Lillete Dubey's new play on Devika Rani explores life of the trailblazing 'First Lady of Indian Cinema'
Devika Rani, also known as the 'First Lady of Indian cinema', was a game-changer for women in the Indian film industry. She was ambitious, independent, and had co-founded the Bombay Talkies studio in Mumbai.
Devika Rani was a trailblazing actor, a game-changer for the perception of women in Indian cinema.
Bombay Talkies (co-founded by Devika) was innovating with the type of films they made: highlighting social issues and being largely female-led, many by Devika herself.
When she quit at the age of 36, Devika Rani had already achieved immeasurable success in Indian cinema.
Bombay, 1934 — a city shimmering in the glitz of a young Bollywood, with the discipline of cinema having only recently seeped into Indian popular culture. In Malad, a new film studio was being set up. It was called 'Bombay Talkies'. Co-founded by Devika Rani and her first husband, Himanshu Rai, the London-return couple were looking to radically change Indian cinema. “I knew we were doing something totally new. Something engrossingly exciting. I took my work very seriously. All of us did,” says Devika in an interview.
The couple first met at thespian Niranjan Pal’s London residence, where Devika (born in 1908) was a house guest, while studying on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Pal recalls her as being “a sweet little kid who mostly wore simple frocks”. Beneath the charm, she was already fiercely independent. Although the grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore and from an influential family, she made her way through London all by herself, finding a job, and later even breaking into the world of cinema independently. “She was very gutsy for her time,” says Kishwar Desai, playwright of the upcoming Lillete Dubey directed play, Devika Rani: Goddess of the Silver Screen.
It was Devika’s ambition that coaxed her into joining “an industry which was not very well appreciated, especially where women were concerned, because that was the time when people were very cautious about sending girls from good families into cinema. They felt that only women from a certain background go there,” explains Desai. Later, seeing her at a film party, Pal says that she had “transformed into a glamour girl… Complete with cigarette-holder in her mouth and clothed in an exquisite sari,” while also freely consuming alcohol and flaunting herself with all the nonchalance of an eighteen year old.
While still at Pal’s residence, Devika met Himanshu Rai, almost 15 years older to her, and already married. Well established and critically acclaimed as a director, he presumably swept her off her feet with his cinematic and artistic brilliance. Rai eventually became her mentor, and she started assisting him on set, working hard throughout her rigorous apprenticeship under him. Devika was ambitious and focused about what she wanted in life, “always very clear that she wanted fame and money and recognition,” says Ira Dubey, who plays Devika in the upcoming play.
She married Rai in 1929, and the two shared an intriguing relationship, with the professional seeping deep into the personal. She mentions that “he was more like a father-figure,” and a strict disciplinarian, besides being a womaniser. And yet, “she stuck on with this guy. Their dream was more important, what they were trying to do was more important,” Ira informs. Rationality and clear-headedness were inherent to her being, and she focused single-mindedly on absorbing as much as she could, eager to learn and excel at all that lay in front of her.
Moving from production to acting was a big step for Devika, and “she resisted it a lot. She really wanted to be sure that this was the right decision for her… And Himanshu was instrumental in pushing her towards that,” Ira says. Rai had cast an educated woman in his previous silent film A Throw of Dice, which was the last straw for Devika. “She was almost jealous of her,” the actor mentions, for being branded the first educated woman to act in Indian cinema. “He [Rai] probably did it deliberately,” she adds, explaining their artistic bond. “She was very fearless. Once she realised she had an opportunity, she grabbed it."
Later, in 1933, she starred in Karma opposite Rai, also making history with their four-minute-long on-screen kiss.
Devika had followed Rai to India, given his patriotism and belief in the arts to change society. The two, by founding Bombay Talkies, were setting a new tone for Indian cinema, bringing to India sophisticated world-class production practices and inviting notable collaborators like German filmmaker Franz Osten. “It was our aim to attract the best element in Indian society, with an educated and cultured background, to produce the highest type of art," Devika said.
Bombay Talkies, besides the way they made films, was also innovating with the type of films they made: highlighting social issues and being largely female-led, many being helmed by Devika herself. “That was very, very modern and forward thinking for that time,” Ira says. In essence, professionally, with her precision and expertise, Devika was pioneering female-led cinema, making the upper classes notice Bollywood, presenting cinema that was worth their studied attention.
On the other hand, in the personal front, while shooting for the film Jawani Ki Hawa, she eloped with her co-star Najmul Hussain. Rai later met with her and succeeded in convincing her to return, her agreement stemming perhaps more from professional allure than marital love. In her return, she was probably being practical and calculating, and as this article explains “It is perhaps a little doubtful if she had felt any genuine emotional pull towards her husband”.
“She was not a woman who followed her heart. She was a very practical, very ambitious woman. And when she did follow her heart, it got her in hot water,” Ira mentions. Challenging as it might have been for her to return, she held her head high in public. “Despite whatever she had done in her public life, she did not lose her dignity. Because she was excellent at what she was doing, so it was very difficult for people to put her down,” says Desai.
Naturally, Rai did not want Hussain in the film anymore, and under pressure, turned to and coaxed a young man from the processing laboratory to take the lead – and so Ashok Kumar started acting. He and Devika were a popular pair, and went on to co-star in hits like Achhut Kannya and Jeevan Naiya among others.
By this point, Devika Rani hadn’t just established herself as one of Bollywood’s finest actresses, but also lodged herself as a milestone in the history of the industry itself. “I think she was an extremely intelligent woman, so like all very bright people she could excel at everything,” says Desai. In time, she would come to be known as the ‘First Lady of Indian Cinema’. She was Bollywood’s reigning queen, and this image was cemented by Esther Abraham, better known as Pramila, one of her contemporaries, in a letter she wrote to Devika in 1942:
… I am proud to say that you have shown that a lady in India too can be entirely capable of holding supreme sway. We can now say without hesitation that we have a Queen in our midst. Devika – women – all women should be proud that you have won your way… Will it be taking too great a liberty to say that you are an Elizabeth or a Victoria and like them will wave aside all obstacles… I have always been your admirer and on screen you are still my first favourite.”
Devika Rani was a trailblazer and a game-changer for the perception of women in Indian cinema, and was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958. She was also the recipient of the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cinema in 1970. Privately, it seems “people called her the 'Dragon Lady'. She used to apparently curse a lot, smoke cigarettes, be very brazen. She used to be very outspoken, so that’s not the Devika you see on screen,” explains Ira, and adds, “She always lived her life on her own terms, she didn’t give a damn about anything people said about her, and how people perceived her… and she did try to change the system”.
Besides acting, she also single-handedly ran Bombay Talkies after Rai’s death in 1940. On a day like any other in 1945 however, she announced her resignation through a casual note: “From today onwards, I have nothing to do with the company. Take your own decisions…it is my au revoir to the company”. When she quit at the age of 36, Devika Rani had achieved immeasurable success in Indian cinema. “She had given a lot of herself, a lot of her soul… And she had nothing left to prove,” Ira says.
Still, with a long life ahead of her, in 1945, she married the Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich. They spent their days first on the hill-station of Kulu, where she made wildlife documentaries, later moving to the sprawling Tataguni Estate on the outskirts of Bangalore. The two were generous patrons of the arts and active cultural giants, organising conferences, exhibitions, and heading numerous cultural organisations.
Only two years before she passed away in 1994, in an interview in 1992, discussing the controversy surrounding ownership of their estate, Devika — though tuning in and less lucid — is still resplendent, with a full face of makeup, gajra in her hair, and a bright pink sari. Ever practical, she asserts she’ll kick out anyone that tries to take her home away from her. The couple share an evidently amiable bond, with her hand resting on her husband's through most of the interview.
Towards the end, however, she asks, “Is love real?”
"No", she answers a few seconds later.
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