One of the first female stars of Indian cinema, the glamorous Devika Rani was born to a Bengali family in what is now Visakhapatnam on 30 March 1908. She died on 9 March 1994.
Devika Rani was related to the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Her father, M.N. Chaudhuri, was a senior medical office in the British army. She studied music and acting at London and the Royal Academy of Music, following that up with degrees in textile design and architecture. For some time she worked in an art studio as a designer. A 1928 meeting with Himanshu Rai, a pioneering Indian filmmaker-actor, led her to the world of films.
Himanshu Rai was a co-producer of the 1926 film ‘The Light of Asia’, an Indo-German collaboration that had been listed in the top 10 films of the year by The Times. He almost immediately fell in love with Devika Rani and urged her to help in the set design of the film ‘A Throw of Dice, which was shot in Rajasthan in 1929. However, her name did not appear in the credits.
Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai married in 1929. The couple later trained at the prestigious UFA film studio in Germany. The husband and wife worked together in their first talkie, the 1933 film ‘Karma’, which was shot in English and Hindi. The film wowed critics in Britain, many of whom were besotted with Devika Rani’s charm. The Daily Mail, for instance, raved about the “beauty of her face, the grace of her gestures, and the cultured modulations of her voice” that would “place her apart from the ordinary cinema star”.
The film also featured the first kiss on the Indian screen between the lead pair.
Looking back at ‘Karma’ in January 2009 in The Hindu, Ziya Us Salam wrote: “Karma…shows India like never before. The Indo-German-British collaboration relates a predictable tale of a princess falling in love with a neighbouring prince despite parental disapproval.…However, it is not in storytelling but cinematography that Karma scores….The long shots of palaces, the close-up of the headgear of men, the camera sneaking in to capture the rich embroidery on the women’s lehengas, dupattas, even pearls suitably added to blouses! Also, the canvas is impressive, with some of the shots of horses and elephants in battle gear particularly striking.”
After ‘Karma’, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani set up the famous Bombay Talkies in 1934. Besides the duo, the financier and businessman Rajnarayan Dube was instrumental in creating what was India’s first public limited film company. It was professionally run and well-managed and launched the career of some great names in Hindi cinema such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar.
When Devika Rani became romantically involved with her co-star in the Bombay Talkies production ‘Jeevan Naiya’, Himanshu Rai dismissed him and give the role to a hitherto unknown man — thus launching the career of Ashok Kumar.
As author and columnist Kishwar Desai wrote in The Indian Express in March 2008: “Men kept falling in love with her and on one occasion during Himanshu’s lifetime, she ran off with her ‘Jeevan Naiya’ co-star, Najamul Hussain, to Calcutta. The humiliated Himanshu persuaded her to return to him and Bombay Talkies, even though she had already negotiated to join another production house. The problem was that while Himanshu could not imagine life or cinema without her, she could imagine both without him.”
Subsequently, Devika Rani starred with Ashok Kumar in the 1936 film ‘Achhut Kanya’, directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten who often collaborated with Himanshu Rai. A love story between an upper caste man and a lower caste woman, it was a huge hit and is considered to be a landmark in the history of Indian cinema. Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar did other films together including ‘Izzat’, ‘Savitri’ and ‘Nirmala’.
After Himanshu Rai’s death in 1940, Devika Rani struggled to take control of Bombay Talkies but after marrying the Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich in 1945 she left the film industry. She stayed with her husband, dividing her time between their estate in Bangalore and residence in Kulu. In 1969 Devika Rani became the first person to be honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
She also held several positions including member of the National Academy of Dance, Drama, Music and Films; the Sangeet Natak Akademi; and the Lalit Kala Akademi.
Roerich died on 30 January 1993. Devika Rani died a year later.
In an obituary in The Independent, Madhulika Varma wrote: “Rani’s greatest achievement was that she sold cinema as an art form to the essentially puritanical upper-crust Indians. Before she became an actress, girls from Bombay’s red light areas filled in as actresses because girls from decent homes didn’t wear lipstick, let alone prance before a movie camera. So when Devika Rani, Rabindranath Tagore’s great-niece and daughter of India’s first surgeon-general, chose to make a career in films, it brought a certain respectability to the medium.”
Also on this day:
1930 — Soli Sorabjee, jurist and Attorney-General ofIndia, was born
1931 — Karan Singh, union minister and senior politician, was born
1951 — Zakir Hussain, tabla maestro, was born
1956 — Shashi Tharoor, Congress leader and union minister, was born
1970 — Naveen Jindal, industrialist and Congress politician, was born
1971 — K. Asif, Hindi film director and producer, passed away
2012 — Joy Mukherjee, Hindi film actor, passed away