Kanan Devi, a popular singer and actress and the earliest female star of Bengali cinema, was born on 22 April 1916 in Bengal.
Since her family’s finances were not good, Kanan had to enter the world of cinema—then still called bioscope in some quarters—when she was just 10, at a time when it was highly unusual for females to be part of the entertainment industry.
Her father, Ratan Chandra Das, passed away when she was quite young.
In an interview later she recalled the humiliating poverty of her childhood: “We wore rags and worked without complaining in return for food and shelter. We were treated like animals. Then one day something happened which, as far as I was concerned, was the last straw. My mother was bitterly humiliated for breaking a saucer and I couldn’t bear it.”
Her first role was in the silent Bengali film Joydeb, which was produced by Calcutta’s Madan Theatres. She was reportedly paid a princely sum of five rupees for this. She soon appeared in other roles that were bold by the standards of those days. Her films with Madan Theatres included Rishir Prem, Bishnumaya and Prahlad. Between 1933 and 1936 she worked with Radha Films.
Her role in the 1935 film Manmayee Girls School made her famous. As her popularity grew, she joined the New Theatres on a much better salary.
Meanwhile, her musical talents were also recognised. She sang for companies such as HMV, Columbia and Megaphone. Her musical trainers included people like Kaji Najrul Islam and Gyan Datta. She recorded hit songs for Megaphone.
She starred in seven Hindi films, including Vidyapati and Jawani ki Reet, most of which did well at the box office. Teaming up with the legendary K.L. Saigal, she gave several hit songs that remained very popular on the All India Radio for several decades.
She later worked with MP Productions and eventually set up her own production house called Shrimati Pictures.
She married Ashok Maitra in 1940, but the marriage ended in divorce.
The Shrimati banner was a joint effort of Kanan and Haridas Bhattacharya, a naval officer she married in 1949, and 11 films were made under it. In the latter half of the 1960s, however, the husband and wife ended their cinematic venture, and following that Kanan’s direct association with the film world ended.
Because of her popularity and talent, Kanan Devi got to know many national leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Krishna Menon. She continued to remain a public figure through the 1970s and 1980s, helping in charities and various causes. She received the Padma Shree and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (the highest award for excellence in cinema in India).
Kanan Devi died on 17 July 1992 in Calcutta. She was 76.
The Independent wrote in its obituary: “[Kanan Devi] was the legendary glamour queen of Indian cinema for almost three decades. She redefined social norms to give respectability to women actors. . . . Acknowledged as the first lady of Bengali cinema, Devi declined lucrative offers to move to Bombay, India’s movie capital, choosing instead to retire gracefully at the apogee of her career.”
Also on this day:
1760 — Akbar II, the penultimate Mughal emperor of India and father of Bahadur Shah Zafar, was born
1965 — Atul Kasbekar, Indian fashion photographer, was born
1974 — Chetan Bhagat, Indian writer, was born