Jaddanbai’s claim to fame is as the mother of one of Indian cinema’s earliest superstars, Nargis. While this is the most prominent fact in most of her biographies, Jaddanbai deserves to be remembered as a legend of Indian cinema in her own right.
She began her film career in front of the camera like so many of India’s early filmmakers, but eventually went on to write, direct and produce her own films. She was also a pioneer of early Indian sound films, becoming one of India’s first film composers. She was truly a “jill” of all trades, and passed her legacy on to her three children, who all went on to successful careers in film.
Jaddanbai was born in 1892 0r 1908 (most sources list both dates) in Allahabad, located in northern India. Her mother was a singer in the courtesan tradition (tawaifs), the only group of women in India at the time who were able to own property and paid taxes. The tawaif tradition is passed down from mother to daughter and Jaddanbai followed in her mother’s footsteps. She was also highly educated, fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Persian, and was a trained singer. She gained fame in Calcutta as a stage performer before moving to film.
Her position as an educated tawaif allowed Jaddanbai more freedom than most women of the period. She was the mother of two sons by two separate men and was already married when she met Uttamchad Mohanchand. Mohanchand came from a wealthy family and fell in love with Jaddanbai when he heard her sing. He converted to Islam and abandoned his medical studies to marry her against his families wishes. With no education, Mohanchand was unable to support his family, leaving Jaddanbai as the family’s primary breadwinner. In 1925, Jaddanbai gave birth to her daughter, Fatima Rashid, who would grow up to be one of India’s most treasured screen stars.
At the age of 40, Jaddanbai began her career as a film actress. Although old to be starting a screen career, the coming of sound to India in 1932 meant that many of the actresses of the silent era could no longer perform due to their lack of Hindi-Urdu and poor singing voices. As a multi-lingual trained singer, Jaddanbai was exactly what the industry was looking for in an actress at the time. She joined Playart Photone and starred in her first film Talash-e-Haq in 1935.
In 1933, she gave up her established fame in Calcutta with her sights set on becoming a film producer in Bombay. In 1936 she launched her own production company, Sangeet Movietone. Her first film released was Search for Truth and credited her with the story, dialogue and music direction.
The primary purpose of Sangeet films was to develop and support the career of Jaddanbai’s daughter Fatima. However, it served as a starting point for all three of Jaddanbai’s children. Her son Akhtar was a director and actor and her second son Anwar Hussain became a well known Bollywood actor.
Jaddanbai died in 1949. She left behind the legacy of her children, having cemented herself as one of the most important figures in the development of Indian cinema, even if this fact is not readily acknowledged.
*Disclaimer: Information on Jaddanbai is sparse at best so dates and names might be contradicted by other sources. Where there were conflicts in information, I went with which facts where most commonly cited or the more legitimate source. Please let me know in the comments if you have additional information or corrections.
Films You Should See:
Search for Truth is of great historical interest. It not only was it one of Nargis’ first film, but it was also driven almost entirely by Jaddanbai in an industry that was inhospitable to women. If you can find a copy, let me know.
Want to Know More?
Women on Record: Jaddanbai
Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, ed. Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo