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Salunke – The first Indian Actress

Salunke in 'Lanka Dhan' (1917)
Salunke in raja Harischandra.
(And yes, that would be first bath on screen by an Indian actress)
The story goes like this: Around 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke was planning to make his magnum opus – a mythological feature film titled ‘Raja Harishchandra’. But before he could start, he needed to find a young woman who could take on the role of female lead. This proved to be the tricky part. Back then no woman, even the prostitutes and the dancing girls that he approached, was willing to sell his soul to the devil. Facing the camera was akin to laying bare at a public square. Dadasaheb Phalke’s grand plans for cinema were stalled. Then one night while dining at a restaurant, some say while sipping a cup of tea there, Phalke found his heroine, an impressive womanly beauty, working the kitchen as a lowly help. Dadasaheb Phalke made an offer that was promptly accepted, and in this manner on a monthly salary of Rs.10 (or according to some, Rs. 15 with Rs. 10 being the salary of the cook's assistant) Phalke's film got an actress and India got its first heroine, a man named Salunke who ruled the silver screen for almost a decade spanning the entire era of Phalke’s mythological dramas. Riding on the success of these films and the slow rising public approval for the new medium of cinema, a celluloid Star, arguable India’s first, was born – Anna Salunke.

It is interesting to note that till recently it was common for a man to do the role of woman in local nautankis, religious dramas. Another interesting feature of these dramas was that often a single person would have to play multiple roles, a trend quite common in (one can say still) popular in Indian films at one time.

In ‘Raja Harishchandra’ Salunke played the female role of Taramati as well as the male roles of Bhalchand and Dattaraj. It seems Salunke was quite apt at playing multiple roles, and Phalke quite content with a small crew of actors. In Phalke’s Lanka Dahan (The Burning of Lanka, 1917) Salunke played Sita as well as Ram, a feat that can’t be replicated in modern times without having the film falling under comic genre instead of mythological. But back then these mytho-drama films starring Salunke were setting box office and public imagination ablaze. However, when public appetite for mytho-dramas was full and after they developed a taste for socio-dramas that were now being made, and maybe because of arrival of real women on screen (Phalke's Mohini Bhasmasur from 1913 had mother-daughter duo Durgabai Gokhale and Kamlabai Gokhale), Salunke, in a story of first fall from stardom in India, slowly faded from public memory.

This was the story of androgynous beginning of the Indian Heroine - the rise of a man as a woman through a spell induced by devil’s magic eye.


  1. Good post Vinayak Bhai along with vintage information.

  2. Thanks for this , its one of the reasons i love your blog ;)

  3. There is a Marathi movie on Dadasaheb Phalke that came out in 2009; it's called Harischandrachi factory. Salunke is featured in it too.

  4. I know. And there is an incredible project on Phalke being run by Kamal Swaroop.Check this.


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