Devika Rani : The First Lady of Indian Cinema


Devika Rani

Devika Rani

1920s – The era was evidently much more conservative and orthodox if compared to today’s world. But Indian cinema got its ‘First Lady’ during this time only. She was the first ‘Dadasheb Phalke Award Winner’, the first woman to own a studio in Bombay, the first ever heroine on-screen, one of the first foreign educated architect, an apprentice under the famous Elizabeth Arden, one of the first female set designer and also a distinguished singer during the initial non-playback days.

This enchanting and fascinating lady who only did set records throughout her life is none other than Devika Rani Chaudhury. She was bold enough to leave India and pursue her academics in Britain during the orthodox period . Also her filmy career marked its inception in the distant country of Germany! And mind it, we are talking about the era of 1920s!

Devika Rani was born on 30th of March 1908 in Vishakhapatnam (previously Waltair) to Col. M. N. Chaudhury and Leela Chaudhury. Her lineage connects her to the Tagore family, making her the grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore. Her father was the first Indian to become a Surgeon General in Madras (currently Chennai).

After completing her schooling from India, she opted to learn drama and music from abroad. By the early 1920s, she left India for London where she studied at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art and Music. She is also known to be holding degrees in architecture, textile and designing decors.

A Journey from Germany to India:

By the mid 1920s, she came in touch with Himanshu Rai, an eminent Indian filmmaker who was producing budding film projects with German association under the banner of Great Eastern Film Corporations and Germany’s M√ľnchner Lichtspielkunst AG (presently known as Bavaria Films in Munich and is currently one of the largest film production companies of Europe). His first brilliant piece produced under this joint banner had been the movie ‘Light of Asia’ which was directed by German director Franz Osten in 1925.

Light of Asia or Prem Sanyas (Die Leuchte Asiens in German) was shot extensively in Lahore and the set decoration for the film was designed by none other than Devika Rani. Although the actors in the movie were Indians but almost the entire crew consisted of Germans.

Himanshu Rai later co-produced other movies like ‘Shiraz’ in 1928 and a ‘Throw of Dice’ in 1929. The films were distributed by German, US and UK distributors and were huge successes across the globe. It was the first attempt by an Indian filmmaker to produce and present Indian feature film at the international market.

During this tenure, Devika Rani trained herself at world’s most famous studios including UFA. She also polished her acting skills under the famous German director, Pabst.

In 1929, she married Himanshu Rai. Owing to the growing tension in Germany with Hitler’s rise, the couple decided to return back to India and build up their own production studio. Soon, by 1934, Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai founded the infamous Bombay Talkies, which became India’s primary centre for filmmaking.

Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai

Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai

In 1933, the husband-wife duo, made the ever ‘talked about’ movie ‘Karma’. Both Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani shared screen space in the movie. Even after eight long decades, ‘Karma’ still is a shocking piece of brave cinema that was made in 1933. The reasons for Karma’s being a ‘shocking’ and yet a ‘brave’ piece of art can be cited as below:

  • It was the first Indian film which was made in English
  • The first Indian film which had one English song sung by Devika Rani as a playback singer.
  • It was a joint production of Indo-International Talkies Ltd. at Bombay and Indian & British Productions Ltd. at London.
  • It was directed by J. L. Freer-Hunt and was the first ever Indian film to premiere in London.
  • The film received immense appreciation from western critics and marked India’s first international success.
  • The film featured a four minute kissing sequence between Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai that passed through the censor board in the orthodox era of 1933. The film was shot at the Stoll Studios in London and also in eminent palaces and outdoor locations in India.

It was neither expected nor desired by the social gurus in India, to watch Devika Rani taking the drastic and daring step and going unconventionally bold on screen in presence of the prevailing stringent social norms in the country. This surely proves that the lady in question was distinct and an individual with total contrasting traits from the rest at the contemporary period.

Foundation of Bombay Talkies:

Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya

Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya

In 1935, under the banner of Bombay Talkies, she acted in ‘Jawani Ki Hawa’. In 1936, Bombay Talkies gifted Indian cinema with Ashok Kumar, who was the first leading star of India on real terms. Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar acted with each other in movies like ‘Jeevan Naiya’, ‘Achoot Kanya’, ‘Izzat’, ‘Janmabhoomi’, ‘Savitri’ and ‘Anjaan’

She further acted in other movies like ‘Durga’, and ‘Humaari Baat’. ‘Humaari Baat’ also starred the ‘show man of India’, Raj Kapoor.

Devika Rani also sang songs like ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya Banke’, ‘Udhi Hawaa Mein Gaati Hai’, ‘Khet Ki Mooli Baag Ko Aam’ from ‘Achoot Kanya’ under the guidance of the first ever female music composer of India, Saraswati Devi.

A Clip of Devika Rani Dancing from the movie "Miya Bibi' (Always Tell Your Wife) [Image Courtsey: Outlook India]

A Clip from the movie ‘Miya Bibi’ (Always Tell Your Wife) [Image Courtesy: Outlook India]

In 1936, under the direction of Franz Osten she acted in ‘Miya Bibi’ ( Always Tell Your Wife).

She also lent her voice to ‘Bharne De Mohe Neer’, ‘Kit Jaaoge Kanhaiya’ from ‘Izzat’ in 1937.

Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar during the filming of 'Izzat' [Image Courtsey: Outlook India]

Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar during the filming of ‘Izzat’ [Image Courtesy: Outlook India]

Most of the movies made under the banner of Bombay Talkies were directed by Himanshu Rai’s old associate from Germany, Franz Osten. However, as the First World War broke out, Franz Osten was sent back from India by the British forces. This development came as a big blow to Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani.

Downfall and Rise Again:

On 16th of May 1940, Himanshu Rai breathed his last. Devika Rani struggled to get control of the Bombay Talkies. Sashadhar Mukherjee, one of the co-founders of Bombay Talkies, finally parted away from the partnership to form Filmistan Studios which later became a direct competitor of Bombay Talkies. Evidently, it became hard to run the studio alone for the lady!

After Himanshu Rai’s demise, Devika Rani, as a producer continued to give successful stories to Bombay Talkies. In 1942, she launched the ever exquisite Madhubala in ‘Basant’, made under the banner of Bombay Talkies.

In 1943, Bombay Talkies had its biggest box-office success ever. Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz starred ‘Kismet’ became a huge box office success and the movie continued to run at the theatres of Calcutta for three long years.

Devika Rani is till date credited for her discovery of Dilip Kumar, whom she launched in ‘Jwar Bhata’ in 1944. Introduced to her by her secretary Guruswami, Dilip Kumar was trained and groomed in Bombay Talkies, who later turned out to be a star of such magnitude.

In 1945, she married the famous Russian painter (Padma Bhushan), Svetoslav Roerich, whose paintings of Nehru and Indira Gandhi still reside in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament. She left the film industry forever and moved to the city of Bangalore after her marriage.

Devika Rani with Svetoslav Roerich (Left). Devika Rani with Svetoslav Roerich and Indira Gandhi (Right) [Image Courtsey: The Hindu]

Devika Rani with Svetoslav Roerich (Left). Devika Rani with Svetoslav Roerich and Indira Gandhi (Right) [Image Courtesy: The Hindu]

In 1954, Bombay Talkies was shut down marking the end of a historical era.

Outstanding Achievements:

Devika Rani with Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru

Devika Rani with Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru

  • After Karma’s release, Devika Rani was invited by the BBC at London. She had been the first Indian to act in Britain’s first television broadcast and was also requested to inaugurate BBC’s first shortwave length broadcast to India.
  • Devika Rani was awarded the Padmashree by the Govt. Of India in 1958.
  • She was the first in India to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1969.
  • She was appointed as a member in the Central Government Audio Visual Education Board.
  • She was the official nominee of the Indian Government for the Board of National Academy of Dance, Drama, Music and Films and the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
  • She was again appointed as a member of the National Academy (Executive Board), Lalit Kala Akademi and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
  • She was given state honours after her demise in 1994.

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