Devika Rani to Asha Parekh: Dadasaheb Phalke Award Winners Over the Years

Only seven women have won this prestigious award that recognises excellence in the field of cinema.
Devika Rani to Asha Parekh: Dadasaheb Phalke Award Winners Over the Years

Once known as Bollywood’s ‘Jubilee girl’, Asha Parekh contributed to the film industry by being among its most celebrated heroines over two decades. She also turned producer in her later years and headed up the Central Board of Film Certification between 1998 and 2001 (those were turbulent years and you can read about it here). No wonder the 79-year-old actor was named as the recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Lifetime Achievement Award.

Even though all the Indian film industries have had illustrious women working in them for decades, of the 52 people who have been awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, only seven are women. Here are the other women who make up the sisterhood of Dadasaheb Phalke awardees.

Devika Rani

The first woman to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1969, Rani was a legendary actor and producer. Her decision to work in the film industry was particularly noteworthy because she came from an illustrious family. Rani would become famous for being the first Indian actor to have kissed her co-star on the lips in her debut film Karma (1933). In 1934, Rani and her partner, director Himanshu Rai, founded Bombay Talkies, which was among the leading film studio of its times and famous for being in line with international standards. Bombay Talkies produced films like Achut Kanya (1936) and Jeevan Prabhat (1937). Rani is also the one who discovered Dilip Kumar when she chose him for a role in Jwar Bhata (1944). She quit the film industry in the Forties and would later say in an interview that she did so because she was unwilling to compromise upon her “artistic values”.

Ruby Myers

Born in Pune, Ruby Myers, who took on the screen name Sulochana, was a Baghdadi Jew and the first woman to act in an Indian silent film. She was discovered by director Mohan Bhavnani of Kohinoor Film Company, but when he first offered Myers a role, she — then a telephone operator — rejected the offer because films were considered disreputable. Sulochana would go on to become one of the industry’s most highly-paid actors and became famous for films like Typist Girl (1926), Balidaan (1927) and Wildcat of Bombay (1927) in which she played eight different characters (including a policeman, a street urchin, a banana vendor and a glamorous European blonde). Myers was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1973.

Kanan Devi

One of the first singing stars of Indian cinema, Kanan Devi was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1976. Devi’s story is a classic tale of rags to riches. She began her career as a child artist in silent film roles and steadily graduated to more important roles as her performances got noticed by producers, directors and audiences. She did at least five films with Madan Theatres productions, including Rishir Prem (1931), Jorebarat (1931), Vishnu Maya (1932) and Prahlad. She even played the male leads in the last two.

She then worked with Radha Films from 1933 to 1936, before moving on to New Theatres (1937 to 1941), where she saw great success. In 1949, she set up Shrimati Pictures and became a producer. Later, she formed Mahila Shilpi Mandal, an organisation that sought to help senior female artists.

Durga Khote

Of the actors in Hindi cinema who can lay claim to the moniker, Durga Khote is perhaps first among her equals. Khote joined the film industry after she was widowed at the age of 26 because she wanted to be independent. Her first role was a small one in the silent film Farebi Jaal (1931), but it earned her much criticism. Khote was born to an elite Maharashtrian family and it seemed as though audiences were not ready to accept her decision to be an actor. However, Khote persisted. She was spotted by the legendary V. Shantaram who selected her to play the female lead in his bilingual film Ayodhya ka Raja (which was Ayodhyecha Raja in Marathi). As Rani Taramati, Khote won over audiences and the film was a runaway hit. In 1937, she produced and directed a film titled Saathi. Khote was often cast as a mother, particularly in her later years. She received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1983.

Lata Mangeshkar

Often described as the Nightingale of India and the Queen of Melody, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award was one of many prestigious titles for Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar’s singing career began in the early 1940s, after her father passed away and Mangeshkar had to provide for her family. Her breakout song was ‘Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kahin Ka Na Chhora’, from the movie Majboor (1948). Over a career of more than 60 years, Mangeshkar would become famous for her collaboration with composer S.D. Burman, who wrote some of his most beautiful melodies for the singer. In her later years, Mangeshkar’s voice would feature in almost all of Yash Chopra’s films and those produced by his production house Yash Raj Films. She was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1989.

Asha Bhosle

Once upon a time, Asha Bhosle wanted to be an actor. That didn’t work out, but she did become a Bollywood icon thanks to her incredible voice. For years after she started working as a playback singer, Bhosle was known as Mangeshkar’s sister and got few chances to shine. It was composer O.P. Nayyar who gave Bhosle her break (he became famous for being one of the few music directors who said Mangeshkar’s voice didn’t work for his tunes). Bhosle would eventually work with all the major music directors in Bollywood, all the way to A.R. Rahman. She also made a name for herself with ghazals and non-film music. Always open to new challenges, Bhosle was among the first to try her hand at Indipop. She received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2000. It would take the government of India 22 years to find another woman recipient for the award after her.

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