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The Seventh Art – Pioneer Female Auteurs of Hindi Films and Hollywood (1920s-1950s)

March 8, 2018 | By

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Mamta Joshi explores the representation of women directors in Indian cinema (made in Hindi) and Hollywood between 1920’s to early 1950’s.

Late in the 19th century, moving pictures emerged as public amusement. Indian Cinema was born at the same time as Hollywood in the West. In both the countries, the film industry in this period witnessed the First World War, the Great Depression and the coming of sound and censorship.

In the meantime, women’s roles were changing along with the changing contexts. Motion pictures had their impact on women who were interested in understanding and participating actively in this popular medium. Thus, women were becoming increasing visible in the public domains, though it was still a trickle.

Both in the United States and India the situation was difficult for women in the film industry. It was rare for them to rise above an actress, a make-up artist, a dress designer or a gossip journalist. Clearly, there was a glaring gender imbalance against women yielding megaphones.

Two theories have been deployed to explain why women continued to be underemployed as film directors. Firstly, as it has been argued, women did not get education in film schools or attend film festivals. They invested more time in child bearing and child rearing.

The other theory suggests that producers and studio executives preferred men instead of women as directors based on their gender discrimination, discouraging women to pursue a career in film direction (Dan Li, Portrayal of Women in Golden Age Hollywood)

Hollywood Between 1920’s and 1950’s

The First World War had enormous impact on cinema. With French production suffering severe cutbacks, Hollywood stepped in to fill the gap in supply.

Alice Guy-Blache’

Taking advantage of the situation in her stride, Alice Guy-Blache’, hailing from France, set up her studio in the United States. She directed many silent films between 1896 and 1916, shaping cinema in its nascent years.

Furthermore, Lillian Gish and Mabel Normand were exploring the uncharted territory of screen comedy before Charlie Chaplin. Mabel became a writer-producer-director in 1910. She wanted a path of laughter, her own standard of fun through the wilderness of the industry’s ignorance. During early 1920’s, she had her own movie studio and production company.

Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968) (Pic: Wikipedia)

Lois Weber (June 13, 1879 – November 13, 1939)

Lois Weber

Lois Weber (1879-1939) was a skilled auteur, tackling social issues that highlighted plight of women in very cogent terms. As early as 1921, she dared to state that the average intelligent woman gifted with the same sense of dramatic values as the average intelligent man, would make a better picture for the reason that only a woman had an eye for detail. In defense of the female footprint in the male-dominated film industry, Weber’s statement holds even after so many years.

The perspective and sensitivity a woman’s creativity lends to film making is so very different from the ‘Male Gaze’, defined by film theorist  Laura Mulvey (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975) who argued that the general ‘look’ or ‘gaze’ in cinema is androcentric and that male audiences derive ‘scopophilic pleasure looking at women’. ‘Scopophilia’ meant the sexual pleasure men derive from looking at women. However, when women direct films, they have the choice of not objectifying women for the gratification of men.

Dorothy Amma Arzner

In Hollywood, Dorothy Emma Arzner was the only woman director working in a major Hollywood studio during the golden age of Hollywood studio system in 1930’s. She was of the opinion that “if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”

A rebel, she specialized in movies focusing on headstrong female protagonists. Dorothy Arzner was the first member of that seemingly impregnable Hollywood men’s club, the Director’s Guild of America.  Arzner almost always worked with female editors, including Viola Lawrence and Adrienne Fazan, ensuring that the editing branch was hospitable to women.

Dorothy Amma Arzner (January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979)

Ida Lupino (4 February 1918 – 3 August 1995)

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino, a prime actress longed to expand her horizon. Wielding the megaphone in 1940’s, Ida was of the view that men hate bossy women. Sometimes she had to pretend to know less than she did. She formed her own production company around 1950’s, choosing to direct low budget movies on controversial topics like unwed motherhood, rape and bigamy.

Wrote Martin Scorsese, an admirer of Lupino both as an actress and a filmmaker, “She was a woman working in Hollywood at a time when both the cultural climate and the incipient sexism of the industry mitigated against her efforts”. In 1950, Ida Lupino was the second filmmaker to be admitted to the Director’s Guild of America (Carrie Rickey, What Happened to the Women Directors in Hollywood? Part 2: The First Females to Crack the Directors Guild)

Bombay Film Industry Between 1920’s to 1950’s

India was involved in the First World War because of Britain’s active participation. With the anti-colonial movement gaining momentum, one of the enduring legacies was that it had made possible, the entry of educated women in the workplace. By the 1920s, the anti-colonial movement had been partly successful in mobilizing middle class women. The film industry in India was no exception (Yves Thoraval, The Cinemas Of India, pg.25,MacMillan, 2001)

Fatma Begum

Fatma Begum (1892 – 1983)

Very few may be aware that the glass ceiling in India was for the first time shattered in the 1920’s by a woman called Fatma Begum. She was a trail blazer, being the first director of Indian cinema, paralleled only by Lois Weber of Hollywood. Born in 1892, married to Nawab of Sachin, Fatma Begum set up the Fatma Film Corporation and directed her first film Bulbul-e-Paristan as early as 1926. Fatma begum made 8 silent films in all. Later she also founded Victoria-Fatma Films (1928).

Her three daughters Zubeida, Sultana and Shahzadi were the stars of the silent era and also acted in the films directed by their mother. Zubeida was the star of the first Indian talkie Alam Ara (1931).

As early as 1920, Fatma Film Corporation in India had become a small yet definitive trigger for mobilizing more and more women to direct films.  A versatile pioneer in India around  1930’s was Jaddan Bai, setting up her own banner ‘Sangeet Films’ (1936).

Jaddan Bai

Jaddan Bai was an incomparable singer who wrote, directed and also composed music for her own films. Her daughter Nargis featured in her movies as a child star, achieving an iconic status in the film industry later on.

Shobhna Samarth, the queen of mythological films, launched her own banner Shobhna Pictures, with Hamari Beti (1950), to introduce her talented daughters Nutan and Tanuja, as child artistes. She directed ‘Chabili’ with her daughter Nutan in the lead role. A successful actor in her own right, she balanced her career in films and family with ease.

Jaddanbai (1892 – 8 April 1949) (Pic: Women On Record)

Shobhana Samarth (17 November 1916 – 9 February 2000)

Shobhana Samarth

Leela Chitnis , the learned daughter of a professor in English, directed a movie Aaj Ki Baat in 1955. She was advertised in The Times of India (1938) as `the first graduate society lady on screen’ from Maharashtra (Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, pg.74, OUP, 1995).

Looking at the impressive lineup of women directors in the Bombay film industry and Hollywood since the 1920s till 1950, it may be surmised that despite the constraints which they faced in an industry ruled by machismo, taking in their stride limited options, dissenting voices and resistance from male counterparts, these megaphone wielding women left behind a vast repertoire of films to be seen and improved upon by new entrants.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is time to take cognizance of these feisty women directors. May their tribe increase!

(Pics Courtesy: Wikipedia Public Domain unless specifically attributed)

More to read

Women at the Centre: Four Sensitive Films

Looking Back at Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Of Father, Brothers and an Unholy Hunger – Looking at Kaaka Muttai and Sahaj Pather Gappo

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Mamta Joshi did her post graduation in History from Allahabad University. She has been teaching English Literature to College section in St. Mary's Convent Inter College, Allahabad, for past two decades. Passionate about writing, her poems, essays and musings on day to day life appear in dailies and e-magazines of national and international repute. She writes in Hindi and English with ease and fluency.
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