The 1930s was an exciting epoch in the history of Indian cinema. The arrival of sound had made things challenging, exhilarating and new. While older modes of film production and exhibition still held their sway, the advent of new technology put the nascent film industry in a tizzy. The Prabhat Film Company was born out of the erstwhile members of the Maharashtra Film Company. Prabhat was established in 1929 in Kolhapur by an enterprising group composed of Vishnupant Damle, V. Shantaram, S. Fatelal, K. Dhaibar and Sitaram Kulkarni. In 1933, they moved base to Pune and constructed a studio for the production of films in Marathi and Hindi. The edifice of erstwhile Prabhat in Pune is a powerful testament of their legacy to cinema history today.
Cinema in the early years was a considered a lowbrow art form. This was largely due to the anxieties that the new medium produced due to its proximity with risqué forms like vaudeville, circus and bazaar theatre. While cinema generated an immediate curiosity, drawing on large crowds into its folds, there was skepticism about its wide range of influence on culture and morality. This produced an inherent ambivalence within the cinematic discourse and around cinematic work. In the 1930s, cinema in India was aligned to the discourse of nationalism and the burgeoning social reform movement. Cinema strove to be adopted within the bourgeois cultural order and be recognized as a legitimate form. This desire for respectability was translated into a process of cleansing of studios through the manufacture of star discourses, mechanisms of genre differentiation, characterization and realism. The reputation of studios such as Bombay Talkies, Prabhat and New Theatres was manufactured through a complex web of networks and mobilizations. Most crucial to this production of respect was the cognizance that the leading businessmen, politicians and the cultural elite of the time backed these studios and that they were run on 'superior financial resources'.[i]
Prabhat was a seminal player in this order of propriety in the film industry. The studio had built up a formidable reputation in the 1930s through a series of phenomenally popular films like Maya Machhindra (1932), Ayodhyecha Raja (1932), Sairandhri (1933), Amrit Manthan (1934), Dharmatma (1935), Sant Tukaram (1936) and Kunku/Duniya Na Mane (1937). Their reputation came from the simple fact that they were producing technically better films, which were characterized by advanced cinematographic skills and stellar sound recording. Prabhat’s investment in ‘respectable’ highbrow genres like the social, mythological and historical as opposed to stunt and comedy was celebrated and consolidated their cultural status in the public imagination. The films produced at Pune were advertised and marketed for their 'Prabhat touch'. Known for translating mythological and legendary material for cinema, their films came to be defined by their use of colossal sets, spectacular war scenes, costumes, extravagant gestures, 'heavenly miracles, high flown talk about patriotism' and devotional music.[ii]
The public discourse on ‘respectability’ in cinema was extended to cinematic work and labour. The body of the actress became a contested site for a plethora of subterfuges to be enacted for the recasting of cinema. Even though the filmic enterprise provided women with the possibilities of reinvention, these negotiations were not always without their own complexities. Women had a greater access to the public sphere in the 1930s. They became crucial agents of/for change in this period as education and emancipation charged the public sphere with the presence of the newly educated Indian woman. Cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Lahore were cosmopolitan hubs, drawing women into their workforce as teachers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, authors and performers. The film studios were thronging with aspirants, starlets and extras. These studios, however, were not always considered as ideal work spaces for ‘respectable’ women. The publicness of cinematic work produced a great amount of anxiety, which was often related to the possibilities of intermingling between the opposite sexes as well as between ‘respectable’ folk and others. This common horizon that gave rise to a public discourse on 'respectability' did not necessarily put constraints on the existing limits of participation of women in the film industry.
Prabhat studio was supposed to be an idyll for women from ‘respectable’ backgrounds. The accounts about work at Prabhat laid emphasis on its home-like atmosphere. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote, '[T]he studio I believe is run more or less on the lines of a benevolent feudal autocracy rather on those of modern big business.'[iii] The studio was like home and the workers like family. Similar narratives around studios, film work and the participation of women in the workforce were a constant matter of debate in contemporary journals and newspapers. It is in this context of these debates that I wish to discuss the life and work of Prabhat’s three leading ladies Durga Khote, Shanta Apte and Shanta Hublikar. The use of domestic vernacular and the discourse of respectability in cinema was a convenient ploy that both studios and the actresses used to their advantage. While for the studio it was a tool to gain legitimacy and attract ‘respectable’ workers, for the actresses it enabled a complex negotiation of their place and role in the cinema business.
Durga Khote was offered her first small role in Farebi Jaal (Dir. Mohan Bhavnani, 1931) by J.B.H. Wadia. In her autobiography I, Durga Khote (2006), she writes how both Bhavnani and Wadia came to her father and requested his permission to let her act in the film. Khote’s role in the film was minute, lasting only ten minutes. She played the heroine’s older sister who gets beaten up by her drunken husband in a fit of anger and succumbs to death. She was made to sing in a ‘weepy voice’, and she confesses she wept a lot in the scene pouring her heart out for the performance. She was paid Rs. 250 which was perhaps insufficient but it took care of her 'immediate problems.'[iv] By her own admission, Khote was 'twenty-six years old, a mother of two and a housewife with a home to run such a woman would hardly be considered suitable for the heroine’s role in Bombay.'[v]
Farebi Jaal bombed at the box office, charged with morally poor content promoting decadence and debauchery, the Maharashtrian community tore her to shreds. Newspapers attacked her for being ‘falsely pampered’, playing on her name (in Marathi ‘laud’ means pampering and ‘khote’ means false) and bringing disrepute to her family name and status. The dawn of Prabhat in her life turned her fortunes in the film industry. Director V. Shantaram was scouting for new talent for his Marathi-Hindi venture Ayodhyecha Raja (1932). He chanced upon the sequence in Farebi Jaal and was impressed with Durga Khote’s performance and offered her the lead role in the film. Ayodhyecha Raja was a big budget mythological film about an episode in the life of Raja Harishchandra. Khote played the lead role of Rani Taramati opposite Govind Tembe. Khote’s anecdotal stories of her experience in Kolhapur and the way work was organized, describe the studio as a joint family setup. Such stories with their clear romanticization of Prabhat fed into the myths that had previously circulated about various studios and their working procedures in the public sphere during the 1930s. She writes:
The shooting and every other part of the work were done in such a warm and congenial atmosphere that one was filled with sadness when it was over. It was not the owners of Prabhat alone, but also their families and the Company workers in general who had treated me with great respect and love. They would inquire solicitously after my food, health and other arrangements. With what words can I express my gratitude to them all?[vi]
After the success of Ayodhyecha Raja, Khote worked in Prabhat’s Maya Machhindra (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1932). The film was based on the mythic story of Kilotala, the queen of a kingdom of men-hating women. Although the ending of the film reinstated the social patriarchal order, it allowed for some amount of gender-bending through the figure of Kilotala. According to Khote, the dominant expression on the heroine’s face had to be 'warrior-like'[vii]. The most captivating feature of the film was Kilotala’s pet cheetah Sundari who followed her around like a 'faithful dog'[viii]. The presence of the tamed ferocious cheetah at the feet of Kilotala added to the glory and style of the character. For the role, Khote was trained in the art of fencing, wielding the dandpatta (double-edged sword), riding and other martial skills. Khote did not perform any stunts in the film, though in many advertisements the suggestion was made that she did.
Prabhat was not the only studio that Durga Khote worked with in the 1930s at the height of her career. She acted in four films in Calcutta: Rajrani Meera (Dir. Debaki K. Bose, 1933), Seeta (Dir. Debaki Bose, 1934), Inquilab (Dir. Debaki Bose, 1935) and Jeevan Natak (Dir. Debaki Bose, 1935). She signed a four-month contract for each film and was paid Rs. 2500 per month. At the end of each shooting schedule she would return to her family in Bombay. Work was beginning to take its toll on her family life. Khote refused further offers from Lahore and Calcutta as she wanted to stay close to Bombay. In 1936, she started work in Shalini Studio at Kolhapur. The studio was owned by the Princess Akkasaheb, Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj’s sister. Work at Shalini Studio was regal in style and pace. In her account of work at the studio, Khote writes about the lavish budgets and the leisure at which the film Pratibha (Dir. Baburao Painter, 1937) was completed[ix]. She acted in two other films in Kolhapur—Ushaswapna (Dir. Baburao Painter, 1937) and Savakari Pash (Dir. Baburao Painter, 1938). The slow pace of shooting and the constant stalling of projects made her slightly wary of working in future in Kolhapur. In 1938, she started a production house called Natraj Films with director Parshwanath Altekar, music director Govindrao Tembe and production manager and actor Mubarak. After the release of Soungadi (Dir. Parshwanath Altekar, 1938), because of personal commitments she quit the production house. Khote continued to act in films till the 1980s graduating very elegantly into character roles.
The 'home-like' studio was not entirely a myth; it was definitely part of a consciously created image and work culture to enable women to participate in the cinematic public sphere. The Prabhat story remains unique precisely because of the way in which the studio and its media machinery consistently positioned it in contrast to the other studios in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras or Lahore. Durga Khote’s memoir, originally written in 1976, retroactively provides readers with a nostalgic framework to access film work and culture from the 1930s & 40s. This idyllic view of Prabhat, however, was not singular. The second section of this essay on Shanta Apte will reveal another side of the story.
Shanta Apte was born in Dudhani, Maharashtra. She showed promise for singing at a young age. Her father, an employee of the Indian Railway Services, encouraged her talent. She studied music at the Maharashtra Sangeet Vidyalaya in Pandharpur. With encouragement from her family she began her film career at the young age of nine. Her older brother Baburao Apte[x] was already working in the film business and was acquainted with Bhalji Pendharkar. This definitely aided in securing film work with the right studios.
Shanta Apte’s best-known works were her films with Prabhat. In Amrit Manthan (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1934), in a minor role as the hero’s sister Sumitra, Apte became immensely popular because of her songs. Singing was an important part of an actor’s repertoire and range of performance in the early talkies. In the absence of playback, actresses with a flair for singing rose to instant stardom. Apte’s musical prowess was her forte. The music for Amrit Manthan was composed by Keshavrao Bhole, an asset of the Prabhat team. According to some of the contemporary reports, 'Bhole had doubted whether she (Apte) could adapt to his light classical style, but her ability to counterpoint musical rhythm with gestural spontaneity proved a refreshing departure from the then prevalent stagey style'[xi]. Gradually Apte started bagging meatier roles in the Prabhat films. Her film Kunku/Duniya Na Mane was considered a landmark film. The film is the story of a young girl Nirmala who is married to an older man (played by Keshavrao Date). Apte’s character is a firebrand who refuses to consummate the marriage and protests about the tradition of child marriage. The film was a progressive social and consolidated the reputation of the studio, aligning it with the reformist discourse of women’s empowerment.
Shanta Apte’s other films with Prabhat were Amar Jyoti (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1936), Wahan (Dir. K. Narayan Kale, 1937) with Leela Chitnis and Gopal Krishna (Dir. V.G. Damle and Sheikh Fattelal, 1938). In her memoir Jau Mi Cinemaat? (1940), Apte presents a different side to the discourse of respectability by the studios. Her experience of working with Prabhat was contrary to the ‘one big happy family’ image that Durga Khote presents. Despite her glamorous and exciting career at Prabhat, on July 7, 1939 Apte went on a hunger strike at the gates of Prabhat, 'as a protest against arbitrary and uncivil treatment accorded to her by the directors of the Company'[xii]. According to contemporary reports Apte was spotted, 'sitting on a bench usually occupied by the studio’s gateman'[xiii], occasionally she was seen 'reclining herself on a narrow bench persuing a picture magazine'. Dressed in 'trousers and a sports shirt', Apte was accompanied by her brother Baburao and 'Mr. Agarwal and Mr. Rahatekar, the star’s legal and medical advisors'. Her fast continued for three days, during this time she only drank salted water and even lost a pound of her weight. On the second day, gradually a crowd gathered at the studio gates and the management had to call a constable to control the curious onlookers. Her brother, lawyer and the studio management tried to negotiate, however, all talks failed. Eventually, on the advice of her doctor and her brother she returned to her house in Kirkee. What is striking about this episode is the manner in which the contemporary press dealt with the issue. Prabhat was one of the prestigious studios of the time, and a protest from their lead performer put their reputation at stake. The industry was shocked, not at the unjust treatment of the actress or the fallibility of film contracts, but at Apte’s method of complaint. It was felt that she should have come to an 'amicable settlement with her proprietor' as 'this procedure did the star no good except giving her some news publicity.'[xiv] Her mode of protest was criticized as 'evidence of the rapid advance of the Indian Film Industry and its adoption of Western technique'[xv]. The report also mocked Apte for being 'dressed in hunting attire' and 'sleeping on the verandah of the outpost of the film studio'. Making comparisons with the 'traditional' forms of protest like satyagraha, the reporter stated that 'this seems to be the modern cinema equivalent of the classic practice of sitting dharna at the doorstep of the oppressor.'[xvi] What happened after and how it all ended can only be speculated upon from a few newspaper reports.
The discourse of respectability was stirred and shaken up roughly by Apte’s putatively seductive presence. The body of the actress, sitting/lounging on the bench in front of the studio was an embarrassing and uncomfortable sight for the film fraternity claiming to have set its studios in order. Those invitations to respectable women to join the film industry were rendered a tad hollow by Apte’s stand. As a quick cover up, the film journals unanimously sided with Prabhat on the matter and the editor of filmindia Baburao Patel occasionally also took jabs at Apte and made inferences to her tantrums.[xvii]
By the 1940s, the film businesses had expanded and a new generation of studios emerged. Putting the Prabhat chapter behind, Shanta Apte worked with different studios in this decade. In 1941, she acted in the Tamil film, Savithri, playing the title role alongside the singing star and legendary Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi. She worked with director Debaki Bose in Apna Ghar (1942) and acted alongside Noor Jehan in Duhai (Dir. V.M. Vyas, 1943). In 1946, she worked in Subhadra (Dir. Master Vinayak) with Prem Adib, Ishwarlal and Yakub. The story of the film is an episode from the Mahabharata, revolving around Krishna and Balram’s eponymous sister Subhadra. In a scathing review in filmindia, Baburao Patel severely critiqued the film but was all praise for Apte’s performance.[xviii] Shanta Apte’s star persona became synonymous with her fiery attitude and no-nonsense temper. Even though she continued to work till her death in 1964, her career faded into oblivion much like her alma mater Prabhat.
Shanta Hublikar was born in 1914 in the village Adargunchi, near Hubli. In 1932, fascinated with the screen and armed with an impeccable singing talent, she moved to Kolhapur to pursue her filmic dreams. In 1934, she bagged a minor role in Bhedi Rajkumar (Dir. R.G. Torney) produced by Kolhapur Cinetone. Struggling to get noticed, in 1937 she sang in the Natraj films’ Saathi. Her performance in Shalini Cinetone’s Kanhopatra (Dir. Bhalji Pendharkar) finally grabbed V. Shantaram’s attention. He cast her for the film Mazha Mulga/Mera Ladka (Dir. K. Narayan Kale, 1938). The film was received with mild enthusiasm though Hublikar’s performance and singing was appreciated.[xix] The songs of the film became so popular that Young India Records released gramophone discs with Hublikar as the star singer in 1939.[xx]
At Prabhat, she worked in Manoos/Aadmi (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1939). The film was touted as 'a picture for the intelligent and discriminating filmgoer, the social reformer and intellectual.'[xxi] Her multilingual song 'Kis liye kal ki baat' was sung in six different languages (Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Gujarati and Bengali) and was a treat for the audiences and ensured her nationwide popularity. Shantaram was applauded for his portrayal of romance between a policeman and a prostitute.
Apart from its progressive storyline, what was striking for contemporary audiences was the sequence when Shahu Modak’s and Shanta Hublikar’s characters encounter a crew shooting a romantic scene for a film Premka Prem. In the sequence, the Anglo-Indian actress delivers her lines in an affected inflection, drawing a few drags from her cigarette in between the shots. Her anglicized pronunciation draws uncontrollable laughter from Modak and Hublikar. They find this filmy articulation of romance comical and ridicule the crew. As they walk off the set, they break into their own romantic song; soon the music director with orchestra and the entire crew follow them. This self-referentiality to the filmic apparatus and its method is an interesting moment in the film. Not only does it point to the process of film-making but also draws attention of the viewers into the discourse on female performance. At the end of the song, the director in the film within the film is ecstatic at Hublikar’s performance and offers her a role in his film. She and Modak run away, almost horrified at the thought of working in a film. The Anglo-Indian actress, visibly upset by now, takes off her jewels and saree and throws it at the director and struts off in a sexy western dress.
Prabhat was among the influential and reputed studios engaged in attempts to alter the image of the studios. While the Anglo-Indian, Jewish and Eurasian women were the first group of women who joined the film industry, by the late 1930s, they faced stiff competition from other actresses and began to be cast in secondary roles. Their gradual effacement from the top order of stardom in the film industry was related to the discourse of respectability that was at its pinnacle during this time. In an article Baburao Patel writes:
Goaded by the impulse of applying sex appeal in our pictures, some of the producers departed on the disgusting practice of engaging these girls as ‘extras’ for community dances and as maids in scanty costumes…Perfectly hermaphrodite, they neither appeal to men nor to women. For a tenner a day which they get, they come with rouge and lipstick, shake their hips and legs, pocket the money and go away…Driven to live on their wits, modern life has made some of these girls the most detestable scums of society. Barring a few exceptions none of these girls ought to have been allowed within a mile of a Studio with any pretentions in catering for art… Some of these girls misbehave so boldly in the Studio while working, that to kick them in the face would be a mercy. We have seen a couple of girls bursting out into sudden affection and kissing the director with warmth that would have scorched the cheeks of a rhinoceros. And this happened in a Studio that boasts of a clean atmosphere…We have no objection to a few good girls from the Anglo-Indian community seriously taking up screen as a career…There are already some really useful top liners from this community. But the material we have described above must not be admitted in our studios to suffer a stain of utter debasement in our pictures. [xxii]
Patel’s misogynistic vitriol against the Anglo-Indian actresses underscores the resentment and challenge that these women posed to the respectability drive of the studios. It is no surprise that the disparaging sequence in Aadmi ridicules the Anglo-Indian actress and celebrates the presence of Shanta Hublikar. In a complicated play of signs Kesar (Hublikar’s character) appeared as the virtuous Indian woman who was forced by circumstances to prostitution, but Hublikar’s off-screen status as a cultured society lady was also mobilized by Shantaram.
In 1941, Hublikar worked in Ghar ki Laaj and Tarun Pictures’ film Prabhat both directed by V. M. Vyas. She acted in a New Huns Pictures comedy film Pahila Palna (Dir. Vishram Bedekar) with Baburao Pendharkar as her co-star in 1942. Her stint with Prabhat was over and while she worked in films sporadically till the 1950, her fame was short-lived.
The cleansing of the studios and setting them in order was an exercise that involved a plethora of subterfuges. The bodies of the actress became a site for a range of negotiations. All three actresses, Durga Khote, Shanta Apte and Shanta Hublikar experienced the 'Prabhat touch' in a variety of ways. These women by virtue of their performances occupied a distinct place in the public domain. Cinema allowed these women to refashion their identities and reclaim the public sphere in a new way. Prabhat played a seminal role in this process of reinvention. Prabhat gave them their best films as performers but aligned their selfhood within the discourse of respectability. While the domestic vernacular to describe the studio was a marketing strategy, the experiences of its lead performers produced new alignments and commitments. The Prabhat actresses mobilized the discourse of respectability to their advantage often to deflect criticism for their participation in the film business. Performing women like the Anglo-Indian actress, tawaifs/singers, or stunt actresses from other studios like Wadia Movietone, Sagar or Ranjit did not always enjoy the same kind of protective armour that the Prabhat actresses were privileged with. Khote, Apte and Hublikar with the aid of Prabhat’s stellar publicity machinery were able to create and constantly feed into their star text the notion of ‘respectability’ attached to film work. The cult of Prabhat and its nationwide aura transformed the lives and works of its performers, charging the cinematic landscape with exciting new encounters.
[i] Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, 'These Three! Prabhat—New Theatres—Bombay Talkies' in filmindia 5.5, May 1939, p. 45.
[ii] Ibid. 46.
[iii] Ibid. 51.
[iv] Durga Khote, I, Durga Khote: An Autobiography, tr. Shanta Gokhale, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 34.
[v] Ibid. 35.
[vi] Ibid. 61.
[vii] Ibid. 65.
[viii] Ibid. 65.
[ix] Ibid. 81.
[x] Baburao Apte was born in 1903 in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. He began his film career as an actor in 1928. He worked in Jai Somnath produced by Krishna Film Co. Later he moved to direction making films with Sharda Movietone and Bharat Kala Movietone. See Indian Cinematograph Yearbook, 1938, p. 570.
[xi] As quoted in Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, rev. ed., BFI and Oxford University Press, London, 1999.
[xii] The Mirror 3.7, July 1939.
[xiv] 'Notes and News' in filmindia 5.8, August 1939, p. 21
[xv] The Mirror 3.7, July 1939.
[xvii] Earlier that year, in January 1939, Apte was reported to have stormed into Baburao Patel’s office and slapped/caned him for some adverse remarks he had made against her. In 'Editor’s Mail', a reader asked 'I do not for myself think that there is much of 'beauty' in Shanta Apte. What do you think?' to which Baburao Patel with his usual wit replied, 'I have never seen a woman so beautiful as I saw Shanta flushed with temper during the three minutes that she was in my office. She almost hypnotized me, I am still nursing that impression and have thrust aside her screen appearances.' See filmindia 5.1, Jan 1939, p. 17 and filmindia 6.12, Dec 1940, p. 16.
[xviii] 'Subhadra' Imposing presentation of barren theme: Shanta Apte Gives Excellent Performance!' in filmindia 12.9, September 1946, pp. 56-57.
[xix] 'Round the Town', review of My Son/ Mera Ladka in filmindia 5.8, February 1939, pp. 41-42.
[xx] Advertisement in filmindia 5.3, March 1939, p. 34.
[xxi] 'Bombay Calling' in filmindia 5.10, October 1939, p. 8.
[xxii] 'Some Anglo Indian Girls in our films!' in filmindia 3.12, April 1938, p. 1
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