Just being herself

Things have changed since my mother entered the film industry but not for the better

Sixty years ago, a Telugu filmmaker made a movie about a woman forced to stop her studies and marry an older, unfaithful man. The subject is not unusual. Many movies have depicted women in such a predicament. They weep, pray and reform their husbands. In Puttillu, though, the woman does something rarely seen even in today's Bollywood. She sees through him and leaves him.

The actress who played that woman was my mother, Jamuna. She was just 16 years old, a child of the village facing a city and a profession deemed disreputable for women. It was not an auspicious debut. Puttillu was condemned as an affront to womanhood and failed at the box office.

It should have been the end of her career. But it wasn't. She went on to act in nearly 200 films, in four languages at that, though even that might not have been. A pair of leading male stars, around whom the whole business revolved, suddenly proclaimed a casting embargo against her. They said she was arrogant. She said a woman had a right to her own dignity. She survived that too.

Then, many years later, an on-set accident: an actor fell on her head during a song. In time, its effects started to show, especially in close-up. When she wept, her head trembled. Worse, weeping, and looking old, was what her roles called for by this time. Her male cohorts still played young men, even her sons. It was implausible. They looked old and fat, she didn't. But India's cinematic cult was always of hero-worship. Finally, after 30 years in the industry, she left movies for politics. In politics too, she found a male culture hesitant to accept a woman as equal. She still won an election to Parliament.

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