IN NOVEMBER 1913, women made their first appearance in Indian cinema with the film Mohini Bhasmasur. Directed by the Marathi filmmaker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, it featured the Marathi actor Durgabai Kamat, and her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale, who was 14 years old at the time.
Mohini Bhasmasur is a silent film based on the myth of the destruction of the demon Bhasmasur by Mohini, Vishnu’s female avatar. In the story, Shiva granted Bhasmasur the power to turn people into ash by touching their heads. When Bhasmasur threatened to use his new-found ability against Shiva, Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini and enchanted Bhasmasur, coaxing him to dance and match her every move. She placed a hand on her head, and Bhasmasur, in imitating her, reduced himself to ashes. In the film, Kamat played the role of Parvati, while Gokhale played Mohini.
The casting of Gokhale and Kamat in Mohini Bhasmasur was monumental, particularly as the performing arts were perceived at the time to be the exclusive domain of oppressed-caste women and sex workers. In Raja Harishchandra—the first full-length Indian feature film, which was released earlier in 1913—Phalke cast a male actor, Anna Salunke, as the female lead, to work around the taboo against women actors.
Kamat and Gokhale continued to be active in theatre, working for Chittakarshak Natak Mandali, a touring company renowned for its performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Gokhale, who gave her first stage performance at the age of four in Vikar Vilasit—a Marathi adaptation of Hamlet—played significant roles in Marathi productions such as Saubhadra, where she was both Arjun and Subhadra from the Mahabharata. Gokhale encountered opposition, primarily from male actors accustomed to playing the parts of women, throughout her career.