Devika Rani is still remembered even today as the first lady of the Indian screen. Born in 1907 or 1908, the grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, she left for London in the 1920s to study among other things, architecture. There she met Himansu Rai and agreed to assist in designing the sets of his new film, A Throw Of Dice (1929). The two got married and after marriage they left for Germany where Rai made A Throw of Dice in collaboration with Germany’s famous UFA Studio.
Subsequently, Rai made a bilingual Hindi-English film based on romance among royals. Karma aka Nagan ki Ragini/Fate aka Song of Serpent (1933) with Devika Rani in the lead. The film in its English version premiered in London in May 1933. Though the response to the film was mixed, English audiences took to Devika Rani in a big way. In fact, the News Chronicle gushed, “She totally eclipses the ordinary film star.”
Rai and Devika Rani decided that India was to be their future. They brought Nagan ki Ragini with them, premiering the film in Bombay on January 27, 1934. The same year, they set up the famous Bombay Talkies Studio in Malad, then on the outskirts of Bombay. Under the painstaking supervision of Himansu Rai, it purchased the most modern equipment from Germany. Franz Osten, director and a handful of technicians came down from England and Germany including cinematographer Josef Wirsching. By 1935, stream of Hindi productions began to emerge from Bombay Talkies Ltd. beginning with Jawani ki Hawa (1935), a murder mystery. Devika Rani played the lead in most of these early productions. Their films were of a high technical standard and had a glossy look to them reminiscent of the films of MGM. (Devika Rani was lit up in a manner not unlike Greta Garbo!)
Devika Rani formed a highly successful team with Ashok Kumar, which ironically started due to a scandal as she eloped with her hero of Jawani ki Hawa, Najam-ul-Hussain. Rai found her and got her to come back and forgave her but not Hussain and Bombay Talkies Ltd. needed a new leading man. Rai’s eyes fell on his laboratory assistant, Ashok Kumar.
The two of them starred in a series of films starting with Jeevan Naiya (1936) but it was Achhut Kannya (1936), which capitulated Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar to big time fame. The love story between an untouchable girl and a Brahmin boy was both a critical and commercial success with critics going in raptures over Devika’s performance. The Times of India described her acting as,“a performance never seen or equalled on the Indian screen. It is absolutely inspired, a real gem of pure acting which places her at the head of India’s screen stars, which Garbo herself could hardly surpass.”
Going with the trend, she even sang her own songs in films with Main Ban ki Chidiya, a duet with Ashok Kumar, from Achhut Kannya remembered fondly by old timers till today. In fact, Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani did a string of films together including Janma Bhoomi (1936), Savitri (1937), Izzat (1937), Nirmala (1938) and Vachan (1938). The last film to co-star them was Anjaan (1941). Her last film as an actress though was Hamari Baat (1943).
When Rai died in 1940, Devika Rani took over the reins at Bombay Talkies. Among her discoveries at Bombay Talkies was future superstar Dilip Kumar. But eventually the economics of filmmaking and tussles with other studio executives led her to take voluntary retirement from films in 1945. She married famed Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and stayed at their huge estate near Bangalore in South India. She remained in Bangalore till her death on 9th of March, 1994.
Devika Rani was the first ever recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1970 for her invaluable contribution to Indian cinema.