Why actor-producer Devika Rani was truly the First Lady of Indian cinemahttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/the-leading-star-devika-rani-bombay-talkies-achhut-kannya-ashok-kumar-5926322/

Why actor-producer Devika Rani was truly the First Lady of Indian cinema

Actor, star, producer, studio boss. Devika Rani walked a path that few women in Indian cinema have managed to. As a new play on the pioneer gets ready to tour, a look back at her journey.

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Grace Under Arclight: Devika Rani in a still from Jeevan Naiya. (Photo: Wirsching Foundation)

The crew waited on the sets at Bombay Talkies for their biggest star, who was also the boss of the studio. But a note arrived instead. “From today onwards, I have nothing to do with the company. Take your own decisions …it is my au revoir to the company”. The year was 1945. After 15 movies in 10 years, and having headed the company for five years, Devika Rani had had enough. She sold her shares, married painter Svetoslav Roerich, the son of the celebrated Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, and moved to the idyllic Kullu Valley.

That marked not only an end of the actor-producer’s glorious career, but also of a brief, exceptional time when a woman cinema professional called the shots in one of Hindi film industry’s leading studios.

In 1940, Himansu Rai, Devika Rani’s first husband and the founder of Bombay Talkies died of a “nervous breakdown”. There were several claimants to the top job. The board of directors, however, unanimously selected Devika Rani to head the studio in Bombay’s Malad. In the five years that she ran the studio, it produced hits such as Naya Sansar (1941), an exploration of the role of journalism; and Kismet (1943) that gave Indian audience a taste of noir, with Ashok Kumar as an anti-hero. Among the talents she picked was “a shy young lad” with a “mop of unkempt hair”. She saw a spark in him and asked director Amiya Chakrabarty to cast him as the lead in Jwar Bhata (1944). That “lad” was Dilip Kumar.

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Devika Rani with Jawaharlal Nehru and Raj Kapoor, who started his career as a clapper boy at Bombay Talkies. (Photo: The Roerich and Devika Rani Estate Board)

The film industry was then — and still remains — dominated by men. The task of running the studio was filled with challenges. Sashadhar Mukerji and Amiya Chakrabarty — two key members of Bombay Talkies — did not get along. In 1943, Mukerji engineered an exodus. Taking with him some of the big names associated with the studio, including brother-in-law Ashok Kumar, he formed Filmistan. Leela Chitnis, who acted in several Bombay Talkies productions, in a piece in Screen (October 5, 1984), wrote: “In this male-dominated world what situation a woman has to face, no matter how talented she is, one can imagine…Mukerji was certain of his power and felt needless to have any cordiality, leave aside friendship with Devika Rani.”

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When films like Jwar Bhata, Hamari Baat (1943) and Pratima (1945) failed to do well, the knives were out. Chakrabarty, someone Devika Rani had stood by earlier, asked the board to give him the “sole responsibility of production”. Chitnis recounts Chakrabarty saying: “There is no need for Devika Rani. It is better we get rid of her”. Devika Rani was “speechless but raging with fury”. She decided to quit herself.

“Life is never kind to an ageing actress. She was in a position that a lot of people were eyeing,” says author Kishwar Desai, who revisits the actor’s story through the play, Devika Rani: Goddess of Silver Screen. Directed by Lillette Dubey, it premieres on August 31 at Pune’s Nehru Auditorium before going on a multi-city tour.

When Devika Rani began working, some of her contemporaries were Durga Khote, Fearless Nadia, Kanan Devi and Sulochana (Ruby Myers). By the early 1940s, a new generation of young actors rose to prominence. “As an actor, Devika Rani was competing with female actors who were around 13-14 years old,” says Desai. Nargis was 14 when she appeared in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943). Young Meena Kumari and Madhubala, already established as popular child actors, appeared in adult roles soon after.

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The actor with her husband Svetoslav Roerich in Kullu in the 1940s. (Photo: International Roerich Memorial Trust)

Bombay Talkies never recovered from Devika Rani’s departure. With a colossal burden of pending dues, losses, debts and taxes, it faced a public auction some years later. Chitnis wrote, “Every bit of the company was sold. Filmistan’s owner and a big industrialist bought the vacant studios.” A massive fire broke out in 2014 and another in 2018, destroying the remnants of the studio. It is now a scattering of ruins, its space taken up by manufacturing units and a dumpyard.

Indian’s first self-contained film studio, Bombay Talkies, was set up on 18 acres of land in Malad by Rai and Devika Rani in April 1934. Both shared the dream of bringing film production in India on a par with international standards; they employed German technicians, groomed young talent and gave filmmaking the dignity and professionalism it lacked.

Devika Rani was the star power of this institution and headlined 15 of its productions. “She was highly-educated and came from an illustrious family. When someone from a background like hers chose to join cinema, it encouraged many others. Acting as a career was frowned upon then. Many came from singer-dancer backgrounds. Tawaifs of that period were cultured, knowledgeable about classical music and astute businesswomen. But they were not respected,” says Desai, who is also writing a book on Devika Rani’s life, which will release next year.

“She is a woman who had everything, including a corporate studio, which was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. She contributed to scripts, set design and development of characters. Rai was more engaged in fund-raising and she took care of the studio’s artistic side. He respected the suggestions she had to offer,” says the author-playwright. Dubey finds Devika Rani’s story “contemporary” even though she quit the profession 75 years ago. “The story of her struggle to keep the studio afloat is still relevant. Things have changed in favour of women artistes today but a lot of changes are superficial,” says Dubey.

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Devika Rani with Najam-ul-Hussain in Jawani Ki Hawa. (Photo: Wirsching Foundation)

She was the foremother to actor-producers such as Anushka Sharma and Priyanka Chopra; or hard-nosed creative professionals like Ekta Kapoor and Guneet Monga. Yet, there are few “film workers” as she called herself, who can immerse themselves in every aspect of filmmaking like she did.

Devika Rani was born to Leela Devi Chaudhuri and Manmathanath Chaudhuri, the first Indian surgeon-general of Madras Presidency, on March 30, 1908, in Waltair in present-day Vishakapatnam. Rabindranath Tagore was her granduncle. When nine, she went to study at a private school in London. She got a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to pursue acting at the age of 16. After her “London Matric”, she took up applied arts, specialising in textile design, décor and architecture. In 1928, she met Rai, most likely at playwright-screenwriter Niranjan Pal’s London home. Rai, who had worked on Indo-European co-productions such as Prem Sanyas (1925) and Shiraz (1928), had gone to London to become a barrister but instead set his heart on theatre and cinema. She worked on the costume and set design for Prapancha Pash (1929), a silent movie titled A Throw of Dice in English. In 1929, Devika Rani married Rai, who was 16 years her senior and already had a daughter, Nilima, with German theatre actor Mary Hainlin.

The couple joined the UFA studio, Berlin, soon after. Rai worked as a producer while Devika Rani trained in various aspects of filmmaking. “I underwent training not to be a specialist but because Rai wished me to have all-round knowledge to help me as an artiste,” she told Filmfare in an interview after receiving the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1958. In Germany, she assisted the Eric Pommer’s production unit, studied the art of acting under director GW Pabst and became make-up assistant to actor Marlene Dietrich on the sets of The Blue Angel (1930). “I first entered as an ordinary worker and was an apprentice in the make-up, costume and sets departments. I worked under their most famous make-up man. And yet, after two years of intensive general training and tests, you were asked to forget it all, because you had become too mechanical! You were asked to become yourself,” Devika Rani said in the interview.

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The actor in the film Nirmala.

She made her acting debut in Karma (1933), which led the London newspaper Star to gush: “Devika Rani has a singular beauty which will dazzle all London.” Daily Despatch (Manchester) wrote: “Devika Rani is just about the loveliest woman who has yet graced the world’s screens.” She was 25 and already getting roles in American and Germany films. She was “elated with the prospect of becoming an international star”. But Rai, Karma’s co-producer and her co-actor, had different ideas. “We are Indians. We have our own standards of filmmaking such as they are. It is up to us to maintain those standards and to improve them by continuing to make films in our own country,” she recalled in the piece ‘Reminiscences of Devika Rani’ (Filmfare, April 1957).

If Karma cut no ice with the Indian audience, Devika Rani’s turn in Achhut Kannya (1936) brought her instant fame. The movie’s success established Bombay Talkies as a top Indian studio. Jawaharlal Nehru attended its premiere at Bombay’s Roxy theatre and was greatly moved by her appearance as the untouchable girl Kasturi. The movie’s duet song, Main ban ki chidiya, sung by Ashok Kumar and her, became hugely popular. “We sang it the way we would sing before close friends, knowing that people expected of us only what we could give them. It was, however, most satisfying to sing the songs ourselves instead of resorting to playbacks as is done now,” she wrote.

By then, though, the couple had fallen out of love. Ahead of Jeevan Naiya’s shooting, Devika Rani took off to Calcutta with her co-actor Najam-ul Hussain. Even though Rai brought her back to the studio, he refused to work with Hussain. That’s when laboratory assistant Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly was rechristened as Ashok Kumar and cast opposite her. After the success of Achhut Kannya, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar were paired together in nearly 10 movies. Most of these had strong woman characters and dealt with social realism. In Jeevan Prabhat (1937), Devika Rani played an ill-fated Brahmin woman; Nirmala (1938) explored a woman’s longing for motherhood while Durga (1939) was about an orphan. Her other successful movies included Janmabhoomi (1936), Vachan (1938), Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941).

The studio’s “meteoric” rise was attributed to Devika Rani’s charisma. Writer-director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote in Filmindia in 1939, “Devika Rani is the only star Bombay Talkies has got”. Desai believes that the studio’s biggest star was also a crucial fundraiser. “She could talk to the investors just the way people do pitches these days. I also have no doubt that a lot of financiers had a soft spot for her,” Desai says.

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Devika Rani with Ashok Kumar in Achhut Kannya.

Desai imagines Devika Rani as independent, spirited and European in her outlook towards life. “Even today, people carry on their affairs in a clandestine manner. She wanted to have this man (Hussain) in her life and she left with him, breaking all rules. This required a lot of spunk,” she says.

In his autobiography Such is Life, written before his death in 1959, Bombay Studios’ star screenwriter Niranjan Pal mentions Devika Rani having “many affairs”. Pal writes that Lord Brabourne used to travel “incognito from the Government House at Walkeshwar to Malad (to meet Devika Rani) in an unmarked motor car”.

According to artist Georg Wirsching, grandson of German cinematographer Josef Wirsching, Devika Rani was a professional who took care of the studio employees and sorted out their problems. In possession of her letters, Georg says: “My grandmother and my father Peter, then a toddler, were sent to an internment camp in Maharashtra’s Satara during World War II. She wrote to my grandmother every Christmas. She would send goodies and clothes for my father, too. She somehow managed to smuggle my grandmother’s dachshund Niki inside the camp even though pets were not allowed.”

She stared down all the criticism she received, and there was plenty. Neepa Majumdar’s book Wanted Cultured Ladies Only!: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s-1950s (2009) recounts how many felt Devika Rani’s “westernised and upper-class upbringing” made her “an unconvincing choice for a poor, untouchable village girl”. “While she was running the studio, some people, including Saadat Hasan Manto, who was a screenwriter there, thought she was not serious about work and more concerned about her appearance,” says Desai. She was also known as the ‘Dragon Lady’ apparently for “smoking, drinking and her temper”.

But only one title stuck. The late PK Nair, founder-director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune, once said: “The title ‘The First Lady of Indian screen’ will always remain with Devika Rani, who reigned supreme on the Indian screen with her radiance. She was more than a film artiste. Along with her filmmaker husband, she was the architect of Bombay Talkies.”

After her marriage with Svetoslav, Devika Rani lived in Naggar Estate in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu Valley. In later years, they spent more time at the 468-acre Tataguni Estate on the outskirts of Bengaluru, where they led a solitary life in a colonial-style home close to a lake. Their home was filled with paintings, exquisite artefacts and collectibles. But, even if away from the limelight, theirs was no happily ever after. Their final years were fraught with insecurities and worries as they were cheated by a personal assistant.

In 1989, they moved to a suite in Bengaluru’s Hotel Ashoka where they would spend their remaining years. Devika Rani passed away on March 9, 1994, 14 months after Svetoslav’s death in January 30, 1993. Though the government has now acquired the estate after a long legal wrangle, their wish to convert it into a museum and art gallery is yet to be fulfilled.

In September 1992, Newstrack interviewed Devika Rani, then 83, and Svetoslav, 89, in a hotel room filled with rows of medicine bottles. A frail Devika Rani, who was assisted by a nurse, was in a pink silk sari. With her fringes intact, her hair was tied in a bun with gajra. Throughout the interview, she held Svetoslav’s hand while he mostly remained silent. Her mind wandered, at times.

But she was not ready to give up without a fight. “Why shouldn’t I have my home? My money, my land, my house…ridiculous you know. If anybody interferes with my life, they may have a hard time of it,” she said. At that point, the Karnataka government had plans to take over the estate. When asked what she would do if the government passed an ordinance to acquire the paintings and the estate, she answered: “What will I do? I will kick them out.” The help would come from “the prime minister”, believed the actor, who once shared a warm relationship with Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Her husband, too, hoped that the government would “safeguard” their property, which was being eyed by land sharks and the personal assistant who they had blindly trusted.

“Life is so complicated. It is impossible to describe it. Long life…too long. One shouldn’t live so long. They trouble us so much (lawyers and officials). One day, they write something in the paper and the next day something else. What’s the use? Who will benefit from this?” she says in the interview. Then she adds: “One day, I will disappear. Nobody will know where I am.”

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This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Leading Star’