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Remapping Gender, Labour, and Histories of the Indian Film Industry (1930s–1950s)

Bodies in Waiting

Reflecting on the burgeoning field of feminist media histories and contemporary debates around Shanta Apte’s films, protests, and writing, along with sources that bring narratives from different women in the film industry, this paper argues that such discussions enable us to rethink questions of gender, creative labour, characteristics of film work, and the industrial milieu. This permits a shift in the focus of study to subjects of waiting, legal battles, and writing and considers evolving labour geographies produced by the migration of cine-workers to examine the problems of creative labour.

Reflecting on the burgeoning field of feminist media historiography,1 and in conjunction with the shifting approaches of writing histories for Indian cinemas,2 the paper grows from the contemporary discussions around Shanta Apte’s (1916–64, actor–singer) films, the performative aspects and significance of her hunger strike (staged at the Prabhat Film Studios, Pune, in 1939), and her landmark writing titled Jaau Mi Cinemaat? (“Should I Join Films?” published in Marathi in 1940). I argue that this enables us to rethink questions of gender, creative labour, characteristics of film work, the industrial milieu during the pre- (and post-) independence era and provokes us to revisit the evolving methods of doing film history. The paper extends the seminal work done by Neepa Majumdar (2015, 2020), Debashree Mukherjee (2020a), and others, by shifting the focus of studies in gender, labour, and Indian film industries to the subject of work and “waiting”—waiting for work, waiting during work, waiting for payments, waiting during transits, waiting to recover from ailments, waiting in-between—in an attempt to comprehend historical temporalities related to a precarious field or the film industry (which, one contends, may be described as an “unorganised sector”). Following my research on the writings by women actors/cine-workers (M Mukherjee 2017b), and by exploring newer material originally scripted in Urdu (Abbasi 2018), I reconsider questions of material and methods in relation to feminist history and enquire—how do we extract a history of women’s labour in film production from the sporadic writings by women cine-workers in disparate bhasa?3 Also, how do we understand film work, workers, and networks of cinema? (M Mukherjee 2020b)

Texts and Debates

An English translation of Apte’s writings (Wani 2020), published in Studies in South Asian Film and Media has fuelled the ongoing debates among the feminist scholars. Wani (2020) reminds us of Apte’s thirty-year long career; additionally, it is widely known that Kunku (1937, director: V Shantaram), and Apte’s feisty performance in the film, are exceptional in the ways in which her on- and off-screen actions converge in the text. Scholarly research on Apte’s dual activity (on- and off-screen), thus, becomes a point of entry to comprehend the approaches of pursuing feminist historiography. Moreover, through the process, I wish to draw attention to the import and act of “writing” by women cine-workers—especially those penned in different bhasa—which, I contend, motivate a new turn in film histories.4 Additionally, what comes to light from the disparate writings are the subjects of “creative
labour” and “labour geographies”; and, I restate that such studies demonstrate the “traffic and transactions among industries,” and the “jostling” of “media geographies and links between place, language, cultural practices” (Mehta and Mukherjee 2021: 3), alongside the continuities and breaks in historical times.

Preceding Wani, Kapse (2020) wrote a critical biography of Apte underlining the complexities and networks of class, caste, gender, sexuality, body, performance, technologies, industrial conditions, public cultures, and political contexts. About Kunku and Apte’s vivacious performance in the film, Kapse (2020: 22–23) writes,

The film’s best-known sequence shows Niru [Apte] singing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” to the accompaniment of the gramophone as Sushila [stepdaughter, played by activist Shakuntala Paranjape] watches, enraptured … Niru’s voice liberates her, though she remains culpable in the eyes of her immediate family … Niru “fights” her husband—a lawyer by profession—by singing in her own voice. Her repeated protests—which, other than saying “no” to sex take the form of saying “no” to being photographed, not cooking, and not dressing up—are acts that earn curses from those she crosses … Against this oppressive backdrop, Niru sings Longfellow to Sushila, ... Gramophone spinning in the background, it is a scenario where the act of performance is equated with liberation and self-expression as the two faces of public femininity—the performer and the feminist—come together.

As a matter of fact, both the film, Kunku, and the performer in concern (Shanta Apte) have activated feminist discourses concerning matters of gender, performance, body, voice, technology, and the functioning of the Indian film industry during the 1930s–1940s. For instance, N Majumdar (2020: 230) complicates how Kunku entails the “tension between the resistant
female roles she embodied both on- and off-screen and the codes of modesty marking vocal female performance on screen at this time.” Majumdar (2020: 231) specifically analyses the “intersection of voice with bodily expression and movement” or what she describes as “rage,” and argues that the film’s acceptance as a “progressive” text stems from Apte’s vocal and performative gestures. She goes on to emphasise that

[t]he epithet “fiery,” which was so often repeated both positively and negatively about Apte’s screen persona, became a malleable term that very easily could be read as rude and immodest behavior in offscreen contexts. In fact, regardless of whether one considered her immodest or a fighter for justice, the continuities between Apte’s on- and offscreen image were significant to her star persona. (Majumdar 2020: 235–36)

Concerning Apte’s stardom, and in continuation with her study (Majumdar 2009) of “stardom” as a productive research field, Majumdar alerts us about the scenes in Kunku in which Niru (Apte) beats up her lecherous stepson and compares the act with the incident during which Apte “went with a riding crop to the office of Baburao Patel, the [infamous] editor of Filmindia, to whip him for his negative reviews of her films.”5

Exploring subjects of performance and “rage,” Majumdar’s insightful reading of the film’s shot-taking, and the function of the gramophone as a visual and metaphorical element, magnifies her meticulous analysis. Here, she examines the setting of the hunger strike during which Apte, dressed spectacularly in trousers and a t-shirt, remained stationed at the Prabhat Studio’s gate in order to protest against her pay cut. Majumdar (2015: 181) asserted that “Apte’s hunger strike was one of those small events out of which the vaster network of women’s film history is constituted,” even though “none of the contemporaneous public accounts of this event explicitly commented on the relation between this strike and other strikes that dominated the headlines at that time” (Majumdar 2015: 183). In fact, popular responses of the period implied that such strikes were belittling larger “political” movements. Majumdar (2015: 182), therefore, adds that

this image from 1939 of a major female star, lying on a bench outside Prabhat studios dressed in men’s clothing, poses precisely the question of how to do women’s film history—first, because I understand “doing” history as a call to frame and interpret a set of contexts that open up the event as an unfolding rather than finished action …

In addition, by assessing the “gossip” published in Bombay Chronicle and Mirror, Majumdar (2015: 184) underscores the problem of “labour” with regard to performing bodies, and proposes that, “[t]he fact that this hunger strike appeared contradictory to stardom demonstrates the largely invisible substratum of labor behind any story of stardom.”

D Mukherjee (2020a), following her former research on gender and cine workers (D Mukherjee 2013, 2015), has generated a productive and provocative method of examining issues of gender and labour. In her article “Somewhere between Human, Nonhuman, and Woman,” by referring to Apte’s writing and the unparalleled strike, D Mukherjee speculates about issues of labour, industry, production, and “exhaustion,” and accentuates the subject of “industrial fatigue.” D Mukherjee (2020a: 22–23) reasons that

cinema is constituted by productive energy relations between machines and organisms, humans and nonhumans. The exhaustion that builds up within this ecology offers us a generative analytic to expand film history toward a history of embodiment as production experience …

Thinking about exhaustion as corporeal depletion allows us to see connections between the image and the labor that produces it. At the same time, we are also able to reconceive cinema’s relation to modernity with attention to the specificities of other places in other times, in other bodies, in other circuits of power and practice …

D Mukherjee (2020a: 24) considers “Apte’s text as theory from the South that helps us rethink the meanings of gender, embodiment, affective labor, inequality, and human-machine relations.” Likewise, she draws out a comparative reading between Apte’s performative and scandalous strike (in “men’s clothes”) with M K Gandhi’s modes of protest (particularly “fasting”), and also deliberates on the broader workers’ movements, which includes the Bombay mill workers’ protests during the 1920s and the 1930s. Furthermore, D Mukherjee (2020a) calls attention to the heterogeneous nature of film work, the characteristics of affective labour, and the interrelated subject matter of work, leisure, and fatigue. She also flags how Apte addresses the complications of caste in a modernising society, and the physical exhaustion and perils of work endured by the actors. In reality, Apte’s writing underlines an under-researched area in film histories: the issue of caste hierarchies within the industry (and the presence or absence of multiple communities) (Niazi 2018), as she describes a “seven-tier” caste system within the film world, at the top of which are the capitalists, the companies (including the managing directors), distributors, exhibitors, advertisers, followed by the workers as well as the publics (Mini 2020; Narayanswamy 2021). Both D Mukherjee and Majumdar stress on the question of labour by conducting a close reading of the texts and contexts related to Apte’s works, protest movements, her writings, public discourses and gossips. Majumdar (2015), for example, mentions Apte’s interview to the Mirror (1 August 1939), and shows how her engagements—rehearsing, drudging, recording conditions of work, and dissenting—may be perceived as “satyagraha.”

Working, Waiting, Writing

In her translation of Apte’s text, Wani (2020: 253) highlights the manner in which Apte’s prose entails “extraordinary critical acumen” as “she lays bare the structures of hierarchy, exploitative practices and money power foundational to the film industry.” Moreover, Apte uses terms like “‘capitalism,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘workers’ rights’ and ‘rule of money;’” and Wani (2020: 254) further adds: “Writing feelingly about the exploitation of child artists and newcomers, she is unsparing in her criticism of the industry that is bound to produce mediocre cinema because it cares neither for art nor the artist but only for profit.” In the chapter titled “The Insensate are Superior to the Sentient!” Apte (Wani 2020: 255–56) states the following

How are these luminaries … so indifferent to the lives of the very people working under them? Shouldn’t it be their concern that the voice, bodies of actors and actresses are taken care of? Shouldn’t they keep an eye on their diet and exercise? Should they mind the cost, in case there is some expense on this account? Shouldn’t film producers be aware of the fact that actors here are not advanced like their western counterparts?

But if they did, how are they the masters? … If people leave, or die, others will take their place! But if new “insensate” material is to be made, won’t there be considerable expense?

This is capitalism’s arrogance, that’s what it is!

Wani (2020: 255) lays emphasis on how Apte’s work throws light on the complications and the gendered nature of the studio spaces, “which lacks warmth and is alienating because of the indifference of its patriarchal authority figures,” and thereby brings to light the troubled work ecosystem and labour practices of the period.6 More importantly, the renewed interest in the material, alongside critical readings of Prabhat’s production strategies (Arvikar 2019), contest dominant film histories vis-à-vis the Prabhat Film Company and other notable studios of the period (M Mukherjee 2017a).


Finding archival material: Within the framework of the continued debates on Apte’s works, I refer to the translation of (the sections of) Kanan Bala’s biography done under the rubric of the book project Voices of the Talking Stars: Women of Indian Cinema and Beyond? (M Mukherjee 2017b). Besides the key concern, which was to locate, assess, critically comment on the wide-ranging writings on cinema by women, and thereby produce a potential reading material for students of gender studies, the volume also reflects on the function of peripheral archival material—for instance, gossip about female stars, fan letters, fan poems, and black and white picture plates of female stars—published in popular magazines and other print material (M Mukherjee 2013, 2014). The study enquires about what constitutes archival and consequently “historical” material, and foregrounds gender as an analytical lens. Briefly, the anthology speaks to the ways in which “women’s writing in India” initiates “conceptual and critical” interventions.7

The section on Bala, for instance, enables us to reconsider Jamuna Barua’s work, alongside Ratan Bai’s fiery and exceptional letters written to the New Theatres’ (Kolkata) manager, which, in reality, activate essential rethinking and persuade us to revisit histories of women cine-workers of the pre-independence period and beyond. For instance, in an open letter addressed to New Theatres, Ratan Bai had enquired about the editing out of four of her song-sequences from the film Karwan-e-Hyat (1935, director: Premankur Atorthy). To this straightforward enquiry, New Theatres’ publicity officer reminded (in print) of her erstwhile status—that of a performer from Calcutta’s (in)famous red-light area. While in her scathing reply Ratan Bai underscored how the official response did not address her query, I argue that, her retort produces a labour map of the period, and draws our attention to the ways in which (women) singers, dancers, performers from Sonagachi, Rambagan, Harkata gully, Bowbazar (red-light) areas arrived at Tollygunge (the studio locality) (M Mukherjee 2015). Similarly, in relation to Apte’s text, Bala’s biography demonstrates the densities of the production field, and puts forth the deeply patriarchal, and elitist structure of the “petty bourgeois” film enterprises (M Mukherjee 2009).

Kanan Bala (aka Kanan Devi) began her career with the formidable Madan Theatres (exhibition–distribution–production company) during the silent era and performed in Madans’ productions (between 1926 and 1932), which were in disparate genres, and thus, she played various roles, including male characters. However, Bala’s career took an upswing turn with Radha Films company (during 1933–36), thereafter with the New Theatres (during 1937–41), and later, she joined MP Productions, Kolkata (1942–48). With New Theatres, Bala did a series of outstanding films, and her popularity as a singer soared high with the renditions of Rabindra Sangeet in Mukti (1937, director: Pramathesh Barua), and soulful kirtans in Vidyapati (1938, director: Debaki Bose) (Gooptu 2017; Chatterjee 2020). She actually reached the highpoint of her career with the successive releases of Mukti and Vidyapati (M Mukherjee 2005). She was effectively New Theatres’ (Kolkata) first national (female) star as she essayed several popular Hindi numbers in Street Singer (1938, director: Phani Mazumdar), Sapera (1939, director: Debaki Bose), Lagan (1941, director: Nitin Bose), Parichay (1941, director: Nitin Bose), and so on (M Mukherjee 2007). New Theatres’ reputation and its acceptance amongst the bhadralok audience, on the one hand, was an outcome of its inventive films and publicity machinery, and on the other, the social standing of its proprietor, Birendra Nath Sircar and his associates played a pivotal role in manufacturing the status of “NT” as it was popularly known as. Sircar had recruited renowned directors and technical talents, alongside eminent music composers, singers, leading novelists, writers, poets, and theatre-personalities, as well as widely held singer-actors such as Bala. Therefore, New Theatres’ industrial stature emerged as much through its well-oiled production–distribution–exhibition machinery, as it grew via the types of films they produced and publicised.8


The problem of ‘waiting’: Bala’s narrative (Sabare Ami Nomi, co-written with Sandhya Sen, in Bangla, originally published in 1973), however, emphasises—in scrupulous detail—the day-to-day activities of New Theatres, and describes her long, tedious, and daunting rehearsal hours, the stature of the actors during the period, her relationship with co-actors/workers, directors, music composers, producers, and others, and thus, accentuates the everyday of “creative labour,” which aids us to re-conceptualise categories such as “waiting” as an integral aspect of film work.9 Bala (M Mukherjee 2017b: 58) writes

The day I first went to the floor of New Theatres …

Since the afternoon, I waited at the studio. There was no one to talk to, none to brief me about my role. Everyone, beginning with the attendants to the senior personnel, had a stoic and snobbish disposition … The afternoon rolled over to dusk and dusk gave way to evening. Suddenly, everyone was jolted into action. “What is the matter?” I asked. I heard, “Sahib is arriving.” Sahib? I looked surprised. Pitying my ignorance an attendant approached me and said, “Sahib is B N Sircar—the God of New Theatres! And, you should remember this” … Sitting and waiting through the day had made me tired and frustrated; however, I became inquisitive about the affairs around. Unknowingly, I had got up and had started approaching the scene. Suddenly I halted and observed how the sycophants, though well established and experienced, behaved immaturely, shoving at each other and trying to open the door of their sahib’s car … The experience was astonishing as well as sad! However, from some distance I managed to greet him with a namaskar and came back to another room … Sitting for another two hours, I asked Mr P N Roy [a senior executive at New Theatres], “May I leave now?” He was surprised to see me and commented, “You are still sitting?” I felt thoroughly dejected …

The problem of “waiting” that Bala writes about is an integral aspect of film work, although it continues to be an under-researched area, even when research on unorganised labour sectors and migrant labourers have drawn attention to the value and function of “waiting” (Janeja and Bandak 2018). Indeed, there are multiple orders of temporal and social uncertainties connected to the notion and experience of “waiting.” For instance, the “precarity” of film work is intricately linked with issues of waiting to get work, waiting during various stages of preparation and shooting, waiting for fees, waiting for the film to release, to complete the work and possibly for the “last” instalment. The temporal facet of the idea and experience of “waiting” thus provokes us to chew on the subjects of passage of (personal and historical) time—in the course of which the physicality, capabilities to perform, and the body of the actors (and other workers) transform due to accidents, illness, and natural ageing. The “waiting” factor in film work also accentuates the artisanal nature of film production, the structure of the industry during the period (and in fact even in the later periods [Ganti 2012, M Mukherjee 2020a]), which effectively aligned with the growing “cottage industries,” or small-scale entrepreneurship of the late colonial period, and therefore, was plagued by unstable labour conditions.10


The meaning of creative labour: David Lee (2013: 5) points out that, creative labourers are “responsible for maintaining their own training, developing creative ideas on their own time, and sustaining good relationships with powerful figures.” As a matter of fact, the structures of cultural industries, “which are largely freelance, flexible and entrepreneurial, have been seen by some researchers as indicative of how we are all increasingly having to negotiate our working lives in a state that is ‘permanently transitional’” (Lee 2013: 6). Moreover, creative labour is laced with problems of subjectivity, affect, and emotional labour. Lee (2013: 8), suggests that

[e]motional labour involves “deep acting,” where workers employ their emotional lives as part of the labour process. It is a process that signifies increasing management control over the personal, traditionally “non-work” elements of our lives, for as Hochschild contends, “All companies, but especially paternalistic, non-union ones, try as a matter of policy to fuse a sense of personal satisfaction with a sense of company well-being and identity.”

Furthermore, creative industries overlook the difficulties of personal health, well-being, family life, or processes of ageing and physical change involved with the labouring body. Therefore, “[w]ork in this new creative environment becomes a site of … affective pleasure; yet it is simultaneously sometimes exploitative, certainly precarious and prone to ethnic, gender and class inequalities” (Lee 2013: 8).

In relation to the precarious work conditions within the film industries, I return to Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories about the Bombay film industry. In his short stories, namely “My Name is Radha” and “Janki,”11 Manto (1998) puts in words his encounters with various aspiring actresses during the time he was working as a writer with a prominent production company. In “Janki,” for example, a woman reaches from Peshawar to Pune and thereafter relocates to Bombay. Prior to this, she visits Manto with a recommendation letter from a common friend and following a series of futile screen tests at the studios in Pune, she, in due course, finds a job as an actor with a Bombay studio (primarily via Manto’s sources). In the midst of the risks involved with film work, and her continuous migration in search of some sustainable work, Janki suffers from severe health conditions, which includes bronchitis, pneumonia, and an abortion, even though, she finally recovers following penicillin shots, that were stolen from the Army hospital by one of her lovers.

Similarly, in “My Name is Radha,” Manto (2015) presents the particulars of the studio milieu, which comprised extended periods of waiting between the shots, for the rains to subside, and consequently, one imagines, for one’s turn to arrive, for make-up, for costumes, for other actors, for rehearsals, for fixing or changing of lights and camera, for takes and retakes, so on and so forth. Manto’s story, nonetheless, shifts the focus on Radha aka Neelam, the “second” lead of the film that Manto is writing, who endures malaria and finally succumbs to unreciprocated affection and incurable malaise. Body, performativity, and physicality are central to this plot as Manto spotlights Raj Kishore’s (the revered male lead) athletic and formidable physique vis-à-vis Manto’s own frail and slim body. In light of such narratives, one, therefore, speculates about Radha and Janki’s roles in the larger spectrum of histories of modernising worlds, and reimagines their waiting and ailing bodies as “elements” that bear the brunt of economic and historical deprivation.

Within the suggested framework of this paper, I, therefore, revert to D Mukherjee’s (2020a: 31) reading of “Should I Join Cinema?” in which she discusses the chapter titled “In the Furnace of Capitalism” (written by Apte) and emphasises on the ways in which the studios deliberately underused “its human resources.” D Mukherjee (2020a: 31) quotes Apte

Days and then months passed like this. The poor girl would come in every day and ask, “No work for me today?” and go home, resigned, in the evening. The period of the contract was almost over and still the young woman was given no work. She was made to just sit around for a year or two […] It gnaws at her mind: to come to the studio day after day and get no work. She must not speak to anybody, but has to stay shut up in a tiny room. […] To come each morning with hope, and return home in the evening bored and disappointed ...

Both Bala’s descriptions and Apte’s writing, thus, underline the meaning and features of film work that demand our thorough rereading in light of studies in “creative labour” industries, matters of “affective labour” as well as in relation to studies in unorganised sectors, labour migration, and the problem of “waiting” for work and at work.

Precarious Labour Geographies

D Mukherjee (2020a) writes how on 10 May 1938, three supporting actors, namely K G Shastri (aged 30 years), Sheikh Abdulla (20), and Abdul Salam (25), were drowned to death during the shooting of the stunt feature Veer Bala (1938, director: Abdul Rehman Kabuli). The accident occurred at Powai Lake, Maharashtra, and D Mukherjee (2020a: 21) asks: “So why would three competent swimmers drown within mere seconds? If the news report is to be believed, these men were at the limit point of human exhaustion …”

In examining the deliberations on “exhaustion,” I draw attention to certain sections of Sabare Ami Nomi, in which Bala recalls how her many successes mingled with precarious work situations at the time she started working for another (hit) film—Shapure/Sapera (Bengali/Hindi) (1938, director: Debaki Bose). She retells how she had disliked reptiles and snakes from a very young age, and was in fact afraid of them even if they were dead. Hence, she was hesitant to accept the role as the heroine of the film where she plays the daughter of a snake-charmer—even though the director, Debaki Bose, insisted that she take it up. Bala elaborates on how it was not a viable option for her to refuse the role since she was bound by a “contract” with New Theatres and received a (reasonably good) monthly salary from them. Also, she “did not have the guts to upset the authorities,” and thus, she began shooting with much “disinterest and bitterness” and consequently, the entire shooting period and process were marked by severe distress. Bala (M Mukherjee 2017b: 84) writes

I would run around the entire studio; Debakibabu would follow me, holding on to his model snakes, insisting that I overcome my fears. In the process, I had tripped over several times, hurt my hands, legs and even sprained my ankles, but such occurrences did not desist him from pursuing on his efforts. I can still feel my pain, young and innocent as I was, subjected to such mental torture. Yet at the studio there was no one who protested against this or would suggest relieving me from such sufferings and replace my role with another actor. As heroines we were helpless.

She further adds that

during the Hindi adaptation, [an] … artist … had a huge giant-like frame. During the shots, he would thwack my shoulders while chanting the mantras. It was such a painful experience to tolerate all this, for a frail form like me. During the shoot, wherever his rough hands would touch me, it would leave livid marks. I used to wonder would there be any relief to such anguish. When the man would proceed to deliver his dialogue, my face would be covered with his spit. After the “takes” I would throw up and could eat nothing. But there was no respite.

Moreover, in her book-length study D Mukherjee (2020b) highlights the questions of precarity and risks involved with film work. She particularly calls attention to the gendered nature of film work and mentions how women “posed a perplexing challenge to Indian society in their newfound roles as film professionals and cine-workers. Female cine-workers in late colonial Bombay cut across divisions of class, caste, and religion. Star-actresses were the engine for commercial success and laid the foundation of the film industry.” In addition to the questions dealing with josh thakaan and “struggle” extensively discussed by D Mukherjee, I foreground the intricacies of film work, which also involves legal and formal matters, such as “contracts,” which bind cine-workers and stars in varied ways.

Rashmi Sawhney (2020a), for instance, excavates the story of Fatma Begum—arguably the “first” woman film-maker–producer from South Asia.12 Sawhney aspires not to “complete” or “correct” dominant historical narratives or to bring “history” into the present, rather, she flags the possible and fluid archives of cinema and thereby, refers to the newspaper reports pertaining to multiple court cases inflicted on Begum. In the absence of records and archival evidence pertaining to cinema, Sawhney examines material related to law and legal matters, which, I contend, aids her to peruse “more carefully into the dispersed sites of ‘a possible history.’” Sawhney (2021: 25) writes

Fatma’s narrative … is particularly indicative of the tremendous instinct for survival that women entrepreneurs in the film industry had to summon. The multiple legal cases are symptomatic of the struggles of a woman with no history of making films attempting to build a career in the industry at perhaps the most precarious phase in the history of Indian cinema.

Hence, in the context of such ongoing feminist rewriting of late-colonial histories, gender, labour, and cinema, the attempt here is to highlight some of the vital aspects of work in the film industry, which, as elaborated earlier, also comprise disparate conditions of “waiting” (as expressed in the diverse modes of writing). Within this approach, I am specifically thinking through the writings in bhasa, alongside the material that becomes available via unauthorised and new media resources, such as fan sites and other film and media-related websites as well as Youtube channels and personal collections. In this regard, later on in the paper, I refer to certain writings originally published in Urdu, translated in English by Abbasi (2018)to accentuate the subject of legal matters and legal tussles pertaining to work, which specifically involved the (lopsided) contracts and court cases.


Legal battles: For instance, actor Shyama (Khurshid Akhtar, 1935–2017), who reportedly worked in around 150 films, and performed with much virtuosity in films like Aar Paar (1954, director: Guru Dutt), Barsaat ki Ek Raat (1960, director:
P L Santoshi), etc, in her article (originally published in the magazine Shama 1954), scripts how she had to go from “door to door,” travelling in trams, buses, and on foot, while she solicited jobs. While most producers rejected her, and others did not respond, she did finally manage to secure a few small parts that kick-started her long career. Nonetheless, despite “fame, admiration, wealth,” it was principally her family that exploited and looted her. Shyama (Abbasi 2018: 232) pens how, “[w]hile they [family] sat at home in luxury, I [she] was forever changing make-up and costumes and getting baked under the hard lights—I was saddled with work days and nights on end.” In the course of the action, thus, she ultimately left her family as well as her belongings and, in actuality, left home without “anything”—not even her contract papers. The toil, drudgery, heat, sweat, anguish, pleasure, joy of work aside, the problem of legal tussles, and workers’ rights and freedom becomes crucial. For instance, Shyama (Abbasi 2018: 234) recounts how

To start a new film, Ravi Shankar sahib—who is my brother-in-law—made me sign a hundi … worth eleven thousand rupees as a guarantor. And, soon enough, the action backfired. The issue reached the judicial courts where it was concluded that since I had undertaken the guarantee, I was required to pay. Two cases—a civil and a criminal—were slapped on me.

While, in the long run, Shyama was rescued by the writer–director M Sadiq and his wife, and her career took an upward leap; her story spotlights the entanglements of labour and legal battles within the film industry and calls our critical attention to labour issues, alongside the need for active unionisation.13


Labour and migration: Meena Shorey’s (Khurshid Jehan 1921–89)—described popularly as the “Lare Lappa Girl”—memoir (Out of Date [Muneer 1986], as mentioned in Abbasi 2018), compels us to rethink two imperative matters connected to feminist historiography—the question of periodisation and recognition of continuities, along with interruptions, pauses, disruptions in cultural–political–spatial histories, as well as the subject of “labour geographies,” or the (de)limits of places, spaces, boundaries, regions, which are being incessantly redefined by the footprints of the workers (Conlon 2011).

Shorey’s (the Indian/Pakistani actress) story, I propose, underscores the problematics of “labour migration,” which suggests both “waiting” (for work) and “movement” through the film industries across South Asia. Ben Rogaly (2009: 1976–77) underlines how

[t]he problem therefore is not so much that migrant workers as a whole have been omitted from labour geographies, but rather that when migration is considered, the focus tends to be on those who settle, on immigrants … The spatial embeddedness of the lives of workers who are mobile for relatively short periods of time—weeks or months [over the years] … has tended to be neglected. Moreover, the analysis of much that has called itself labour geography has focused at the regional, national and global scales, drawing attention away from workers’ everyday micro-struggles over space and time.

Indeed, the “micro-struggles over space and time” embedded in Shorey’s or Meena’s (her screen name) accounts alert us about the possible “labour geographies” within the outline of histories of South Asian cinemas.14

Meena started her career with the fabled film-maker (of several spectacular and landmark historical films) Sohrab Modi, and performed in the hit Ek Thi Larki (1949, director: Roop Shorey). The pre- and post-partition Meena transited between India and Pakistan—practically between Bombay, Lahore, and Karachi—and acted in a number of films. During this time, Mehboob Khan offered her a meaty role in the film Humayun (1945, director: Mehboob Khan). However, she was bound by an effectively interminable contract with Modi. So, at the time Humayun was being planned, Meena could not work in productions outside those of Modi’s, even though, following much persuasion from Khan and his associates, Modi reluctantly agreed to allow Meena to work with them, which was (unsurprisingly) coupled with certain problematic clauses. Meena recalls (Abbasi 2018: 339) that

“he [Sohrab Modi] put forth a condition that my fee would be sixty thousand rupees per film, out of which I would be paid ten thousand and he would keep the rest.

I was taken aback. “I’d get only ten thousand while you make fifty thousand!”

“That’s because you’re contractually obliged to me” he replied.

Needless to add, such a proposal was unacceptable, and therefore, Khan and his associates (initially) decided to wait until Meena’s contract with Modi was terminated. To this, Meena (Abbasi 2018: 339) adds how

after Pattharon Ka Saudagar (dir Daulatvi, 1944) was finished, I asked Sohrab Modi if I was free to work in other productions and he replied that I was bound to work with his company for another three years.

I was jolted to hear that. “How is that so?”

He mentioned about a clause in the agreement according to which, if I didn’t give him a notice three months before the covenant lapsed, the deal would get renewed for another three years …

The matter reached the court of law …

In the course of the legal battle, Meena ultimately opted for an out-of-court settlement and agreed to work for Modi for another year, for a meagre sum of `600 per month, and meanwhile, Khan cast Veena in her place in Humayun.15 Nonetheless, during the pre-partition period, Meena tried her luck with Lahore-based productions such as Sheher se Door (1946, director: Barkat Mehra) and Arsi (1947, director: Daud Chand). And yet, she writes about how during this period her producer Dalsukh M Pancholi received a notice from Modi, who demanded a sum of three lakhs since Meena was compelled to work only in Modi’s company, and her work with the Lahore-based companies meant “a breach of law.” The situation prompted Meena (Abbasi 2018: 341) to travel to Bombay, and she reminiscences Modi’s words: “If either Pancholi or you can pay me sixty thousand rupees in cash, I’ll withdraw the notice” (Figure 1).

At the end of it, Meena requested Modi’s wife to intervene, as a result of which he agreed to accept `30,000, after which Meena returned to Lahore to work in other projects. Meena remembers how when she was working in another Pancholi film (Pathjad [1948]), “Pakistan came into existence. [And] I left for Bombay” (Abbasi 2018: 342). Following the partition (in 1947) and upon her return to Bombay, Meena worked with Roop Shorey (her future husband) in Punjabi films and in the blockbuster Ek Thi Larki. She inscribes how there was an agitation against Indian films in Pakistan during that time (in 1954) and recollects how

[d]uring this time, I [she] had signed up for Mughal-E-Azam and Bhai Bhai. I quit these films and left for Karachi—my priority was to organise a source of livelihood for my young nephew and nieces. The film that I came to work on in Karachi was titled Miss 56 …

While Miss 56 was being filmed, I’d keep shuttling between Karachi, Lahore and Bombay …

Everyone—particularly my relatives—was insistent that I should stay back in Pakistan …

… whenever we came towards Amritsar from Bombay for outdoor shoots, I’d kiss its soil. The sentiment had returned to me emphatically, and so I made up my mind to stay back. (Abbasi 2018: 346–47)

Commonly hailed as a “Pakistani actress,” Meena abandoned her husband (Roop Shorey) and her career in India, for newer films and life in Pakistan. Nevertheless, her life and work (and her suffering during the latter part of her career) point towards more complicated histories of cinema’s social life, of bodies in motion, and motivate us to “re-map” political boundaries, and temporal maps (like pre- and post-partition) via matters of gender, labour, and media geo­graphies. To borrow from Salma Siddique (2015: 2), “Meena’s career navigated the tortuous itinerary of a divisive decolonization, travelling amo­ngst cities and nations, identities and communities, and refugees and citizens.”


In conclusion, thus, I wish to refocus on the matters of “labour geographies” and allude to scholars such as Linda McDowell (2008) and specifically Jane Wills (2009) who draw attention to the “dynamics of labour migration.” Wills (2009: 404), for instance, argues for a more thorough study of labour practices by looking at them as “active, ongoing and negotiable sets of practices that vary across time and space.” Truly, one needs to address the critical and gendered subject positions of cine-workers and what it means to transit in and out of projects, production companies, places, countries as well as personal and complicated relationships, via multiple registers such work, waiting and “worklessness,” in order to revisit political and historical limits.16 For instance, the anthology Shooting Stars, Shifting Geographies and Multiplying Media (Mehta and Mukherjee 2021: 2–3) emphasises on the many passages and detours of “plots, sounds, machines, technical crew, writers, performers, objects, and experiences,” and argues about the “intra-national and inter-national linkages between production and distribution.”

Contesting “national cinema” approaches and “building on contemporary research that highlights existing and multiplying networks,” Mehta and Mukherjee (2021: 3) aspire to “move beyond any fixed categorizations and explore newer tactics of twigging the manifold structure of Indian cinemas …” without any fixed temporal and spatial lens. Reimagining “network” as network “studies,” Mehta and Mukherjee (2021) flag a new route map for creative labour studies. Likewise, the reflections in this paper, on the ongoing research and debates on gender and labour and rethinking of the everyday in the studios vis-à-vis the gendered workspace, alongside a close reading of the writings by women, enable us to reframe spatial and temporal charts of the subcontinent and produce possible cartographies and methods of doing media and labour geographies. The purpose is to produce newer conversations on matters of “work” (redefined as “waiting” in the context of film work) and workers in creative industries, which prompts researchers to consider alternative material, particularly writings by women available in diverse bhasa.


1 I am especially thinking through the Women Film Pioneers Project (Columbia University), which is committed to building new archives, as well as journals such Feminist Media Histories (University of California Press), which emphasise on subjects of gendered labour and media industries.

2 I am particularly considering the critical focus of Bioscope, South Asian Screen Studies and the research papers that excavate industrial history in South Asia.

3 I use the word “bhasa” in place of “vernacular” primarily to avoid “regional” and “informal” undertones associated with the term. Moreover, although not discussed in this paper, Durga Khote’s (Gokhale 2006) and R Bhanumathi’s (2018) autobiographies (originally published in Marathi and Telugu, respectively) become significant in this regard.

4 See “The Female Star, Travelling Figures and Transgressions” in Mehta and Mukherjee (2021).

5 Also see Saadat Hasan Manto (1998).

6 See Hrishikesh Ingle (2019), the introduction in D Mukherjee (2020b) and M Mukherjee (2020a, 2020b) on the gendered work space during later periods.

7 See the landmark edition by Susie Tharu and K Lalita (1992).

8 See M Mukherjee (2019).

9 On “creative labour,” also see McKinlay and Smith (2009) and, especially, Angela McRobbie (2015).

10 While “the Indian Motion Picture Producers” Association (IMPPA) was formed by the late 1930s, and a silver jubilee of the industry was celebrated in 1938, it actually took another 20 years for the Cine Artistes’ Association to be formed and become effective.

11 See Manto (2014, 2015).

12 Also see Sawhney (2013).

13 Also see Sawhney (2020b).

14 On Meena’s works in the context of (post) partition, the star persona, and its ideological implications, see Salma Siddique (2015, 2017).

15 Also see Veena’s narrative in Yasir Abbasi’s (2018) anthology.

16 On Sabita Devi’s journey from Calcutta to Bombay, see Sarah Niazi (2021), and on the “first” female talkie star of Iran—Ruhangiz Saminezhad of Bombay, see Claire Cooley (2021).


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Updated On : 31st May, 2022
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