With 'Veere', the Women of Mumbai Cinema Are Taking Back Their Power

In the largely male-led film industry, women were once the bosses – quite capable of handling men, money and themselves. Female-powered projects like 'Veere Di Wedding' indicate a return to those times.

Veere Di Wedding, which released today, is one of the few films where the women are the drivers both onscreen and off. Produced by four people, three of whom are women (Rhea Kapoor, Ekta Kapoor and her mother Shobha Kapoor), its four principal leads are also women.

Women are taking their power back, telling the stories they want to watch and making them the way they want. Rhea Kapoor has already produced two movies for sister Sonam and Ekta Kapoor, daughter of actor Jeetendra who is a major player in the industry, has backed some unusual movies over a two-decade entertainment career, among them Love Sex Aur Dhokha and The Dirty Picture.

These are exceptions in a largely male-led film industry, but there was a time when female dynasties established by women producers were not uncommon to Mumbai cinema. Shobhana Samarth, Jaddanbai and Naseem Banu all produced movies for their daughters, Nutan and Tanuja, Nargis and Saira Banu, respectively in the 1950s and ‘60s. They were fierce, forceful and determined to give their daughters the respectability and financial independence initially denied to them.

Shobhana Samarth, 1942. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shobhana Samarth, 1942. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As film scholar Rachel Dwyer puts it: “Most of the early female producers, such as Jaddanbai, were from courtesan backgrounds, and were meant to be quite fearsome. They had tough business skills and the ability to deal with troublesome men. But they operated outside the studios during the ‘Studio Period’ and thus were outbid by the independent producers in the 1940s who could raise funds to pay the top stars better than them.”

Saadat Hasan Manto who wrote extensively about the Mumbai cinema scene he inhabited quotes one such negotiation between Jaddanbai and the then superstar Ashok Kumar to play the lead in her own production. “At times she would speak as a senior, at others as a movie producer and at times as Nargis’s mother who wanted the right price paid for her daughter’s work. ” Mohan Babu, her wealthy husband and Nargis’s father, would only nod his head in agreement now and then.

From the silent era movies of the 1920s to the early 1940s, actresses were the presiding deities of Mumbai cinema. As Debashree Mukherjee, assistant professor at Columbia University, notes in an email interview: “Female stars were paid more than their male counterparts, got all the advertising contracts, got top billing in publicity and theatre marquees and ruled the gossip magazine industry. Not just that, but contrary to popular wisdom, women were also involved in various departments of film production, albeit in small numbers. Jaddanbai was a music composer, director, producer, singer and actress; Saraswati Devi a.k.a. Khorshed Homji was a music composer; Clare Mendonca and Sushila Rani were film critics; while Azurie and Sitara Devi were choreographers and dancers.”

Jaddanbai, 1936. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These early women were quite capable of handling men, money and themselves. Shobhana, who began acting after marrying cinematographer Kumarsen Samarth, produced four movies under her banner Shobhana Pictures.

Hamari Beti, the movie she produced for Nutan’s debut in 1950, cost about “3-4 lakh” at that time. In later years, Nutan would take her mother to court for mismanaging her funds. The two didn’t speak to each other for several years, reconciling only before Nutan’s death from cancer in 1991. Shobhana died in 2000, but not before giving several interviews in which she was justifiably proud of setting up an almost-all female movie dynasty that has spanned four generations with Kajol being the latest if you count Rattanbai, Shobhana’s mother, who made her film debut in 1933.

But the first case of a woman establishing her own banner in Mumbai cinema was that of Fatma Begum in the 1920s. Married to the Nawab of Sachin State, Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III, she set up the Fatma Film Corporation and directed her first film Bulbul-e-Paristan as early as 1926.

She made eight silent films and her daughters Zubeida, Sultana and Shahzadi were the stars of the silent era. Zubeida acted in the first Indian talkie, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara in 1931 and is the grandmother of sometime model Rhea Pillai.

Zubeida in a still from Alam Ara, 1931. Credit: Shruti Swamy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

There were other women producers. Sulochana – born Ruby Myers in 1907 – the first Jewish woman to work in Mumbai films also turned producer, as did another Jewish actress Pramila. Sulochna played eight roles in the 1927 film Wildcat of Bombay – from a gentleman from Hyderabad to a street urchin to a European blonde. She was reported to have driven India’s first Rolls-Royce, and to have out-earned the British viceroy. Pramila, who was born Esther Victoria Abraham, began her long career in the 1930s, and became Independent India’s first Miss India. Both feature prominently in Danny Ben-Moshe’s well-received documentary about Jews in Mumbai’s film industry, Shalom Bollywood.

Sulochana in a still from Wildcat of Bombay. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mumbai cinema of the 30s had quite a few other such star producers. Jaddanbai, a tawaif of some note who became a classically trained singer, came to Mumbai and started Sangeet Films, which produced Talash-e-Haq in 1935, in which she acted and gave music, and introduced daughter Baby Fatima, who grew up to be Nargis, as a child artiste. The next year, she acted in, directed and composed for Madam Fashion. Manto describes her as enjoying great fame at the time. “Rajas and nawabs would shower her with gold and silver when she sang. However, when this rain of gold and silver was over, she would put her arms around Mohan Babu because he was all she really cared about. He stayed by her side until the end and she loved him deeply.” Mohan Babu, Nargis’s father, he says, was a “handsome, educated and healthy man”. But none of these attributes proved to be of any use to Jaddanbai he says, as she was the main provider for the family.

“Pari-chehra” Naseem Banu was another powerhouse. Her beauty won her many admirers, among them Minerva Movietone’s star producer, director and actor Sohrab Modi, and Moazzam Jah, son of the Nizam of Hyderabad. When Naseem Banu passed away in 2002, The Guardian called her Hindi cinema’s first female superstar. She played Empress Nur Jehan in Modi’s Pukar, magnificent in all her finery, and the poor daughter of a fallen landlord in another Minerva movie, Sheesh Mahal. Later, after a brief break, she starred in soon-to-be-husband Mohammad Ehsan-ul-Haq’s Ujala, under his banner Taj Pictures. That was in 1942, and they went on to make Begum, Mulaqat and Ajeeb Ladki.

Naseem Banu in Khoon Ka Khoon, 1935. Credit: Shruti Swamy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ehsan – who was the son of one of Naseem’s mother’s many admirers – left for Pakistan after Partition, Naseem chose to stay in India. Later, she moved to England where she put her two children, including actor Saira Banu, through school. When Saira Banu entered movies with Junglee, Naseem re-emerged as her dress designer.

The best-known woman-actor-producer of the 1940s was Devika Rani, connected to Rabindranath Tagore’s family and educated in England since she was nine. She was initially costume designer, star and then partner of Bombay Talkies, founded by husband Himanshu Rai after their return from Europe; legend has it that she abandoned him mid-way during the shoot of Jeevan Naiya by eloping with her co-star Najmul Hasan. She was brought back after much persuasion by Rai’s self-appointed emissary and sound engineer Savak Vacha’s assistant Sasadhar Mukherjee. But the relationship between Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani was never the same.

Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya, 1936. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Rai’s death in 1940, she assumed principal responsibility and took over the studio along with Mukherjee. In 1941, she produced and acted in Anjaan co-starring Ashok Kumar. In the subsequent years, she produced two successful films under the studio – Basant and Kismet, both starring Ashok Kumar. But, again, as Manto says, she was already quarrelling incessantly with Rai’s general manager Rai Bahadur Chunilal, and the inevitable happened. Rai Bahadur left Bombay Talkies with his entire group, including Sashadhar Mukherjee, director and story writer Gyan Mukherjee and the biggest star of the day, Ashok Kumar, and set up a rival studio Filmistan. Devika Rani quit the film industry in 1945, selling her shares in Bombay Talkies, which changed many hands to finally land with financier Tolaram Jalan in 1954.

But perhaps the most fascinating case is from the 1940s of Protima Dasgupta, a young actress from Shantiniketan, who moved to Mumbai and set up her own production company. As film scholar Debashree Mukherjee notes: “For her debut production, Chhamia, she decided to cast her sister-in-law, Begum Para, and steadily built Para’s sexy star persona over the next few years. Para and Protima were a flamboyant duo who cared two hoots for orthodoxy. Protima got a divorce from Masrul Ul Haq, Para’s brother and the two friends continued to live together, throwing wild parties and making films together. Protima produced, directed, and even acted in films like Chhamia and Jharna.

Within a few years, however, Protima could no longer sustain her status as an independent filmmaker and gradually disappeared from public view. I would suggest that she was nudged out of the Bombay film industry partly due to her conspicuously heterodox lifestyle and her unabashed queer sexuality. Nevertheless, it must be noted that a city like Mumbai made the space for a fiercely independent queer woman to act, direct, produce and love for a short time. The brevity of Protima’s career can also be explained by the lack of finances for independent filmmakers, the precariousness of producers who do not own studios.”

What has happened from then to now, with only occasional bright spots? Sadhana’s Geeta Mera Naam in 1974 (which was directed by her and produced by her husband R.K. Nayyar), Dil Aashna Hai in 1992 (which was produced and directed by Hema Malini) and Dushman in 1998 a film produced by Pooja Bhatt, directed by Tanuja Chandra and starring Kajol, with all the men, including Sanjay Dutt, in subsidiary roles are the only exceptions in a male-dominated industry?

Chandra says there are many more women on the sets now than when she directed Dushman, but she would have been happier if there had been more. Veteran producer and film analyst Amit Khanna think it has a lot to do with how difficult financing became since the 1950s. “In addition, there was a succession of powerful male stars – the troika of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar as well as Guru Dutt and Bharat Bhushan followed by Manoj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Feroz Khan and Shashi Kapoor who turned producers. Male stars began to dictate the box office, financing and distribution became completely male-dominated and women were largely marginalised.”

India was also newly-independent and the films of the 1950s presented different commentaries on the vision of a new nation, with the citizen-protagonist almost always being male and frequently Hindu and upper caste, notes Mukherjee who is working on a new book, Bombay Cinema and the Practice of Modernity (1929-1942).

Khanna believes the recent corporatisation of Mumbai cinema has enabled more women to come into positions of power. “Actresses are making a lot more money with non-acting earnings, from advertisements, shows and endorsements.” A lot more women trained in film schools across the world and India have joined the industry and younger actresses, all self-made, such as Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma have set up production companies.

He believes Veere Di Wedding is only one such female-powered project. None may have been a blockbuster as yet but “every such step must be applauded”. It’s time, he says, for gender equality in all spheres. Chandra echoes this: “The time has come for women to invade the entertainment space in large numbers, consciously, aggressively, with focus and drive.” It’s her dream that sometime in the not too distant future, half of the directors – if not producers – will be female.

Who can argue with that?

Kaveree Bamzai is a journalist and author.