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DURGA KHOTE (1905-1991)

Durga Khote was an actress and film producer of the early period of Indian cinema. Unlike many of the other female actors of the time who came from traditional performing castes or communities, Durga Khote came originally from the middle class.

Born in a conservative Brahmin family in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Durga was married young and was a widow before she was twenty six. Desperate to support her children, she took the only work available to a woman without qualifications. There was a great dearth of female actors in cinema then, with women’s roles often being taken by men, and the few tawaifs or professional entertainers who had entered films were treated like royalty. For Durga, the convent-educated widow of a lawyer, it was a risky but smart move to make. She began with Marathi cinema, taking a small role in Farebi Jaal in 1931. Mohan Bhavnani persuaded her to star in his Trapped in 1931. In those days studios used to tie up artists with contracts that bound them to work only for a particular studio; Durga refused to be bound and kept her contracts open, working with other studios if she saw fit.

In 1937, she became a pioneer in another field when she produced and directed Saathi. She acted on stage and in ad films. She was associated with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers’ Association, and she campaigned against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1977-78. Her entry into films paved the way for other women from the upper layers of society to follow her example, such as Shobhna Samarth (q.v.). She acted in Mughal-e-Azam, playing Akbar’s queen Jodhabai. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1958. In 1983 she won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. She was also awarded the Padma Shri. Her autobiography is titled I, Durga Khote.
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