Remembering Kamlabai

Not everyone with a family is destined to enjoy all the fruits that the family has to offer. Let us take the case of Kamlabai Raghunath Gokhale, or simply Kamlabai, who was a Marathi actress in the early decades of the twentieth century and the first woman to act in films in India. Reena Mohan, who trained in editing at the Pune Film Institute, made Kamlabai in 1992, a 46-minute colour documentary in Marathi and Hindi exploring the life and times of this rare artiste in a state of decline. Kamlabai was then in her late ‘eighties, blind in one eye, lame in one leg, living alone in a Pune flat marked by long spaces and longer silences. She had her own, but lived alone – with obstinate memories of glory long lost.

Kamlabai had a rogue of a father and an angel of a mother – this by her own admission. Unable to put up with her abusive and adulterous husband, Kamlabai’s mother went her own way, joining an itinerant theater group that pitched tent in the small towns of what are now Maharashtra and Karnataka. There it was that Kamlabai grew up in the heady atmosphere of Hindu mythologicals, melodramas, gaudy costumes, grease paint, and the androgynous spectacle of fair, well-rounded men playing female roles with flair. Some women, in their turn, played male roles to perfection.

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A still from the film ‘Kamlabai’

Speaking to the camera, Kamlabai narrates a naughty little story that goes to show her skill at transformation. A married young woman was so taken up by Kamlabai (in the guise of a man) that she left her home and family, and went out of town in pursuit of the travelling performer. When the woman proposed her love, Kamlabai led her to what passed for a greenroom and took off her stage attire. The young woman realized with a start that all along she had been pursuing one of her own kind! Kamlabai laughed, so did Reena Mohan, the film’s cinematographer Ranjan Palit, and the audience.

Losing her husband (who was also in the theatre) at a young age, Kamlabai had to draw on all her courage and enterprise to bring up her sons without support from any quarter. It may be a bit jarring to today’s overwrought feminists to hear the actress’ declaration that she was happy to have borne only sons and no daughter. Having seen her mother badly suffer for no fault of her own, not to mention her own miseries in the absence of a man beside her, Kamlabai did not want any of her own flesh and blood to have a similar experience in an insufferable patriarchal society.

Combining snatches of interview spread over several seasons with film clips of a forgotten era, period music and sepia-tinted photographs, Reena Mohan gives us the essence of a relic of the past who was, paradoxically, a remarkably modern and independent-minded woman. The anger and pathos and humour with which Kamlabai talks of her parents, her handsome young husband who died prematurely, her family and society as she encountered them in her youth and middle-age and, finally, her persistent efforts to excel herself in whatever she did in the theatre, would shame many a so-called liberated person of today.

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                                              Sepia photo of Kamlabai on stage

The film’s freshness of style and originality of treatment is matched by the character and exuberance of Kamlabai who alternates between the arresting vigour of the rebel and the pained submission of the resigned. For someone who has observed a plethora of Hindu rituals in a long life of great religiosity, it must take extraordinary courage laced with deep sadness to say, as Kamlabai does, that, nearing her end, she has lost faith in the external manifestations of religion. Why else, she argues in the quaking, syncopated voice of the aged, should she have to suffer the pains of decay and the pangs of loneliness?

But when all is said and done, the true artist may be occasionally down, but he or she is never out, not even in seeming defeat. In the end, Kamlabai is only skeptical; she is far from having lost faith. She keeps reminding the viewer without spelling it out in so many words that the creative spirit is never too sure of anything ; that doubts and dilemmas, inscrutable questions and incomplete replies are, so to say, a part of her invisible stock-in-trade; that clarity of vision about life and its creatures is finally the only thing that matters.

With the death of Kamlabai in the closing years of the last century, a precious sepia photograph flew out of the window. But such a one as she is not allowed to leave our midst. For years and years to come she will continue to haunt our imagination and play with our emotions, thanks to Reena Mohan who had so many subjects to choose from, but voted to tell with feeling and fecundity the story of an irrepressible actress who refused to be overwhelmed by distress and decay. Any other person in her situation – living alone in the same city where resided her sons and their families – would have felt broken and diminished, but not she whose greatness as an actress and woman of equal distinction was first recognized by none other than Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema by common consent. Of a rare unnamed metal are some artists made.

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                                                                                                   Young Kamlabai with her son

I was destined to meet Kamlabai on the screen not somewhere in India, to which both she and I belonged, but in Dhaka which was once a part of our common country but sadly is no more. In early 1993, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to participate in the Dhaka International Documentary and Short Film Festival. I decided to go because apart from seeing films, I thought it was an opportunity to visit the land of my ancestors. Before I left home, my father asked me to get him a lump of earth from his village of Kanakshar in Bikrampur in what is now Bangladesh. As it turned out, I could venture out of Dhaka only up to Narayangunje. I could not visit our village on account of disturbances that had come to engulf Bangladesh in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid some weeks earlier.

Not wanting to return to my father empty-handed, I visited Jagannath College (now Jagannath University), one of Dhaka’s reputed seats of learning where my father had done his graduation studies, picked up some earth from a flower-bed, put it in a clean handkerchief and brought it back to the hotel where I was staying. On returning home in Jamshedpur, I told my father why I had not been able to make it to Kanakshar and placed the handkerchief and its contents in his cupped hands. He put it to his forehead once and asked me to keep it in a suitable place in the family prayer room.

As I said earlier, it was at the Dhaka festival that I saw Kamlabai for the first time. When the film ended, a sizeable audience rose as one in heartfelt appreciation of Reena Mohan’s exploratory and evocative interpretation of a life as earthy as the earth and as sublime as a dove in flight. It is as if I can still hear the audience’s applause. Unbelievable as it may sound to Indian ears, the audience had paid to see Kamlabai and every other film screened at the festival. In a sense, the audience lent dignity to itself by refusing to see the documentary as a poor cousin of the fictional feature.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.



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