is a fair match for her husband, the awe-inspiring emperor Akbar played by Prithviraj Kapoor.

Interestingly, K Asif began shooting Mughal-e-Azam in the late 1940s with Nargis, Chandra Mohan, Sapru and Khote in the original cast. But the shooting was abandoned after a series of unfortunate incidents that included Chandra Mohan's death. A new cast was signed for the project that was restarted from scratch. Practically all the artistes were replaced. Except Durga Khote.

While Khote later made a smooth transition playing the role of mother and then grandmother, one film that gave her the space for a different performance, by her own admission, was Raj Kapoor’s teenage love story Bobby (1973), in which the veteran actress played a Goan nanny with aplomb.

Other than this, films made under the Prasad Productions banner — Daadi Maa (1966), Jeene Ki Raah (1969), Bidaai (1974) — also offered her memorable roles.

Such was the aura of this luminous star that when Subhash Ghai was casting for his superhit film Karz (1980), he only thought of Durga Khote to play the integral role of the mother in the reincarnation drama. Talking about the role in an interview, Ghai said, “I needed someone to play the role who would look like a queen but would also have to work like a servant. She needed to look majestic and dignified like a queen while doing the work of a maid-servant... Durgaji knew how to carry herself and was extremely hardworking.”

In recognition of her contribution to cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke award was conferred upon her in 1983. In her autobiography, I, Durga Khote, she wrote, “Once in a while I wonder what I would have done if circumstances had not pushed me into films, and if the Khote fortunes had not gone into decline. Then my identity would have been nothing more than daughter-in-law of an illustrious family.”

Instead, by rejecting the beaten path by declining to ask her parents or in-laws for financial help during her time of need, Durga Khote carved a space for herself in the hearts and minds of the people through the lingering power of her performances.

Besides enjoying an illustrious career as an artiste, she made documentary films and was the first woman to run a television software production company, Durga Khote Productions, which made the immensely popular show Wagle Ki Duniya (1988) for Doordarshan. She was also a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and played Lady Macbeth in the Marathi version of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, titled Rajmukut.

Durga Khote died in 1991, but she remains an inspiration for countless women seeking to tread a different path.