Celebrating the pioneering women in Indian cinema

On International Women’s Day, Suchetana Bauri takes a look at some of the women that smashed through the glass ceiling and changed the Indian film industry for the better.


Durgabai Kamat and her daughter Kamlabai Ghokhle

In the early 20th century women were not allowed to act in film or theatre. In fact cinemas and theatres were forbidden to women, so much so that Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema was forced cast male actors for his female roles in Raja Harishchandra.


Once the film did well and was accepted as a ‘suitable’ form of entertainment by the educated class, Phalke introduced Durgabai Kamat in his 1913 Mohini Bhasmasur as leading lady Parvati, while her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale, played the role of Mohini, thus becoming the first female child actress in Indian cinema.


Fatima Begum


Fatima Begum is India’s first female film director. She made her debut in theatre and was primarily involved in Urdu plays. However, with the advent of film she acted in Ardeshir Irani’s silent film, Veer Abhimanyu in 1922.

That was not all for the legendary woman. In 1926, she established Fatima Films. She also acted in films for Kohinoor Studios and Imperial Studios, while writing, directing, producing, and acting in her own films at Fatima Films.

In 1926, when she directed Bulbul-e-Paristan, she became the first female director in Indian cinema. Isn’t it awesome that when a majority of women on the Indian subcontinent were fighting a battle to watch films, she was directing them.

BR Vijayalakshmi

One of few women cinematographers in the Indian film industry, BR Vijayalakshmi is not only India’s first female cinematographer, but also the first in Asia.


Vijayalakshmi first held a camera for Chinnaveedu, directed by K. Bhagyaraj in 1985 and went on to work as a cinematographer on 22 other films. Her last film was Pattu Paadava in 1995. In 10 years she carved a niche for herself in the Indian film industry.

Vijayalakshmi’s craft with the camera is leavened by great skill and tenderness. Her cinematography is inspirational in setting the bar very high for aspiring women cinematographers.

Bhanu Athaiya

Bhanu Athaiya is a costume designer from an era before couture culture took over Indian films. Though never a couturier, Athaiya was an influential purveyor of Bollywood glamour: in the mid-60s she created a widely copied sari for Waheeda Rehman in Guide, and the sexy outfits for Simi Garewal, which she wore in Karaz.

Bhanu Athaiya’s aesthetic sense won her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (which she shared with John Mollo) for her work on the 1982 film, Gandhi. She thus became the first Indian to win an Academy Award. How cool is that?

Bina Paul


Bina Paul is one of the earliest women film editors in India. She is hardworking, amiable and tenacious in equal measure. Bina’s editing is nuanced; she worked around performances and balanced emotions against the fluidity and tone of the story. Her work shows structure and fine tunes the drama of a piece.

Jaddan Bai

Jaddan Bai was one of the earliest music composers, actresses and filmmakers in Bollywood and a true pioneer in Indian cinema.


She began recording ghazals with the Columbia Gramophone Company. She was also invited by the rulers of many states like Rampur, Bikaner, Gwalior, Kashmir, Indore and Jodhpur to perform.

Jaddan should have been one of our earliest pop icons.

Despite these women having broken the glass ceiling decades ago the Indian film industry is still male-dominated. But with more women like these, I’m sure things will change for the better.


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