In an acting class at the prestigious Pune Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), sometime in the early 1970s, filmmaker Mrinal Sen walked in for a lecture. He looked at the class of one female student and many men and began, “One lady and gentlemen.”
It has a lot of historical importance, Prem Chand, journalist and film critic, says. “Not just because she was the first Malayali woman to study at FTII, but also for being a Muslim woman living in those times,” he says.
You wonder if it is luck, timing or just the fact that she was a woman that prevented her from enjoying the same status that the men in her batch would come to enjoy.
“Those were the days you only heard of men going away to Pune to study films,” says Sreebala K Menon, writer-filmmaker. Jameela happened to be among the first and few women to have gone far from home, to train in acting. “It was too early. The men who studied with her would come back and create a new wave of cinema, but that would take years to happen. When Jameela came back after her course, she somehow became part of commercial cinema, which possibly had different demands from an actor, than what you’d expect of one who has been to FTII. The skills she’d picked up, more suited for the parallel cinema that her batch mates would later make, could not be put to use just then. And by the time they were making cinema, Jameela had already faded into the background, perhaps with family responsibilities,” says Sreebala.
Jameela was still known for her historical achievement, one that few women followed after her. Women from Kerala did go to FTII later on, to learn technical skills such as cinematography and editing. But few have been known to take up an acting course in particular.
Jameela must have been in her early 20s then, going away from her home in Kollam after finishing Class 10. Mother Thankamma Malik and father Malik Mohammed, both culturally and socially active, had little doubt about sending their talented girl to learn acting from the best in the country. To be sure though, they checked with Basheer, iconic and much quoted writer of Malayalam fiction who made simple literature appealing to all. Basheer, a close friend of the family, agreed that Jameela should go to Pune.
The audition was in the then Madras, at the Adayar institute, Jameela would narrate in future interviews. There were three judges to evaluate her: Telugu superstar P Bhanumathi, vice principal of FTII Jagat Murari and Tamil director Bhim Singh. They liked her. She got chosen as one of the only two girls in her batch for the acting course.
This was five decades ago. Women who were allowed to do higher education were few. Muslim women were fewer still. Thanks to her progressive parents – who themselves had a Christian-Muslim marriage, defying norms – Jameela could chase her dream. A dream she formed after years of watching cinema freely, a privilege that came from having socially affluent parents. Thankamma was Gandhi’s disciple, and Jameela had for long kept a letter her mother once received from the Mahatma.
Jameela was nervous when she stepped into the Pune campus. But there she found a very familiar world of Malayalis. Names that would become much revered in Malayalam cinema were enlisted the same or nearly the same year as Jameela. KG George, Shaji N Karun, John Abraham, KR Mohanan – all of whom would become renowned filmmakers of art house cinema, and Ramachandra Babu, who’d become a noted cinematographer. KG George cast her as the heroine of his diploma film Faces. Ramachandra Babu was its cinematographer.
There was also Ravi Menon, who’d become a known actor later. Jameela, however, didn’t quite follow in the same footsteps as the others and didn’t quite make a mark for herself in Malayalam cinema, barring a few films in the 1970s and 80s.
“Ravi Menon got so many opportunities, he was the hero of a certain period of Malayalam cinema. But somehow Jameela didn’t get that kind of a welcome,” Prem Chand says. A sign, if you notice, that women had to walk the tougher road at all times; even with the same qualifications and exposure, they had to play the second fiddle.
Ravi and Jameela acted as a couple in another campus film called Jai Jawan Jai Makan, directed by Vishram Bedekar, who is now a renowned Marathi filmmaker.
After she completed her acting course, Jameela went to live in Mumbai for a while, hoping to get a break in cinema. Several chances slipped through her hands, she wrote later. When nothing worked out, she went to Madras. She got her first feature in Malayalam, a film called Ragging. Jameela was cast as the heroine opposite Vincent. Actor-director Cochin Hanifa made his acting debut in this film. While the release was delayed a little, Jameela got two more films: Adyathe Katha and Sathi. When Ragging finally released, it didn’t click. So didn’t Jameela’s luck.
She did have a few more brushes with luck. There was the time when she became heroine of Pandavapuram, based on writer Sethu Madhavan’s novel of the same name. Sethu wrote a condolence post on Facebook, but he didn’t know her well enough to comment about her, he said. She lived away (from where he was) in Thiruvananthapuram. That’s where she moved to from Madras, after marriage. A marriage that lasted only a year and gave her a son with whom she spent the last years of her life, in a rented house near Bheemapally. Obituaries lamented about Jameela having to take Hindi tuitions in her last years to make a living.
“This is true. She took tuitions, she didn’t want to beg anyone for any favours,” says actor-director Madhupal, who was with her in the final days and sent out word to others in the film industry on her passing.
In an interview, Jameela said she is grateful to the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists for sending her money in the years she became unwell.
Jameela was the kind of woman who did not whine about lost chances, who didn’t want to blame others for not giving her a chance. She wrote that she was okay with it all. Somehow, it didn’t work out for her. “I feel she was this woman who went to this great institute, but didn’t know how to act in life,” Madhupal says, continuing his earlier observation of how Jameela never asked for help. “Till the end though, she had always wanted to act, that desire was there. She never got the consideration she should have, but if it was today, a woman graduating from FTII would have got a lot more attention,” Madhupal adds.
The people with whom Jameela associated were all great – she had acted in Tamil and Hindi cinema at a time when women from Kerala rarely did. She’d speak about working with Jayalalithaa in her last film, Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal. About meeting MGR. About her connections in Hindi cinema – Jaya Bachchan, then Jaya Bhaduri, was her senior at college, who used to rag her in fun, Jameela would write later.
“In Bollywood and Marathi cinema, FTII graduates are treated with a lot of respect. Somehow in Malayalam cinema, FTII graduates in acting – or for that matter actors coming out of any such prestigious institute – rarely find a place for themselves. Madhu sir (who studied at the National School of Drama) is an exception. Jameela, for some reason, could not represent the change in Malayalam cinema. It is actors like Jalaja who became representative of the new wave back then. It’s said Jameela was supposed to act in John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhutha but that too didn’t materialise. She was just not placed in cinema properly,” Sreebala says.
The actor seemed to fade away as the years passed. After the 80s she was limited to performing on the mini screen.
“She was not ready for any of those terms you hear about – ‘compromise’ or ‘adjustment’. She also never tried to gain opportunities through her friendships. All I could say is she was really under-utilised by Malayalam cinema. This was a pioneer, a woman taking a big step in 1969. What Malayalam cinema did to her is wrong,” Prem Chand says.