From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut, tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

Padma awards have always eluded women in cinema, theatre and music. The ones who have broken the glass ceiling over the years share an interesting pattern which is representative of a creaking system of felicitation in the world of Indian art and culture.

Vikram Phukan August 11, 2020 19:28:49 IST
From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut, tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

In recent days, actor Kangana Ranaut has proclaimed she would return her Padma Shri if her latest cause célèbre falls by the wayside. The use of a state honour as a notional bargaining chip attests to its considerable symbolic value, and Ranaut appears to have taken a leaf out of the playbook of those writers who returned awards to the Sahitya Akademi, in an anti-intolerance campaign in 2015 that arguably went much beyond rhetoric.

This year, when the national honours were unveiled by the Government of India in January, prolific producer Ekta Kapoor, Gujarati acting veteran Sarita Joshi, and Ranaut joined the ranks of the 75-odd women associated with Indian cinema who have been accorded the Padma awards since its inception in 1954. Parsing through this honour roll, from the very first awardee — Carnatic legend (and sublime star of such films as 1947’s Meera) M S Subbulakshmi (Padma Bhushan awardee in 1954) — to these latest entrants, certain intriguing patterns do emerge.

Padma winners over the year... by Firstpost on Scribd

As might be self-evident in a culture where men continue to call the shots more than seven decades after Independence, women trail their male counterparts by miles. The 50 recipients of India's highest award in cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, include just six women, even if Devika Rani was the first honouree in 1969. This disparity is also borne out in the proportion of women in the Padma awards roster, reflecting the stunted longevity of a female professional’s career in show business — especially true for actors pushed over the hill when they’ve barely arrived at their prime.

As we get down to number-crunching, some revealing statistics come our way. Since the awards were instituted, for the first 50 years, on an average only seven women per decade have made the cut (less than a third of their male contemporaries). This batting average improved substantially during the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century with around 40 women walking up to the Presidential dais to receive their citations. While still only half the number of corresponding men, it was a sign of progress, if only in the math. However, under the current dispensation, only eight women have joined their ranks.

From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

From left: Devika Rani Roerich, Bhanumathi Ramakrishna and B Saroja Devi.

If we were to only take actors into consideration, then the numbers are roughly comparable, but there is still a great distinction in terms of what men receive vis-a-vis women. Most of the ‘higher’ female awardees are playback singers or exponents of classical music or dance who, while associated with the film industry, have been honoured for their bodies of work elsewhere. So while only six actresses have received a Padma Bhushan or higher — Zohra Sehgal, P Bhanumathi, B Saroja Devi, Waheeda Rehman, Shabana Azmi and Sharmila Tagore — more than four times as many men have won the equivalent. This imbalance was perhaps awkwardly underlined in 2010, when Rekha controversially received her Padma Shri in the same year as Saif Ali Khan, even as younger stars like Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan had stolen a march on her in previous years. Khan’s illustrious mother, Tagore, only received her first award, the Padma Bhushan, in 2013.

The idea of the Padma award itself, however coveted and lobbied for, has been fraught and double-edged in India. Whether it is political affiliations or the subjective tallying of achievements that edge otherwise undeniably accomplished individuals closer to the podium of Indian knighthood, as it were, the national honours has attracted its fair share of conjecture and controversy. In 2013, playback singer S Janaki, cited for a Padma Bhushan (belatedly for a veteran of more than five decades), threw open a Pandora’s box of wounded pride, state apathy and partisan politics, and refused the award, albeit gracefully. Talking to media outlets, she said that this kind of tokenism was a little too late, and that South Indian artists have long been underrepresented at the awards. In 2002, renowned Kathak danseuse Sitara Devi, who had first cut her teeth as a choreographer and dancer in films, turned down her Padma Bhushan (having accepted the Padma Shri in 1973), saying she deserved nothing less than the Bharat Ratna.

From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

S Janaki (left); Asha Bhonsle (right)

Hubris aside, Janaki’s quibble about the North-South divide might not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. The wealth seems to be rather uniformly spread if we were to assign each lady to the region of her birth. Women from the south of the Vindhyas comprise a healthy one-third of all female cinema artists decorated with a Padma award. The divide, however, comes into focus when we take into account the film industry with which a performer is primarily associated, and the most stolid presence reveals itself to be the Hindi film industry — a melting pot of talent from all over the country that cuts a giant swathe across the cinematic landscape, and garners more than seventy percent of women in this list. Here is where Janaki’s assertion rings true.

This is not to say that the balance would not be restored if we were to consider the Padma awards across all categories, not just this microcosm of women of the silver screen. It does make sense that, even as the powers-that-be in Delhi consider the recommendations of various state-level panels, they are perhaps less able to appreciate the achievements of women not as exposed countrywide as those who belong to a national (if only notionally) film culture.

Cultural insularity runs deep. Which is why when prolific playback singer P Leela was felicitated only posthumously in 2006, and three-time National Award-winning actress Sharada continues to be ignored, it rankles those who feel that the North enjoys a disproportionate claim to state honours. Of course, other luminaries of the stature of Asha Bhonsle have been kept out in the past. Bhonsle was given her first honour — the Padma Vibhushan — as late as 2008. Her sister, Lata Mangeshkar, in contrast, has always made it the record books in a timely fashion, scoring each notch right up to the Bharat Ratna in 2001. She and Subbulakshmi are two of only four women accorded with India’s highest civilian award.

The skew in gender representation glaringly makes clear the limited realm to which women in cinema are constrained. Men who have been awarded include actors, directors, musicians, lyricists, writers, cinematographers, editors, producers — the entire spectrum of movie-making. By comparison, about sixty percent of women honourees are actors primarily, most from cinema, although there are the select few who have excelled in theatre like Tripti Mitra, Arundhati Nag and Chindodi Leela, whose plays run into thousands of shows. The rest are playback singers, and women who have specialised in the classical arts. Only a handful of career directors make this list — including Aparna Sen, Vijaya Mehta (also a doyenne of theatre), Sai Paranjpye and Mira Nair.

From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

From left: Mira Nair, Sai Paranjpe and Aparna Sen

This is an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground, and visible in movie industries everywhere, as was underscored when Kathryn Bigelow became only the first female winner of a directing Oscar in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. In India, we have come a long way since the times women in the performing arts were looked at derisively. Across all departments of filmmaking, a fresh crop of female talent looks poised to make their mark in directing, editing, cinematography and script-writing. Conversely, the power that women once leveraged as playback singers (if only by the Mangeshkars) has been relinquished in recent times, and the female solo as a cinematic set-piece is less of a feature in contemporary cinema than it may have been in the days of Subbulakshmi, P Susheela and Mangeshkar, when often the entire soundtrack of a film consisted wholly of songs sung by women. Today’s music is oriented towards diverse ensembles of singers and styles, and in many ways, it represents a level playing ground for both men and women.

Because the Padma award is usually the final tier of approbation most actors can hope for, it is rather like a lifetime achievement award. To enter the club, actresses have paid their dues in many ways, not entirely by dint of prowess in acting alone.

There are those like Nargis (on the back of the Oscar-nominated Mother India that made a goddess of her), Vyjayanthimala (also a classical dancer of repute) and Smita Patil (at only 10 years from debut, the fastest ever recipient) who have been decorated when their star shone brightest. Nutan and Waheeda Rehman, named in their 30s, had to prove their credentials as actors par excellence several times over. Like Rekha, Rakhee was felicitated late, after her first National Award for Shubho Mahurat in 2003. Zohra Sehgal and Sulochana Latkar perhaps made it on account of the sheer longevity of their careers. Shashikala Jawalkar’s humanitarian work with the Missionaries of Charity possibly helped as much as playing an ‘evil woman’ on screen. Helen, the queen of clean-cut cabaret, had to be anointed a living legend everywhere else, before being honoured in 2009.

A few actors whose careers as leading ladies had been relatively short-lived, like Jaya Bachchan or Tagore, all served time as chairpersons of government agencies like the Children’s Film Society or the Central Board of Film Certification. The more feathers in your felt-hat, the greater the chance of being elevated for posterity. Over the past decade, the expectations upon actors to acquit themselves well in public life seems to have dimmed somewhat. Which is why the reclusive Rekha and Tabu have got mentions, as well as India’s sweethearts like Kajol or Sridevi, who had catapulted herself back into the public eye with a winning performance in 2012’s English Vinglish, after a 15-year hiatus from an acting career that began when she was only three.

From MS Subbulakshmi to Kangana Ranaut tracing the journey of women in Indian cinema and the Padma awards

From left: Tabu, Kajol and Sridevi

In recent years, governments have tried to correct some of the oversights of the past. Apart from Bhonsle, Shamshad Begum was given the Padma Bhushan in 2009. Usha Uthup, who wept publicly while receiving her first popular award for singing in 2011, was accorded the Padma Shri the same year. There are others still who have passed away without ever being recognised. These include the great silent movie star, Ruby Myers (Sulochana), and the singing star Kanan Devi, who are both Dadasaheb Phalke awardees (so it isn’t as if they have been completely unsung). Writer Ismat Chughtai, who has contributed scripts and ideas to filmdom; and the great tragedienne par excellence, Meena Kumari, are also amongst those whose exclusion now seems like a travesty (the most glaring example on the men’s side is playback legend Kishore Kumar). Shanta Apte, firebrand mascot of progressive cinema in the '30s, singer Geeta Dutt, of the smoky vocals, and IPTA front-woman and character actor Dina Pathak, are other prominent no-shows.

The list can go on, to include many more who are still with us — script-writer of Shyam Benegal films, Shama Zaidi; actress Madhabi Mukherjee, whose limited oeuvre with the Bengali stalwarts, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, can rival the best work of others; stars Dimple Kapadia and Kirron Kher, who have both notched up exemplary work in parallel cinema; and of course, the aforementioned ‘Urvashi’ Sharada, veteran of more than 400 films, whose honorific alludes to her propensity to win National awards.

Omissions aside, the criticism of the Padma awards has also centred on the notion that they are relics of an imperialistic mindset, modelled as they are on a similar system in Great Britain. Over the past 60 years since they first came into vogue, successive governments haven’t been able to entirely subvert this belief. For artists, especially, being on the list of decorations can come with the faint whiff of being affiliated with the establishment, something that some might find untenable with the politics of their art. For the most part, the women on this list haven’t quite borne the brunt of such posturing.

Not much ado has been forthcoming from the men’s side either — the only controversies there includes a parliamentary debate on purported anti-Gandhi remarks by the great auteur, Ritwik Ghatak, that sought to strip him of his Padma Shri in 1970; and a 2013 lawsuit against Tamil actors Mohan Babu and Brahmanandam, for attaching the Padma Shri to their names in movie credits.

The system is not perfect, but it has honoured many of the most exemplary women associated with cinema over the past century. It isn’t a full deck of cards, but at the end of the day, there is no denying that this creaking system of felicitation holds up a unifying mirror to the Indian film industry, even if women end up with just the spoils of largesse.

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