Breaking the mould

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By Seventy years ago, Khurshid Mirza, an educated, avant-garde Muslim woman, flouted tradition to act in Hindi films. Avijit Ghosh on her memoirs
  • Published 8.05.05
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Back in the Thirties, acting in films was not considered an honourable profession for anybody. And for a married woman from a well-educated and respectable upper-middle class Muslim family, it was forbidden to even think about it. But Khurshid Mirza, the daughter of the founders of the Aligarh Women’s College, the wife of a police officer and already a mother of two, was too free-spirited to be tied down by any social norm. She took the plunge and soon a star named Renuka Devi was born.

But her hometown Aligarh was shocked and angry. Articles written in local journals feared that Muslim girls from educated families were setting a wrong example to others. Emotions ran so high that she was advised not to visit the town for some time. Nonetheless, backed by an understanding husband, Mirza remained undeterred. ?One would like to think that her pioneering plunge into the big, bad Bombay world,? says nephew and former foreign secretary Salman Haider, ?encouraged others from a similarly conservative background to follow.?

But the memoirs of Begum Khurshid Mirza (1918-89), compiled by her Lahore-based daughter Lubna Kazim and published recently by Zubaan, is much more than a chronicle of her acting career. This is rather a social document ? the story of a generation told through the eyes of an energetic, constantly-evolving woman. In the memoirs titled, A Woman of Substance, Mirza puts across the tricky issue of education for Muslim women in perspective.

In the early decades of the 20th century, most Muslim women were still in purdah. In this backdrop, her father Sheikh Abdullah’s (not to be confused with the late Kashmiri political leader) and mother Waheed Jahan Begum’s endeavour to promote female education met with vehement opposition from most quarters. Abdullah canvassed for women’s education in newspapers and magazines. He was convinced that education was an important step towards a woman’s liberation from social oppression.

In 1904, he started editing an Urdu monthly magazine called Risala Khatun. In her memoirs, Mirza notes how many readers wrote back to say that the idea was against their tradition. Many women argued that the purdah safeguarded their respectable position in society. Some aristocratic families abhorred the idea of their daughters studying with common low caste girls.

But public opinion slowly turned in favour of the progressives. Families who earlier scoffed at female education now pleaded with the Abdullahs to let their girls into the school which was set up in 1906 and got the status of an intermediate college in 1927.

Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai was one of the more famous wards of the college where girls tutored by English teachers not only acted out Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also played basketball and baseball.

Mirza’s decision to act in films needs to be looked at in this changing social backdrop where sections of the Muslim society were taking hesitant steps towards modernisation despite opposition from the more conservative forces. Yet, there were certain unsaid and unwritten norms none dared to cross. Acting in films was one such hidden line.

However, when one of Mirza’s relatives working in Bombay Talkies wrote to her praising the studio’s professional atmosphere, she took the initiative of writing to its owner, Himanshu Rai, without telling her husband Akbar Mirza. This enterprise ultimately resulted in her film career.

But when Khurshid Mirza acted and sang in Rai’s superhit film Bhabhi, many of her friends and relatives were deeply shocked. In her memoirs, she recounts how relatives keep looking down at a carpet on hearing the news. ?Very bad news,? one of them says, ?Bhabhi has become an actress.?

But she continued to act. And as Haider says, ?Though her husband was supportive of her decision to act in films, it was she who was on the line. She had the energy and the boldness to take up the challenge.?

During her lifetime, few invisible lines held back Mirza. As a child, she played hockey with the boys adopting the pseudonym Abdullah, travelled from Aligarh to Lucknow to participate in inter-college baseball games and later, accompanied her police officer husband on his shikar trips and played tennis.

Interestingly, when she was 12, her father wanted her to go behind the veil. He discussed the subject with her mother. ?I protested vehemently and found a supporter in Amma,? Mirza writes. ?To this day, it amazes me how my mother, who came from an orthodox Mughul family and had never travelled very far from where she was born, had ideas more modern than her husband, an educated man.?

After Partition, Mirza migrated to Pakistan. There she worked for the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) as a volunteer helping destitute women. ?When her husband was transferred to Quetta, she took charge of an APWA centre for health care in a rural area called Ismail Killi,? says Lubna Kazim, who works with Aurat Foundation, an organisation working for women’s empowerment. She also compered programmes on women’s issues on the radio and later became a well-known award-winning television artiste in Pakistan.

But, perhaps, it was her earning her postgraduate degree in English at the age of 45 that sums up what Mirza was all about. As Kazim says, she was ?a doer.? Someone who was ever willing to touch and feel the skin of life. Haider too describes her as someone ?always alive and aware.? What comes across is that she lived a full life and on her own terms. Begum Khurshid Mirza, clearly, was a woman of substance.

EXTRACT

FROM THE BOOK

My father had a successful law practice but the passion of his life was to bring education and enlightenment to Muslim women who were not aware of their legal rights. Women observed strict purdah and were completely dependent on their husbands’ or fathers’ whims for their maintenance, even if they were wealthy in their own right. Generally speaking, women from affluent homes were uneducated and spent their time gossiping and planning trousseaux for their daughters while lazing on couches and gao takias, large, reclining bolsters, while their legs were massaged by their numerous maid-servants. They took no part in the important decision-making of the household and their conversation consisted of finding ways and means of accumulating as much gold jewellery as possible. (Page 41)