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Kamlabai Gokhale - First Lady of the Silver Screen

Living in an era when severe social restrictions were imposed on women, Kamlabai Gokhale achieved success as a stage actress and went on to become the first lady of the Indian silver screen.

The first screening of the Lumiere brothers’ films in India was held at Bombay’s Watson Hotel in 1896. there was a spate of documentary shooting in the following years and by 1913 the first feature film had been accomplished.

However, of the 1300 silent films made in India, only fragments of 13 remain. Of the hundreds of technicians and artistes who pioneered and invented, who strove to overcome both the limitations of technology and the severe social restrictions imposed by gender, caste and creed, who laid the foundations of the film industry in India as we know it, very few survive to tell the story of their struggle and their inspiration.

Kamlabai Gokhale is one of them.

This then is the story of the first lady of the Indian silver screen and one of the first actresses of the Indian stage…

Durgabai Kamat was a young woman when she separated from her husband, Anand Nanoskar, a professor of history at the J.J. School of Art, in 1903. Alone, with a daughter to support, Durgabai had three options before her-to work as a domestic servant, to prostitute herself or to become an actress. Socially, they were equally reprehensible. Durgabai decided to join a travelling theatre company. The outraged Maharashtrian Brahmin community immediate ostracized her and thus the little Kamlabai was raised, surrounded by controversy in a world of glitter and artifice.

“My mother was not only beautiful but very talented as well. She could paint and sing and was proficient at instruments like the been, dilruba, kartal and sitar. She had been educated upto final which was the seventh standard in those days… I never went to school since we were always on the move so my mother taught me at home.”

Despite her mother’s legendary beauty, the obstacles to her career were many. Kamlabai recounts, “In those days, men played the female roles. So the fiercest opposition to my mother and me came from these men-we were their first natural enemies. Some companies just would not hire women as a rule…”

“My first stage appearance was at the age of four… during the performance I would often doze off in some backstage corner, and then be woken up by a hard tap on the head each time I had to make an entry. However, my voice was real drawback. As a child I had a thin voice which cracked with the high notes. So I was made a prompter which proved to be a blessing in disguise because I improved on my ability to read and memorize as I said I never went to school…” For a while the young Kamlabai was content to watch and learn. A decade later, she was to become one of the most popular artistes of her time.

Today Kamlabai Gokhale is 91 years old. She lives alone in a small flat in complete anonymity, visited occasionally by her older son, Chandrakant, a well known stage and film actor. She is crippled and mostly confined to her bed. But she remains alert and vivacious, full of poignant memories of her early years.

Around 1912-1913 Dadasaheb Phalke, the pioneering film-maker of India, was casting for his film “Mohini Bhasmasur” and he chose Kamlabai for the lead role. Durgabai was Parvati. This was something of a momentous event. Phalke had been forced to use a young male cook, Salunke, to play the female lead in his earlier film “Raja Harishchandra” for lack of an actress.

And so it was that by the time she was not yet 15, Kamlabai had become a celebrity. Her memories of the shoot are still vivid-“All his equipment had come from England… we stayed at his house in Nasik, and would wake up at 4 a.m. to travel to Trimbakeshwar, three hours away, by bullock cart. From dawn till dusk we would be shooting. We had no artificial lights like the ones used today… all the shooting would have to be done in available light with reflectors. Dadasaheb was very patient and understanding and would explain in great detail all that he wanted us to do. Once the rehearsals were done to his satisfaction, he proceeded for a ‘take’. Though there was no sound, we used to mouth the words of the dialogue. The unit lived and worked together like one big family. There was a five-fold salary structure, the highest being Rs. 50/-, with free lodging and boarding… When Dada returned from England after showing the film abroad he had to undergo a purification ritual because he had dared to cross the seas. Such were the times…”

The following year she married Raghunathrao Gokhale. He had been with the Kirloskar Natak Company where he usually performed female roles. But his voice was breaking and so he moved to his brother’s company which was the same one where Kamlabai and her mother were employed. The young couple was cast as the new lead pair of the company.

The most popular plays of the time were based on historic and mythological themes. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays were also widely performed-“Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Othello” were staged in town and villages all over Maharashtra. By 1918 the couple had carved a niche for themselves, drawing packed houses wherever they went.

Commenting on the difference between theatre and film Kamlabai says, “Theatre acting is done within norms of restraint. It is symbolic, particularly in love scenes. On the stage you can keep your distance, decided your limit and say, I will go no further. But for a love scene in a film you embrace, you really embrace, otherwise it would make no sense.”

Her memories of those days are vivid. Eighty bullock carts carrying a hundred and twenty five people travelled the length and breadth of the region. They had their own tailors, goldsmiths and ironsmiths accompanying them.” …We used to advertise through handbills. Damuanne Mavlankar used to distribute them himself on a motorbike. Sometimes may husband or I used to accompany him in the sidecar. Our dog, Jehangir, used to have a brass ring around his neck under which we would place the folded handbills. When the motorbike started the handbills used to fly away.”

Kamlabai was not yet 25 when she became a widow, pregnant with her third child. “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 enough though I was just like them, a mother with children. The only advantage they could think of was getting free passes for a show...”

Her son, Chandrakant, who is visiting her says, “love for theatre, loyalty to the state-words we often use-she demonstrated these to us during those years of struggle. When my father was dying, she was determined that the shows should not get cancelled and took his place as the male lead. The times were such that it was impossible for a woman to move about freely. Even educated women did not move out of the house after 6 p.m. ….Buts after the death of our father the responsibility of looking after us fell on my mother. About 60-65 years ago, my mother’s salary was Rs. 225/-; all other expenses were paid for by the company… She worked with various companies-the “Manohar Stree Sangeet Natak Mandal”, in Sohrab Modi’s theatre unit, with Govind Lele and Ganpat Lele of “Natya Kala Prasarak” … She even acted in a Kannada play, “Lanka Dahan” although she was not conversant with the language. Within a week she had learnt the lines by heart and the play was staged to packed houses…”

He eldest son, Lalji, recalls, “we-that is, Chandrakant, myself and the other children of the company-were given song books to sell. The cost of each of these was one rupee and four annas, our commission being two annas. Besides we got the opportunity of seeing the play free. I remember her in “Dharmasinhasan,” in the male leads in both “Janta Janardhan” and “Manapman”…as Anadibai she performed the role so effectively that people used to wait outside Vijayanand Theatre in Pune with stones in their hands and she had to be escorted back to our house in a tonga…”

In the 30s Kamlabai worked under Veer Savarkar in the play “Ushaap” which focussed on the plight of Harijans. “Working with him was completely different from anything I had done before. Savarkar was living under house arrest in those days and would come to rehearsals under police escort. A translated copy of the play would have to be approved by the local British officer wherever we performed to ensure that nothing subversive was being enacted…”

The real disaster for the family came in 1934-35 after Ardeshir Irani, an intrepid Parsi, pushed the Indian cinema out of the silent ear with the first talkie “Alam Ara”. The multitude of roving drama companies in Maharashtra, the only other state to have them apart from Bengal, reeled under the impact. For the first time the family settled down. “For a while I did “kirtans,” but the day I got 7 paise in my “thali” I quit-so humiliated was by the experience.”

The evocation is not simply nostalgic, but a strong testimony of history and change- of the history of Indian cinema and stage as defined by a woman’s struggle against the social current of her times. Looking back she says, “all this has been tough, but then anything worthwhile is always tough…”

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