Durga Khote was an accomplished thespian and an actress with a strong personality. Born in a well known family of Bombay— her father was—a–famous lawyer and her brother a well known barrister – the young Vita Laud (Durga Khote) was educated, like her brother and sister, at Cathedral High School St. Xavier’s College where she studied for the B.A.
While still in college, she married into the Khote family, graduated and settled down with her husband. They had two sons. And into their well-ordered round of social activities, pastimes and domestic happiness plopped the excitement of something utterly new—the films.
It all came about through her sister Shalini, also married and having among her coterie of friends J. B. H. Wadia. At the time J. B.H. was working with Mohan Bhavnani as the latter’s assistant. The talkies had just come and Bhavnani who had just made a picture wanted to give it the box office appeal of a “talkie” ending.
The picture starred Mrs. Bhavnani and her husband was looking out for a girl who would feature with his wife in the climax. Approached by J.B.H, Shalini refused,–but knowing Durga as a person who would try anything once, she recommended her. Durga was ready to have a go at the part, accepted the role and went off to the studios the same day to start work. Mr. Bhavnani’s heterogeneous production was soon completed, printed and in the can.
The film flopped. And for the beautiful young housewife there followed a period of embarassment at being connected with the whole filmic disaster. “The name of the picture was ‘Trapped’ and that is just how I felt when I saw it. It was a terrible film,” Durga Khote reminisced, “and my position was more than awkward. I had suddenly achieved a fair measure of notoriety. I just couldn’t walk around in Girgaum without people pointing at me.”
Looking back on it Mrs. Khote laughed at the by-gone crisis. Through all this turmoil and unease there was one solid consolation: both the Laud and the Khote families were far too intelligent and sophisticated to be worried by the affair. On the contrary “My families stood up for me” declared Durga Khote with a proud smile of affection, adding, “but the community felt I had let it down.”
One person who liked her portrayal in “‘Trapped”—was V. Shantaram then with Prabhat Studios. They were about to make “King of Ayodhya”, a big bilingual production, in Hindi and Marathi, and Shantaram offered to cast her as Taramati. Still smarting from the debacle of “Trapped”, Durga Khote saw in it a chance to vindicate herself. Once again encouraged by the families she accepted the tole and played it beautifully. The film was not only good but a big hit, in both the Hindi and Marathi versions.
Bewitched by the applause the young entrant went on to act in her next film “Maya Machhindra”. This was a smash hit and established her straight off as a top star.
There followed a large number of films in all of which she starred and won acclaim from the public and from the film industry. And she continued to do for the next 40 years by sheer dint of dramatic skill. The roles she played were not only numerous but varied; she portrayed young mothers, anxious mothers, termagant mother-in-laws, good women, nasty ones, warrior queens and did marvelous work in devotionals, historicals and mythologicals. She also proved to be a polished comedienne.
Among the many pictures in which she starred were New Theatres “Raj Rani Meera”, “Geeta” in which her presence matched that of her co-star. the devastatingly handsome Prithviraj Kapoor, “Amar Jyoti”, Sohrab Modi’s “Prithvi Vallabh”, “Bharat Milap” and scores of others. In Prakash’s “Chaitanya Mahaprabhu” her sensitive, heart-rendering performance as the mother torn between her longing for her son and the gratification she feels in his single-minded devotion to God, the nuances she delineated between her yearning for her child and her heartbreak for his bewildered, forsaken girl-bride, and her gradual resignation, made for a portrayal which was a gem of histrionic art.
Durga played Ram’s fiercely resentful step-mother, Kaikeyi, in “Bharat Milap” jealously coveting the throne for her own son. Durga Khote’s flashing verve and beauty, the fire-to-dulcet changes of voice and flame-like personification of the grasping queen made one understand if not quite condone the old king’s doting weakness.
And there was the top flight comedy “Chacha Chowdhary” in which as a comedienne Durga Khote once again took the public and the press by storm. The brilliant timing of her facial expression, gestures, movement and dialogue combined to make that role such a scintillating comedy portrayal that she all but stole the picture from the consummate actor Raja Paranjpe – who doubled as director and lead player – and Dhumal. The three of them made it a slick, hilarious romp.
But “Chaitanya Mahaprabhu” and “Chacha Chowdhary” came long after. To get back to the 30’s Durga Khote was still in the romantic heroine category. As she explained the romance was there, but it was not all important; the roles she played were people with individual characters and each role whether it was a mother, a housewife, a queen or a devotee had to be, and was studied.
Ten years or so later she made a decided switch and played what is known in the film world as a ‘character role”, which simply means that it is not the main romantic lead though sometimes it can top the cast, as for instance in “Chacha Chowdhary”. The film was the brilliant P. K. Atre’s “Charnon Ki Dasi”. Durga Khote gave a consummate portrayal as the voluble, cantankerous mother-in-law of lovely Vanmala.
It was an irrevocable plunge, this switch, because it is almost impossible to return from the “character role” to the “romantic lead”. But for this “Dimpled Duse” it was a smashing success, despite much disapproval and disappointment from her hosts of fans all over the country. She was exhilarated by the praise showered on her performance. A perfectionist, for the “Charnon Ke Dasi” role, she had observed and studied the ‘dhobi’ women in order to create and build the character and get their mode of speech and dress and some of their mannerisms right.
Among Durga Khote’s co-stars were Tembe, Vinayak, Baburao Pendharkar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Surendra, Sohrab Modi, Vishnupant Pagnis, Shahu Modak, Prem Adib and that legendary figure — Chandramohan.
A first-class actress Durga Khote naturally gravitated towards the stage and in 1950 she joined the Marathi Sahitya Sangh, a grand and august body which sponsors and produces Marathi plays. She was kept busy acting in, producing and directing plays. Over fifty years ago she started Durga Khote Productions which produced short films – advertising, documentary, educational and industrial. The company was run by Mrs. Khote and her elder daughter-in-law.
Among her memorable films were “Anand”, “Abhiman”, “Khushboo” (which she loved doing), “Bobby” (in which she worked again with Raj Kapoor after years), “Jaaneman”, “Bawarchi”, “Bidaai” which was a big hit and for which she won many awards and “Shaque”, a murder story in which she played a small but brilliant role.
“I am a very good cook,” she said, “and since my children have told me so, I am probably better than very good. They’re my fiercest critics”, she laughed, dimpling, “and have often torn me to bits after seeing one of my films.” Add to her accomplishments and talents a truly astonishing gift for languages – she read, wrote and spoke Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, English and French.
She had always won saris, her favorite color was red, which suited her fair Maharashtrian complexion, was fond of perfumes and loved flowers. She also kept a black Labrador in her house.
One of the most wonderful qualities about Durga Khote was her punctuality which has been a known fact in the industry since she entered it. She was considerate of others. Once she had agreed to a date she would honor her word no matter what – she had done it even when she had been unwell – by Patricia Singh