“Is it true there was cross-dressing in early Indian cinema?”

The question came from a young Texan undergrad, and there was some muffled laughter in the audience. I paused for the room to be quiet.

Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first feature film.

It was up to me to provide some cultural context. I had received some photocopied pages for the reading on Indian cinema, and I glanced at them for specific details. 

“Yes, it’s true that Dadasaheb Phalke’s earliest films had men dressed as women. In 1913, Annasaheb Saluke played the role of the queen, Rani Chandramani, in India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra.”

Annasaheb Salunke played female roles in Dadasahab Phalke’s films

I elaborated on how Dadasaheb Phalke had been unable to find female actors in the traditional Pune society of 1913. How acting was a morally suspect profession, and chaste Indian women could have nothing to do with it. How Annasaheb Saluke, a Mumbai restaurant worker, played the role not only of Ram but also Sita in Lanka Dahan in 1917.

It was a small footnote of cinema history, but it made me think. Women had been entirely missing in the first Indian film, and when they were allowed in, there were specific roles that they were afforded: of mothers, maidens and mistresses, each with strictly enforced codes.

Perhaps early Indian cinema did continue to exert an influence on the films being made today. Take devotionals and the two Deepikas, for instance.


The story of how the father of Indian films, Dadasaheb Phalke, was inspired to make devotional films about Hindu religious mythologies such as Raja Harishchandra (1913), Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), and Lanka Dahan (1917) is an interesting one.

In April 1911, Phalke visited the America India Picture Palace, in Girgaon, Mumbai with his family to see a film. As it was Easter, the theatre screened a film about Jesus, The Life of Christ (1906) by the French director Alice Guy-Blaché. While watching Jesus on the screen, Phalke envisioned Hindu deities Rama and Krishna instead and decided to start in the business of “moving pictures.” (Watwe)

The devotional genre was continued by films such as Sant Tukaram (1936) and Jai Santoshi Ma (1975), Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977) and then, on a smaller TV screen, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986) where actress Deepika Chikhalia woodenly played a pious Sita. Devotional films have been immensely popular and more importantly, revered. “People would keep their shoes outside the cinemas before going in to watch Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai (1969) recalled veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani. 

Film historian Sumita Chakravarty (1993) has suggested that women in Indian cinema have been cast as good wives, good mothers, or conversely, as bad women: vamps and courtesans. In Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986), actress Deepika Chikhalia played the role of Mother Sita, and was subsequently criticized for any roles thereafter where she had to wear revealing clothes or where she was not an ideal wife or mother.


Source: IMDb

Seven decades separated Annasaheb Saluk playing Mother Sita to Deepika Chikhalia playing Mother Sita, but how much had really changed?

Fast forward to contemporary events. For Deepika Padukone, the role of Padmavati came under a similar category of an ideal woman. (In present day India, Hindu Rajput women continue to worship sati mata, the goddess to whom the sacrifice of one’s body is made by widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.)

Taking the role of a mother created an expectation that high standards of morality would be displayed by the Deepikas.

To fully appreciate the Padma(a)vat(i) controversy in 2017, one needs to understand history certainly, but more specifically, South Asian cinema history. The history of devotionals, of audiences throwing coins at the stage as good vanquished evil on-screen. We are to understand the consternation caused at the unseemly sight of Mother Padmavati dancing the ghoomar with her midriff exposed. It was the government, and its censor board, that was tasked with the job of gently covering Mother’s midriff. Bhansali’s film was delayed, and then released, after a name change to Padmaavat, and the Censor Board required edits where Deepika’s offending midriff was covered.


But for the government to cover a woman’s midriff digitally! That will be in the film history books. Students in the year 2099 might ask — is it true?

And someone, I hope, will provide some cultural context.

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D., is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Wikipedia

Dr. Geetika Pathania Jain is a former Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. An award-winning writer and editor, Geetika earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and attended Purdue...