Kamalbai Gokhle, the first Indian woman to act in an Indian movie, died in Pune City, India, on May 17 in the centenary year of Indian cinema. She was 97.
In 1913, at age 13, Gokhle played the female lead in the mythological film “Bhasmasur Mohini,” produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke, revered today as the father of Indian cinema.
Kamalbai’s debut on the silver screen created a sensation, because Indian audiences of that time were unaccustomed to seeing women acting, even onstage. It was considered improper for women to parade themselves for public display in front of men, so men played women’s roles. Kamalbai was the first to break this taboo and usher in the age of female actors.
Ironically, “Bhasmasur Mohini” was Kamalbai’s first and only film as an actress. She continued to act onstage until she was in her mid-40s.
Kamalbai was born in 1900 to a family of traditional preachers, and joined a performing troupe in which her mother played the sitar. After her epoch-making appearance onscreen, she married fellow actor Raghunath Gokhle. Their progeny have remained in the forefront of the acting profession. Their son, Chandrakant Gokhle, is a well-known stage actor, and grandson Vikram Gokhle is a prominent stage, television and film actor.
Kamalbai was a popular figure in public events as recently as a few months ago. She was known and loved for her ready wit and her support of women’s freedom of spirit and independence.