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Remembering the first woman in Indian cinema, Kamlabai Gokhale

To mark International Women's Day (8 March), we bring you a series of articles that look at some of the pioneering women in Indian cinema. First up, Kamlabai Gokhale and her mother Durgabai, who forayed into cinema when not much was known about the medium.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

When Dadasaheb Phalke, now acknowledged as the father of Indian cinema, set out to make the first feature film in India, Raja Harishchandra (1913), he looked for women to play the role of Harishchandra’s wife, Taramati. He could not find any and so the female parts were also portrayed by men.

But Phalke's luck changed for his next film, Bhasmasur Mohini (1914), for which he found not one but two who went on to become the first actresses in Indian cinema — Kamlabai Gokhale and her mother, Durgabai Kamat.

Kamlabai Gokhale nee Kamat took her first tiny steps in the world of acting at the age of four, perfoming in Marathi stage plays that were immensely popular at the time. She played Ashwatthama, the son of Guru Dronacharya in the Mahabharata, and acted alongside her mother, who had chosen the profession as she needed the money to provide for her family. This was in the 1890s, when men used to play the roles of women and cinema was yet to make its appearance in India.

While on a tour of Nasik with his team, the theatre company's director was appoached by Phalke who requested for two actresses for his next film. That was how Kamlabai came to play the role of Mohini in Phalke’s film while her mother played Parvati, consort of the god Shiva.

Bhasmasur Mohini was released on 1 January 1914 at Bombay's Coronation cinema in Girgaum. The entire cast was present for the screening.

Kamlabai had been married at age 13 to Raghunathrao Gokhale who also worked for a theatre company. Together, they acted in several plays, mostly based on historical or mythological themes.

Kamlabai was widowed at the age of 24 and saddled with a huge debt. In a strange twist of fate, she, like her mother, continued with her work on stage to support her family. Ironically, she would often play male characters!

In an interview for The India Magazine of Her People and Culture in August 1991 by Vaijayanti Savant Tonpe, Kamlabai, then 92, recalled the sheer joy and excitement that accompanied her entry into cinema. “The theme of Bhasmasur Mohini revolved round temples and caves, which are in plenty in Nasik," she said. "We shot by daylight, because in any case there was no electricity. When shooting was over for the day, Dadasaheb would gather us all around and explain in minute detail all the processes involved in filmmaking.”

She added, “We never had all these newfangled notions of ‘cut’ and ‘retake’, nor did we have silly notions of being first or second heroine. We were all actors and actresses and we all tried to help each other.”

Kamlabai continued her work in cinema, but her first love remained theatre. With the coming of the talkie in 1931, however, the popularity of stage plays began to wane.

Talking about the difficulties she faced as a young working mother at a time when it was rare for women to be engaged outside of the home, she said, “I had to work with men keeping a strict control over my senses. It was a matter of just one slip. I had my family, my mother and children to take care of. As for women, they had always maintained a distance from me. I was not considered respectable even though I was just like them, a mother with children.”

Her son, Chandrakant Gokhale, and grandson, present-day actor Vikram Gokhale, continued in the family tradition and built successful careers in theatre and cinema.

Unfortunately, like many artistes of her era, including Phalke himself, Kamlabai Gokhale was forgotten in time. But her foray into cinema marked the entry of women on the silver screen. Other women went on to capture the hearts of audiences and become the early stars of silent cinema, an opportunity made possible by Kamlabai and her mother Durgabai’s work.

Film historian Iqbal Rizvi contributed to this article with research material and insights.

Related topics

Women's Day