The life and times of Devika Rani: Kishwar Desai on the fame, struggles of one of Hindi cinema's first heroines
Devika Rani's contributions to the pioneering studio Bombay Talkies went beyond acting. She took full control of it following the death of Himansu Rai, her husband.
Bombay Talkies, set up in 1934 by producer Himansu Rai and Devika Rani, was a pioneering film studio which revolutionised filmmaking in India. Apart from giving a space to actors and directors like Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Raj Kapoor to hone their skills, the studio also lent a sense of refinement to Indian cinema by bringing people from sophisticated quarters into the talkies.
One of the reasons for Bombay Talkies' immortalisation in the history of Indian cinema was Devika Rani herself — the face of the studio and the glamorous heroine of the films produced in its initial years. In the 1930s and '40s, movies like Achhut Kanya, Jawaani Ki Hawa and Jeevan Naiya earned Rani immense glory and popularity.
Her contribution to Bombay Talkies, however, went beyond acting. A great-grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, she played an important role in the very functioning of the studio, and took full control of it following the death of Himansu Rai, who was her first husband. She continued to produce cinema that was exceedingly well received. Like Rai, she had a sharp eye for talent, and actors like Dilip Kumar and Hansa Wadkar, who debuted under her, would have legacies of their own in the decades to come.
Her enigmatic and mesmerising presence on screen was reflected in her life's story, which was filled with intrigue and moments of darkness. Jealousy and insecurity engulfed her relationship with Rai, and she continued to suffer abuse and insults for a long time in their marriage.
Rani was as vulnerable as she was audacious, and one can find the threads of her most intimate thoughts in the letters she wrote to her second husband, the Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich. These correspondences with Roerich, coupled with interactions with her associates at Bombay Talkies, form the crux of Kishwar Desai’s latest book, The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani.
After the success of her 2019 play, Devika Rani: Goddess of the Silver Screen, the author now breathes new life into Rani’s words. In a story that oscillates between flashbacks and the present, between letters and prose, Desai unravels the dearest and most private moments of the actor’s struggle and stardom.
Desai, who has previously authored Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, explored the archives of Bombay Talkies and the legacy left behind by Rani herself, to create a timeline of her life and that of early Indian cinema. Her book highlights the work of filmmakers in pre-Independence India, and the part women had to play in the establishment of the Hindi film industry.
In a telephonic interview with Firstpost, the author of The Longest Kiss discussed the process of piecing together Rani’s narrative, how the actor took control of Bombay Talkies after Rai’s death, and her life after she quit the movies. Listen to the interview here:
Kishwar Desai's The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani has been published by Westland.
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