Women to the fore in Hindi Cinema  

Kamlabai Gokhale was the first female actress in Indian cinema in Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film, Mohini Bhasmasur (1913). Photo: Publicity Photo

By International Women’s Day 2023, all we lack is a female Stunt Coordinator in Hindi cinema—which, seeing the way cinema is going, can happen any time! This is indeed a far cry from times when the late Vikram Gokhale’s grandmother, Kamalbai Gokhale, under her maiden name of Kamal Kamat, became the first-ever woman to feature in an Indian film as the lead. The silent film was Mohini Bhasmasur in 1913. Her mother, Durgabai Kamat, was cast as Parvati in this Dadasaheb Phalke-made mythological.

Phalke had had to cast Salunkhe (a male actor) as his heroine in his first film, Raja Harishchandra, as women then shied away from this new and supposedly immoral medium!

And then came a revolution that took a long while (at least in Hindi cinema) to take off: Fatma Begum, mother to Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, all popular actors of the silent era, had begun working in films with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai in 1922 after getting trained in plays. Fatma launched her own production company, Fatma Films, later called Victoria-Fatma Films. Her film, Bulbule Paristan (1926) is the first Indian film to be produced and directed by a female director—Fatma herself. She also continued acting until the late 1930s.

Actors obviously apart, women since then became playback singers—the first ever song in this category, Main khush hona chahoon from the 1935 Dhoop Chhaon, was rendered by Parul Ghosh, Suprova Sarkar and Harimati, and then a feisty Parsi lady, Khursheed Manchershah Minocher-Homji (trained in classical music in Benaras), under the musical pseudonym of Saraswati Devi, made her debut as composer with Jawani Ki Hawa (1935).

Jaddanbai, actress Nargis’ mother, was the first female lyricist in Hindi films. Photo: Publicity Photo

In the same year, actress Nargis’ mother, Jaddanbai (Sanjay Dutt’s maternal grandmother) was credited with the lyrics of Yehin arzoo thi dil ki ke qareeb yaar hota in Madam Fashion, for which she also wrote the remaining songs, scored the music and acted in the lead and sang in that era of star-singers!

The gradual change

Gradually, more and more women stepped into various aspects of filmmaking, such as make-up and costume-designing and scriptwriting. As the stigma of a dishonorable profession ebbed, women also became choreographers. And soon they stepped into hitherto-unthought-of departments—cinematography, art direction and production design and film editing.

A few years ago, Amitabh Bachchan stated on record that the shooting scene today is way different from the times when he started out and even since he peaked. One could barely see any women then apart from the actresses and their crews (relatives, make-up people, designers and secretaries, if female). Now, almost 60 to 70 percent of people on sets are female, mostly girls!

The list includes assistants in every field from production, writing, direction, the technical side and now, even the visual effects. And probably today, excluding the actresses and playback singers, the number 20 might just be sufficient to include top-liners across all departments! A small number, but growing by the day!

And so, the alleged men’s jobs (‘Who will lug a heavy camera?’ ‘Who will work 24/7 on a film set forsaking home and domestic ‘duties’?’ or ‘Who will listen to a woman in a male-centric crew?’) are all gender neutral now!

The rules of Hindi (I would say Indian and global too, but our discussion here is on Hindi movies) cinema have changed—and how! Gender equality is the norm rather than the exception. And the market leaders need not be just toppers like Shreya Ghoshal, Alia Bhatt or Farah Khan. Women are now calling all the shots and are becoming HODs (heads of departments) in everything!

The International Woman’s Day (March 8) is no longer just a symbolic celebration for the fairer sex. In Hindi cinema, we are now seeing ladies at the helm all around.

Writers and lyricists

Dr. Achala Nagar remains among the pioneers among women writers—she wrote the hard-hitting Nikaah in 1982 for B.R. Chopra. Two years earlier, however, Padma Bhushan Sai Paranjpye, stage stalwart and better known as a director on both stage and screen, had written her own directorial, Sparsh.

Maya Govind, the firebrand poetess, made scintillating starts as a lyricist with Jalte Badan and Aarop in the early ‘70s. Her tryst with real fame came in the 1990s when she wrote Gutar gutam (Dalaal) and Darwaza khula chhod aayi (Naajayaz) with double-entendre, but insisted that they were merely the kind of naughty poetry heard in folk music, stressing correctly that it was the filming that made the songs voyeuristic. Her brilliant work in songwriting over multiple movies (Razia Sultan, Qaid, her first two films and many others) cannot be taken away from her oeuvre, though.

Among the writers and/or lyricists who have done or doing well are also Bhavani Iyer (Raazi, 24, Black), lyricist-writers Anvita Dutt Guptan (Dostana, Ek Tha Tiger, Queen, who has also turned director) and Kausar Munir (Tashan, Pad Man, Rocket Boys) and lyricist Rani Malik (Aashiqui, Phool Aur Kaante, Baazigar, Main Khiladi Tu Anari).


Usha Khanna was the longest-lasting female composer in Hindi films. Photo: Publicity Photo

Music Directors

Usha Khanna, after Saraswati Devi, remains the only lady composer to have sustained success in a male-dominated arena. A singer as well, she has composed several evergreen songs in films as assorted as her 1959 debut, Dil Deke Dekho, Hum Hindustani, Lal Bungla, Honeymoon (1973), Ab Kya Hoga, Saajan Bina Suhagan and Souten besides other classic songs like Teri galiyon mein (Hawas) and Barkha rani (Sabak) and many more. Her last release was in 2004.

Sneha Khanwalkar is slowly but surely making a mark in films and web series. Beginning with Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), she has also been an occasional lyricist and has a tendency to be more like a curator of music.

Film Editors

Renu Saluja (Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai/1980) was the first known film editor. Sister to actress Radha Saluja, she also edited the TV serial Nukkad, besides films like Parinda, Bandit Queen, Pardes and others.

Deepa Bhatia (Taare Zameen Par, Rock On!! and My Name Is Khan), Aarti Bajaj (Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal and No One Killed Jessica), Namrata Rao (Made in Heaven and Lust Stories as series, Mrs Chaterjee Vs. Norway, Kahaani, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2 States) have had illustrious journeys as film editors. Bela Segal is an ace editor but has restricted her work only to brother Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films.

Art directors

Sharmistha Roy, daughter to art director legend Sudhendu Roy, was the first lady production designer who started out as late as 1994 with Yeh Dillagi. She has been quite a fixture with Yash Chopra and Karan Johar for many years and also done myriad films like Taal, Koi…Mil Gaya and some films down South as well. The terms “art director” and “production designer” are used sometimes synonymously, sometimes not and Sharmistha has bridged that gap as well, considering the subtle difference between the terms. But there are few others who have made a mark on their own, as of now.


While several cinematographers have come in and are doing good work across movies and web, only Neha Parti Matiyani has made a frequent impact with films like Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, Yamla Pagla Deewana 2, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Rashmi Rocket and the web series, Four More Shots Please as her prominent work.

Saroj Khan broke through into the monopoly of male choreographers in the early 1970s. Photo: Publicity Photo


Despite involving mainly women and classical dance, choreography was exclusive male domain until Saroj Khan challenged the norms, made a mark, then a difference, and finally became a pioneering legend. Geetaa Mera Naam and Dost, both 1974 releases, marked her independent firsts as a choreographer. Known more for specific chartbusters and associations, like with Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit and songs like Hawa Hawaii (Mr. India), Ek do teen char (Tezaab) and Choli ke peeche (Khal-Nayak), she is now considered an icon who perfectly blended the classical Indian with the modern.

Rekha Prakash, as a duo with husband Chinni Prakash (Jumma chumma de de in Hum and others) and Farah Khan (Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander onwards, in multiple films of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and others) have also become institutions alongside Vaibhavi Merchant, whose work includes Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Lagaan, No Entry, Band Baaja Baaraat and the latest hit, Pathaan.


Ashwiny IyerTiwari is among the most distinguished female writer-directors in Hindi cinema. Photo: Nitesh Tiwari

Ages after Fatma Begum and even Sai Paranjpye, Hindi cinema is now replete with women directors, the standout ones being Farah Khan again (Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om, Happy New Year), Zoya Akhtar (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Gully Boy), Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi), Meghna Gulzar (Raazi, the forthcoming Sam Bahadur), Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish).

Mira Nair (US-based) and Deepa Mehta (from Canada), Leena Yadav and Nandita Das have made their impacts globally with art/midstream cinema, and Shonali Bose and Alankrita Shrivastava have done the same mainly in India, though Revathi has struck a better balance in her cinematic range.




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