Devika Rani is still remembered even today as the ‘first lady’ of the Indian screen. She was the biggest film star of her time in India and the driving force behind the early films of the legendary Bombay Talkies film studio.
Born in Waltair, now Vishakapatnam, on the 30th of March, 1908, her pedigree was impeccable. She was the grand niece of the great Rabindranath Tagore and her father, Col MN Chaudhury, was the first Surgeon General of Madras. Befitting her privileged upbringing, Rani was sent for her education to England, when just 9. There, she studied at the South Hampstead High School and while still in her teens, she got a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at London. Simultaneously, she also studied Architecture, Décor and Design. In UK, she met barrister-turned -filmmaker filmmaker Himansu Rai at a party which changed her life forever. The two became a couple and after marriage, they left for Germany where Rai made A Throw of Dice (1929) in collaboration with Germany’s famous UFA Studio. Rani assisted Rai’s cousin, Promode Rai, on the art direction of the film.
UFA opened up a whole new world for Rani. Training there in different departments of filmmaking, she came into contact with iconoclastic directors like GW Pabst and actors like Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. She also trained under theatre director Max Reinhardt and being fluent with German, assisted with make up and costumes on film sets. It is said that she carried Marlene Dietrich’s make up box during the filming of Blue Angel (1930) with Dietrich starring opposite Jannings, the first ever Oscar winner in the Best Actor category.
By now, Rani had blossomed into a confident, modern woman and a true beauty. It was but natural that she come in front of the camera. in 1933, Rai made a Hindi/English bilingual called Karma/Nagan Ki Ragini in Hindi and Fate/Song Of Serpant in English. He cast Devika Rani as the female lead with himself opposite her. However, the British response to the English version of the film, based on the love story of a Prince and a Maharani from a neighbouring state was tepid at best. Still, The Star, London did praise her performance in the film saying, “Go and hear English spoken by Miss Devika Rani. You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction or see a lovelier face. Devika Rani has a singular beauty which will dazzle all London.”
Rather than continue making films on ‘exotic India’ abroad, Rai and Rani decided to turn their attention back home to the developing film industry India. Rai and Devika Rani set up the famous Bombay Talkies Studio in a distant suburb of Bombay, Malad, in 1934. Under the painstaking supervision of Himansu Rai, it purchased the most modern equipment from Germany. Franz Osten, director, Josef Wirsching, cinematographer, and a handful of other key technicians came down from England and Germany to give Bombay Talkies that technical edge in their productions. By 1935, a stream of Hindi films began to emerge from Bombay Talkies Ltd beginning with Jawani ki Hawa (1935), a murder mystery set on a train. Devika Rani, naturally, 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 at Bombay Talkies, which ironically started when she eloped with her hero of Jawani ki Hawa, Najam-ul-Hussain. Rai found her in Calcutta and got her to come back but not Hussain and Bombay Talkies Ltd now 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 went on to do 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). These films largely centred around Rani with Kumar being the ideal supporting hero for her.
Devika Rani continued acting till 1943, her last film being Hamari Baat but by now Bombay Talkies had other leading ladies on its roster – Leela Chitnis and Renuka Devi to name just two. And since Himansu Rai’s shocking and untimely death in 1940, she had also taken over the reins at Bombay Talkies giving the studio two major hits as controller of production – Basant (1942), starring Ulhas, Mumtaz Shanti and Madhubala as a child actor, and Kismet (1943) with Ashok Kumar and Shanti, which ran for an incredible three and a half years in Calcutta. Among her discoveries at Bombay Talkies was Dilip Kumar, whom she launched in Jwar Bhata (1944).
Meanwhile, amidst the growing politics in the studio, a rival group led by Ashok Kumar and Sashadhar Mukerji broke away from Bombay Talkies to form another studio, Filmistan, while changes in the functioning of the studio system and the advent of freelancing made it extremely difficult to go on running the company with its huge overhead costs. Rani was also getting disillusioned by what she considered the overtly commercial shape the Indian film industry was taking and was finding no takers for her future plans for Bombay Talkies, which included the establishing of a modern color laboratory. Finally, the economics of filmmaking and tussles with other studio executives led her to take voluntary retirement in 1945. The same year, Rani got married to famed Russian painter, Svetoslav Roerich. The couple initially settled down in Manali in Himachal Pradesh where, it is said, she dabbled in making wildlife documentaries, before acquiring land at the outskirts of Bangalore in South India, where she managed an export company. A film, Anyay (1949), putting together a series of scenes from her older Bombay Talkies films, did release in this period to remind the film going public of her existence and of her contribution to the world of Hindi cinema.
Though she had bid adieu from the film industry, Devika Rani nevertheless organized the first ever seminar held between the Indian Government and a group of filmmakers in 1955, which was addressed by Jawaharlal Nehru. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958 and on November 21, 1970, she became the first ever recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award, a recognition of her invaluable contribution to Indian cinema in its developing years.
Devika Rani remained in Bangalore till her death on the 9th of March, 1994.