Her real name was Khorshed Minocher-Homji, but Indian cinema’s first female music director adopted a Hindu ‘screen name’ — Saraswati Devi — when she started composing songs for Hindi films in 1935. Bombay Talkies founder Himanshu Rai had persuaded Khorshed and her younger sister, who ran a popular classical music show on All India Radio at that time, to compose songs for his film Jawani Ki Hawa starring Devika Rani and Najmul Hussain, but the decision by the sisters to join “disreputable profession” didn’t go down well with local Parsis who demanded that the film be banned. The solution that was reached by the mediators was to change the names of the sisters to Hindu names so that the community’s prestige remained unharmed.
Saraswati Devi went on to compose music for several dozen films and was active till early ’60s. One of her most successful films as a composer, Achhut Kanya (1936), will be screened at ‘Women in Transnational Cinema’, a festival comprising film screenings, presentations, a panel discussion, a multi-channel film installation and a Wikipedia edit-a-thon that will be held at three venues in Pune between March 15 and 17.
The festival is being organsied by TIFA Working Studios in collaboration with National Film Archives of India (NFAI), Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum and The Heritage Lab and Feminism + Art. “The festival aims to shed light on under-represented moving image history and wants to initiate a revision of the established film canon. It doesn’t only want to highlight the work of female film artistes as directors and actors, but also as cinematographers, composers, editors, costume designers and so forth. A focal point will be on film form and aesthetics which are created around gender representation, womanhood and girlhood. The festival hopes to create a dialogue between national cinema throughout film history,” said Trishla Talera, Director of TIFA Working Studios.
Apart from screening three films — Achhut Kanya, Subarnarekha and Girls in Uniform, the festival will hold a get-together-cum-panel discussion of three women working in cinema and media studies. Film director Anjali Menon, professor Vaishali Diwakar and art director and researcher Vatsala Sharma will participate in the panel discussion.
On Sunday, the last day of the mini-festival, will also have a day-long edit-a-thon. “A survey done by Wikipedia foundation in 2011 had found that less than 10 per cent editors of this encyclopedia are women. This gender bias on the popular online encyclopedia platform matters, as women writers may highlight different topics, interests and perspectives, that will otherwise stay under-represented. A glance into the global film canon reveals a similar scenario; in multiple lists, only a few films by female filmmakers can be found,” said Talera.