The early American film industry was something of a haven for intelligent and driven women. Many of Hollywood’s most influential players were women and they were influential in shaping the industry in the West. However, reading texts on Asian cinema, you would be forgiven for thinking the early industries in the East were completely devoid of women behind, or in some cases even in front of the camera.
The silent era in India is shrouded in mystery. Debashree Mukherjee explains that this is largely due to the fact that The National Film Archives of India were only established in 1964 and that the lack of a defined studio and organizational system in India’s silent film industry means that there are no studio records to provide information. Most of the records that Mukherjee was able to find on women in early Indian cinema were concerned with the scandals of the industries biggest female stars. This doesn’t mean that women behind the camera didn’t exist in early Indian cinema, just that they have been buried even deeper than those of Western cinema, relegated to less than a footnote. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to believe that it has taken until the modern era for India to produce its first female director, but this is not the case.
In an attempt to begin to fix this oversight, this month we will look at the life and career of Fatma Begum, India’s first female director. Due to the lack of historical record, finding details about her proved very difficult, so this profile is not as in depth as I would have liked. If you have any additional information or resources, please chime in in the comments below so we can gain a fuller picture of this amazing woman.
Fatma Begum was born to an Urdu speaking family in 1892. She began her career as an actress on the Urdu stage, and make her film debut in 1922 in Ardeshir Irani’s film Veer Abhimanyu. She quickly became one of India’s first film superstars.
Not content with simply appearing in films, Begum leveraged her star power to start her own production company, Fatma Films in 1925, which later became famous as Victoria-Fatma Films. With this move, she started a small wave of Indian actresses who turned to directing in an attempt to free themselves of the demands of male producers and directors in addition to hoping to support themselves once they were deemed too old to appear on camera.
In 1926, she released Bulbul-e-Paristan, the first Indian film to be directed by a woman. The film was a big budget fantasy, full of special effects. This makes Begum not only the first Indian woman to direct a film, but also places her in the company of George Meles as one of the first filmmakers to experiment with fantasy and effects. She continued to act in films at Kohinoor Studios and Imperial Studios while writing, producing, directing and acting in her own films through her own company.
According to rumour, she was married to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III, the final ruler of India’s Sachin State before it became a part of greater India. There are no official documents to confirm their relationship and he never publicly acknowledged their children. He was apparently unhappy with her film career, so she left him to pursue it and raise their three daughters on her own, all of whom became film stars in their own rights.
Begum died in 1983 at the ripe old age of 91.
Films You Should See
As far as my research can uncover, none of Begums films have survived to present day. If you can find any copies of her work, please post links in the comments below.
Want to Know More?
Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future ed. Julia Knight and Christine Gledhill
Women Screenwriters: An International Guide ed. Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo
100 Years of Indian Cinema: The First Women Directors by Rohit Vats