Kamlabai Gokhale: India’s First Woman Actor

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Kamlabai Gokhale was just 13 when Dadasaheb Phalke made an outrageous request to the owner of the theatre company she was working with. Phalke had just made India’s first-ever feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), and he was working on his next, Mohini Bhasmasur.

The stage was set for another first.

“In 1912-13, our (theatre) company was in Nashik. Phalke was a keen theatre-goer and music lover, and he would often come to see our plays. When he heard we were closing down, he came to our house and asked us if it was true,” recalls Kamla, in an award-winning biographical documentary film titled Kamlabai (1992) made when she was in her 90s.

Kamlabai Gokhale as a young actor

Kamla continues: “Rambhau said we were shutting for a few months. Phalke said, ‘In that case, I have a request. While your company is closed, would you let this girl and her mother act in my film?’ ”

Rambhau agreed. It was a historic moment.

Kamla and her mother Durgabai Kamat went on to become the first-ever women actors in Indian cinema. While Phalke cast Kamla in the lead, as Mohini, Durgabai played Parvati. Until then, men played female roles on stage as acting was not considered a respectable career for women. Phalke broke that mould with his second film although it would be a while before casting women in films would become a trend.

Life On The Move

Durgabai didn’t care much for social taboos. After suffering an abusive marriage, she took her 3-year-old daughter and left her husband. The year was 1903. Durgabai could sing, dance and play a few music instruments and she, with Kamala in tow, left Bombay and joined a travelling theatre companyas an actor. Since they were always on the move, Kamla didn’t get a formal education.

Life was tough, very tough. Durgabai’s decision to become an actor outraged her conservative Maharashtrian Brahmin community, and mother and daughter were treated as outcasts. But Kamla had inherited her mother’s talent and she delivered her first stage performance at the age of 4.

After Mohini Bhasmasur released in 1913, Kamla stayed firmly in the spotlight. A couple of years later, she married Raghunath Gokhale, an actor she had met on the theatre circuit. Kamla and Raghunath soon became a sought-after lead pair on the Marathi stage. They did many musicals together, their very first one being Sharada, which opened in Dhule in Maharashtra.

In the early 20th century, plays revolved around historic and mythological themes. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays were also common, and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Othello were staged in towns and villages all over Maharashtra. By the time Kamla was 18, the couple had built quite a reputation and their plays were staged to packed audiences.

In the documentary, Kamla is completely unselfconscious. Seated in an easy chair in her simple apartment in Pune, she reels off lines from plays she has performed with astonishing ease. Nearby, a trunk on the floor contains photographs of her productions; they are bits and pieces of her youth, fragments of another life. She peers at these photographs through a magnifying glass.

Kamlabai Gokhale in a scene from her early acting career. Image courtesy documentary film ‘Kamla’ (1992)

Memories of her time in travelling theatre are crystal clear. “Eighty bullock carts carrying 125 people travelled the length and breadth of the country, from Kashi to Karnataka, and from Goa to Dharwad, to Hubli. The entire company travelled together – the male leads, female leads, villains; and all the stage hands… painters, scene shifters, carpenters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, dhobis. We didn’t have to spend a paisa outside.”

Tragedy Strikes

Kamla and Raghunath had three sons. Lalji and Suryakant went on to become tabla maestros while Chandrakant is the father of well-known Marathi character actor Vikram Gokhle. Tragedy struck when Kamla was just 25 and Raghunath took ill during the staging of Gopichand.

In the documentary, she recollects: “He was gasping for breath and said, ‘Kamle, I won’t last much longer. What shall we do about the play?’ I promised, ‘We won’t stop the show.’ So I stood in for him, and that was the second male role I did.”

A few hours later, Raghunath died. Says the legend, “I wasn’t a great actress, just ordinary. But my virtue lay in this… the show must go on. That’s my real merit.”

Around a decade later, theatre, especially travelling theatre companies, suffered a huge blow when Ardeshir Irani made the first Indian talkie Alam Ara in 1931. For the first time, Kamla and her family were forced to set down roots. She continued acting and added quite a few films to her repertoire, including Prabhu Ka Pyara (1936), Chabukwali (1938), Basant (1942), Stunt King (1944), Navajeevanam (1949), Nastik (1954) and Hulchul (1971). Even at the age of 80, she held her own in front of the camera, in her final film, Gehrayee (1980), a family drama-cum-supernatural thriller.

Kamala took everything that life threw at her and always came out on top. She was unstoppable. Even when a balcony with members of the audience seated in it came crashing down, she refused to have her performance interrupted. When wounded by a sword she was wielding in a play, she tossed one bloody handkerchief after another on the stage, but she kept going. “By the end of that one act… the audience said, ‘Kamlabai, you’re bleeding profusely.’ I replied, ‘Let me finish.’ ”

Kamlabai Gokhale in her 90s. Image courtesy documentary film ‘Kamla’ (1992)

Kamla lived alone in her apartment in Pune till her death in 1997, at the age of 97. She was not wanting for family but she wanted no concessions on her account. To quote the first lady of Indian cinema, “the show must go on”.