Posted on March 11, 2019
5 Women In Indian Cinema You Need To Know

From the ‘First Lady of Indian Cinema’ to the costume designer who won India its first ever Academy Award – here are five trailblazers from the industry.

Did you know a female costume designer won India its first Oscar? Or that dubbed versions of Schindler’s Listand Titanic only exist because of a woman-led dubbing studio set up in 1992? Ahead of Women’s Day, we look at five extraordinary women from Indian cinema.

Devika Rani

Years Active: 1928-1943

Why you should know her: Devika Rani is popularly recognised as the ‘First Lady of Indian Cinema’. She was a Padma Shree awardee in 1958 and also the first ever recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1970. In 1934, Devika and her husband established one of India’s finest studios, Bombay Talkies, in Mumbai. It was credited with having produced bold films that commented on the caste system (Achhut Kanya, 1936) and superstition (Nirmala, 1938). She is known for her on-screen liberalism in the 1933 film Karma, which includes a four-minute-long kissing sequence with her husband Himanshu Rai, the longest ever in an Indian film. Along with being an actor, she also directed art and costume, and sometimes even sang her own songs.

Esther Victoria Abraham (Pramila)

Years Active: 1935-2006

Why you should know her: Pramila was the first woman to be crowned Miss India in 1947, while pregnant with her fifth child. She’s also the first film producer of India. Her production house, Silver Films, has 16 films to its credit. At just 17, she joined a theatre company in Mumbai after leaving her conservative Baghdadi Jewish home in Kolkata. A Cambridge graduate, she was also a stuntwoman, who often designed her own costumes and jewellery and was a popular face in fashion magazines of the 1930s and 40s. Her daughter, Naqi Jehan, went on to win the Miss India title in 1967, and they became the first mother-daughter pair to do so.

Bhanu Athaiya

Years active: 1956-2004

Why you should know her: With the first Academy Award win for India (for Gandhi) and two National Awards for Costume Design to her credit, Bhanu Athaiya is a legendary costume designer. She designed over 100 films, working with great directors like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra and Ashutosh Gowarikar. She started her career with the 1956 film C.I.D. and her last film was the 2004 film Swades. She even went on to become a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Bhanu’s story and her passion for creativity in design is documented in her 2010 book The Art of Costume Design, which is a classic work on the creations of landmark costumes and trendsetters in 1960s and 70s in India.

S Janaki

Years active: 1957-2017

Why you should know her: S Janaki, a four-time National Award winner, is a playback singer popularly called the Nightingale of the South. She has sung about 20,000 songs in 17 languages including Japanese, German and 15 regional Indian languages like Tamil, Malayam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali and more. As a sign of protest, she declined her Padma Bhushan in 2013, saying South India had always been neglected during consideration for national accolades.

Leela Roy Ghosh

Years active: 1992-2012

Why you should know her: Leela Ghosh was a dubbing director and voice artist. Her career took off when the the producers of Jurassic Park (1993) approached her after listening to her singing projects. She spoke Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Oriya and English, and previously worked the Union Ministry of Tourism. She was educated in social anthropology, which helped her create dialogues such that they appeal to the Indian audience. Ghosh established the dubbing studio Sound and Vision India in Mumbai in 1992. The studio has now dubbed over 300 films, from the entire Jurassic Park series to Schindler’s List and Titanic. Chances are, the next time you catch a dubbed film, it can be traced back to Leela’s studio, which is now run by her daughter, Mona Shetty.