A REAL-LIFE MOVIE SCRIPT
By Damodar Mauzo
It is 1923. Ermelinda, the youngest of the three daughters of a farmer’s family from the island of Divar in Goa reaches Bombay. She is still barely more than a child, but, as her parents struggle to settle into an unfamiliar city, she skips her schooling. The hardworking girl is good at babysitting, so also at singing and dancing that comes naturally to her. At 16, she turns into a stunningly good looking young woman, sought after by young men. But Ermelinda is smart enough to keep boys at bay, and is soon picked up to act in Tiatr, a popular musical drama among Goans in Bombay.
She is noticed by talent-hunting agents from Bombay’s nascent, fast prospering cinema industry, and is called for an audition at the Imperial Studio. She gets excited. Pretty and graceful that she is, Ermelinda is immediately picked up for the heroine’s role in Hothal Padmini (1925). That is the era of silent movies, therefore she finds it easygoing as there is no delivery of dialogues. She chooses ‘Sudhabala’ as her professional name. Ermelinda performs far better than what is expected of her.
Though the people, in general, look down upon film actresses, Ermelinda maintains her self-respect by not allowing any biggies to take advantage of her openness. She values her self-esteem at all costs. When on vacation in Goa, she becomes the talk of the island. A wealthy landlord, who had earlier ignored her father, falls for her. Though it is below dignity for him to treat the peasants as his equal, he is so crazy for her that, despite her rejections, he follows her to Mumbai. He follows her everywhere and finally giving up his property in Goa turns theosophist.
It is December 1926. She is acting in Shrikrishna Cinema Company’s film Burkhawali (1927). The unit has gone to Matheran for shooting. A hotel is booked for the unit where a room is allotted to Ermelinda and her Aayah. The shooting schedule gets over at dusk as is customary because artificial lighting did not exist then. Late in the evening, the cameraman enters her room and starts making advances which irritate Ermelinda, who asks him to get out. The cameraman timidly walks out. On the last day of shooting, the exhausted Ermelinda retires to her room and goes for a bath. The cameraman enters, opens the bathroom door, and peeps in. Ermelinda shouts at him. He retreats. But later in the night he tiptoes in from the back door and molests her. She wakes up raising an alarm. The cameraman flees. Ermelinda complains to the producer, who requests her not to make an issue as that would discredit the company. Later, the director and the cameraman threaten her by pointing a gun.
She lodges a complaint with the 1st Class Magistrate in Matheran, who also listens to the director and the cameraman. After many hearings, the verdict is given that infuriates Ermelinda. Acquitting the culprits, the Magistrate calls Ermelinda’s story as ‘cooked up’ and imposing a fine, he remarks, ‘she is an illiterate woman and of loose Goanese morals’. The ruling is prejudiced and offensive to the Goan community. The news media too blames her. The wounded Ermelinda appeals to the Sessions Court and after a long fight, she wins the case. The earlier judgment is rescinded. It is widely publicized.
As a heroine, she is now almost indispensable. Once she is on the sets of Cinema Girl (1933), waiting for the man who has signed for the role of `hero’ to turn up. The director is furious as a day going waste is a big loss. Fuming, the producer turns to Ermelinda and asks her to go around the aspiring men flocked to see the shooting and choose a suitable man for the role. She goes and picks up a man from among dozens gathered there. The producer asks the young man picked by her for his name before signing the contract. He is Prithviraj Kapoor.
Ermelinda goes on to act in over three dozen silent movies before the onset of cinema with moving images. She cannot pursue the new career as she is illiterate, and her spoken Hindi is Bambaiya, which does not suit the new era. Years pass and Ermelinda lives a miserable life with no savings on hand. A journalist who admires her writes a fine article in his column in which he recalls her celebrated career and makes a fervent appeal for financial help to make the legendary artist live comfortably. Ermelinda’s ego is incensed at the pity expressed. The same day she dashes to the Editor and threatens him with defamation, demanding an apology, which he tenders. Unfortunately, that costs the journalist his column.
The story ends on a sad note.