The legendary Prabhat Film Studio did not just produce landmark films in Hindi and Marathi. “Prabhat Studio was supposed to be an idyll for women from ‘respectable’ backgrounds,” writes film historian Sarah Niazi in an essay on the production house that was set up in 1929.

In the essay, titled Teen Deviyan: The Prabhat Star Triad and the Discourse of ‘Respectability’ and available on the free online encyclopedia Sahapedia, Niazi reflects on the circumstances at the film production company that boosted the presence of women in various capacities.

A film under production at Prabhat Film Studio. Courtesy

Started by V Shantaram, VG Damle, S Fatehlal, KR Dhaiber and SV Kulkarni, Prabhat produced several iconic Indian films, including Ayodhyecha Raja, Sant Tukaram, Sant Dynaneshwar and Kunku, during its 25-year run. The themes included mythology, socials, historicals and devotionals. The excellent production quality and a highly competent art department that created some of the finest sets seen at the time earned Prabhat the reputation of a studio that was superior to its rivals.

‘Sant Dyanenshwar’ (1940) by VG Damle and S Fatehlal. Courtesy

Prabhat was started at a time when cinema was moving from the silent phase to the talkies. Niazi points out in her essay that the 1930s were also marked by the entry of educated women into the workforce as teachers, nurses and secretaries. Yet, their participation in the film industry remained limited.

Extras in a Prabhat film. Courtesy

“Cinema in the early years was a considered a lowbrow art form,” Niazi writes. “This was largely due to the anxieties that the new medium produced due to its proximity with risqué forms like vaudeville, circus and bazaar theatre. While cinema generated an immediate curiosity, drawing on large crowds into its folds, there was skepticism about its wide range of influence on culture and morality.”

Within this milieu, Prabhat established an identity of being more “respectable” than other companies. The studio’s association with the mythological and social genres as opposed to stunt and comedy sealed its “high-brow” status in the public eye – something that came to be known as the “Prabhat touch”.

Actresses like Durga Khote, Shanta Apte and Shanta Hublikar rose to fame on the back of their work in Prabhat productions. The studio created a friendly atmosphere that was conducive for female performers belonging to “respectable” homes, says Niazi.

Shanta Hublikar in K Narayan Kale’s ‘Mera Ladka’ (1938). Courtesy

In her autobiography I, Durga Khote, the actress spoke about the family-like atmosphere at Prabhat that provided her the support system she required at the time. “The shooting and every other part of the work were done in such a warm and congenial atmosphere that one was filled with sadness when it was over,” said Khote, who played a female pirate in the Prabhat production Amar Jyoti (1936). “It was not the owners of Prabhat alone, but also their families and the company workers in general who had treated me with great respect and love,” Khote writes.

Khote went on to play many well-regarded roles for Prabhat, including Kilotala, the queen of a kingdom made up of women who hate men, in Maya Machhindra (1932).

V Shantaram’s ‘Maya Machhindra’ (1932). Courtesy

“The ‘home-like’ studio ... was definitely part of a consciously created image and work culture to enable women to participate in the cinematic public sphere,” Niazi writes.

V Shantaram’s ‘Kunku’ (1937). Courtesy

Actresses such as Apte and Hublikar built their acting careers on the basis of their musical talents. Musical knowledge became a valuable addition to a performer’s repertoire with the advent of the talkies. Hublikar starred in Manoos and Mera Ladka. Apte, who had been trained in music at the Maharashtra Sangeet Vidyalaya in Pandharpur, is remembered for her role in Kunku as the fiesty Nirmala who protests against child marriage by refusing to consummate her nuptials with a much older man. Apte later had a public falling out with Prabhat for “arbitrary and uncivil treatment accorded to her by the directors of the Company” and went on to work for other studios.

Another actress who shone at Prabhat was Hansa Wadkar, who played the titular Bhakti saint in VG Damle’s devotional Sant Sakhu (1941).

Hansa Wadkar in VG Damle’s ‘Sant Sakhu’ (1941). Courtesy

Khote’s legacy survived her association with Prabhat. Her portrayal of Jodhabai in K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Badi Maa in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1970) were among her most popular roles in later years. She also set up a production house, Durga Khote Productions, which produced the popular television series Wagle Ki Duniya.

Durga Khote in V Shantaram’s ‘Amar Jyoti’ (1936). Courtesy