Nowadays we talk about participation of women in every field. Most people are aware of the contemporary female directors that exist in the country as they have got recognition, acclaim and fame but few know about Fatma Begum; actress, scriptwriter and probably the first woman director who created a path for many others in the film industry to follow at a time where male domination in every sphere was prevalent. According to sources, she was the first woman director in Indian cinema, who shattered stereotypes to be both in front of and behind the camera.
She was born to a Muslim family in India in 1892. Trained to be a performer in ‘kothas’ ( bordellos ) where she was raised, Fatma, like several women performers of the time, made a transition into cinema from Urdu theatre where she had made her mark. It is a rumour that she was married to the Nawab of the Sachin State. She had three daughters – Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, all of them were ‘silent’ actresses.
Fatma Begum’s first movie was Abhimanyu (1922). This marked her entry and she went on to act in several films, Sati Sardaba (1924), Prithvi Vallabh (1924), Kala Nag ( 1924), Gul-e-Bakavali (1924) and Mumbai Ni Mohini (1925) being some of them (that time female characters were done by male artists).
She launched her production company Fatma Films in 1926 ( later Victoria-Fatma Films ) and wrote and directed Bulbul-e-Paristan ( 1926 ), a lavish film set in the land of ‘Paristan’, based on a Persian fable. The big budget was the story of a queen who needed to use her magical powers to bring order to her world. A fantasy world was created by her ‘pari’ or fairies in the film. She also used trick photography to show special effects. Her two daughters Zubeida and Shehzadi acted in the film. The film was highly appreciated and Begum was praised for her fantasy thoughts.
Other than Bulbul-e-Paristan the other popular films made by Fatma Begum includes Goddess of Love ( 1927 ), Heer Ranjah ( 1928 ), Nasib Ni Devi ( 1929 ) and Shakuntala ( 1929 ). Most of these films featured women in the lead roles and explored the sensual and creative aspects of the characters and their world.
Her daughter Zubeida was a silent film star and was cast in the first Indian talkie, Ardeshir Iran’s Alam Ara ( 1931 ) . Her daughter Shehzadi was an accomplished and popular dancer along with her contemporaries Azurie and Cuckoo.
While continuing to produce and appear in her own work, Fatma worked for Kohinoor Studios and Imperial Studios until her last film Duniya Kya Hain? ( 1938 )
She not only broke some stereotypes in the film industry but also opened the way for other women to venture into the industry. She breathed her last in 1983, at the ripe old age of ninety-one, leaving behind a pioneering approach to the film industry.
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