Devika Rani, c. 1933
|Born||Devika Rani Chaudhuri
March 30, 1908
Vizagapatam, Madras Presidency, British India
|Died||March 9, 1994
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
|Other names||Devika Rani Roerich|
Devika Rani Chaudhuri (30 March 1908 – 9 March 1994) was an actress in Indian films who was active during the 1930s. Widely acknowledged as the first leading lady of Indian cinema, Devika Rani had a successful film career that spanned across 10 years.
Born to M. N. Chaudhuri, India's first surgeon-general, Devika Rani's childhood was mostly spent in London. She studied architecture, and started her career as a textile engineer before entering the film industry. In 1928, she met Himanshu Rai, an Indian film-producer, who persuaded her to join his production crew. Devika Rani accepted the invite, and accompanied Rai for his film A Throw of Dice (1929) by assisting in areas such as costumes design and art direction. The two subsequently married in 1929, and went to Germany where Devika Rani had enrolled in the UFA Studios in Berlin where she got to learn different aspects of film-making. Rai then cast her as the leading lady in the 1933 talkie Karma. After the release of the film, the couple returned to India and established their production studio Bombay Talkies in 1934. Under the studio, they produced many women-centric films throughout the decade.
Following Rai's death in 1940, Rani took over the control of the studio. At the peak of her career in 1945, she married Svetoslav Roerich and retired from films. Rani's awards include the Padmashri (1958), Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1970) and the Soviet Land Nehru award (1989).
Born in a Bengali family in Waltair (now Visakhapatnam), Rani was the great-grandniece of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Her father, Col. M. N. Chaudhuri, was the first Indian Surgeon-General of Madras. Her mother's name was Leela. Devika Rani's maternal grandmother Indumati Devi was the daughter of Tagore's elder sister Saudamini Devi; thus Devika Rani is related matrilineally to him. Her paternal uncles were Justice Sir Ashutosh Chaudhuri, Barrister Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri, and Bengali writer Pramatha Chaudhuri.
Rani was brought up in England where she completed her schooling in the early 1920s. She got admissions from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and the Royal Academy of Music in London to study acting and music. She followed that with a course on architecture, textile and decor design, and apprenticed under Elizabeth Arden. Upon completion, she started her career as textile engineer.
In 1928, she met Himanshu Rai, an Indian silent-film maker, during the time when he was planning for his next film A Throw of Dice. Impressed with her, Rai persuaded Devika Rani to join his production team to which she readily agreed. She went to India along with Rai and worked on the Indo-German-England production Throw of Dice by assisting in areas such as costume designing and art direction. Shortly after the release of the film, she married Rai in 1929. The couple went to Germany for the post-production work, where she happened to witness the making of films of German film-makers G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang. Inspired by their way of film-making, she enrolled herself for a film-making course in UFO studio in Berlin. While in the studio, she got an opportunity to learn various aspects of film-making in addition to a special course on acting. During this time, Devika Rani acted in a play alongside her husband for which they received many accolades in Switzerland and other Scandinavian countries. She also apprenticed in the production unit of Max Reinhardt, an Austrian theatre director.
Debut success and partnership with Himanshu Rai
Devika Rani and Rai returned to India to produce a film titled Karma. The film was Rai's first talkie and like his previous film it was a joint production among India, Germany and United Kingdom. Rai cast his wife Devika Rani as the female lead thus marking her acting debut. Karma was one of the earliest Indian films to feature a kissing scene—between Rai and Devika Rani. Known to be the longest such scene for a film in Indian cinema, it lasted for about four minutes. Made in English and Hindi, the film was first released in London in May 1933. Besides a special screening for the Royal family at Windsor, the film was well received wherever it was released in Europe. Devika Rani's performance was internationally acclaimed as she won "rave reviews" in the London media. Apart from playing the lead role, she also recorded a song—both in English and Hindi.
A critic from The Daily Telegraph noted her "beauty" and "charm" while also credited her as a "potential star of the first magnitude". She was invited by the B.B.C. to enact a role in their first ever television broadcast in Britain. In addition, she inaugurated the company's first broadcast on the short wave length to India. Inspite of its success in England, the film did not attract the Indian audience and turned out be a failure in India when it was released in Hindi as Nagin Ki Ragini in early 1934. However, the film went well with the critics and helped Devika Rani to establishing herself as a leading actress in India. Indian independence activist and poet Sarojini Naidu called her a "lovely and gifted little lady".
Establishment of Bombay Talkies
After the critical success of Karma, the couple returned to India and started a film studio named Bombay Talkies partnering with Niranjan Pal, a Bengali playwright and screenwriter who Devika Rani had met previously while in London, and Franz Osten in 1934. Upon inception, it was one of the "best-equipped" film studios in the country. The studio would serve as a launch pad for future actors including Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Madhubala and Mumtaz. The studio's first film was the Crime thriller Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), featuring Devika Rani, was shot fully on a train. During the filming of the studio's next film Jeevan Naiya, Devika Rani eloped with her co-star Najam-ul-Hassan after the two developed a romantic relationship. Subsequently, the production was stalled and the studio suffered financial losses.Sashadhar Mukherjee, an assitant sound-engineer at the studio, managed to bring back and convince Devika Rani to act in the film. The crew, however replaced Hassan with debutante Ashok Kumar, who was a relative of Mukherjee working in the laboratory of the studio.
Achhut Kanya (1936), the studio's next production was a tragedy drama that had Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar portraying the roles of an untouchable girl and a Brahmin boy who fall in love with each other. The film is considered a "landmark" in Indian cinema as it challenged the caste system in the country. After the film, both Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar became popular as they went on to star in as many as ten films together, mostly of them being Bombay Talkies productions.
Bombay Talkies produced several women-eccentric films with Devika Rani playing the lead role in all of them. In majority of the films produced by Bombay Talkies, she was paired opposite Ashok Kumar, who was overshadowed by her. Jeevan Prabhat, released in 1937, saw a role-reversal between Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar—she played a higher-caste Brahmin woman who is mistaken by her society of having an extra-marital affair. Her next release Izzat, modeled based on the story of 'Romeo and Juliet, set in the medieval period deals with the story of two lovers belonging to enemy kingdoms of a Maratha empire. Nirmala released in 1938 dealt with the plight of a child-less woman who is told by an astrologer to abandon his husband to ensure successful pregnancy. In Vachan, her second release of the year, she played a Rajput princess. Durga, released the following year, was a romantic drama about the life of an orphan girl and a village doctor played by Ashok Kumar.
Following the death of Rai in 1940, there was a rift between two parties of the Bombay Talkies led by Mukherjee and Amiya Chakravarty. Devika Rani assumed principal responsibility and took over the studio along with Mukherjee. In 1941, she produced and acted in Anjaan co-starring Ashok Kumar. In the subsequent years, she produced two successful films under the studio—Basant and Kismet—both starring Ashok Kumar. Kismet contained anti-British messages and turned out to be a "record-breaking" film. Following that, Devika Rani made her last film appearance in Hamari Baat (1943), which had Raj Kapoor playing a small role. However, Devika Rani continued to produce films under Bombay Talkies. She handpicked debutante Dilip Kumar for a role in Jwar Bhata, produced by her on behalf of the studio. An internal politics that arose in the studio led prominent personalities including Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar to parting ways with her to set up a new studio and named it Filmistan. Due to lack of support and disinterest, she decided to quit the film industry. In an interview to journalist Raju Bharatan, she mentioned that her idea of not willing to compromise on "artistic values" of film-making as one of the major reasons for her quitting the industry.
Devika Rani married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, son of Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. After their marriage in 1945, the couple moved to Manali, Himachal Pradesh where they got acquainted with the Nehru family. During her stay in Manali, Devika Rani made a few documentaries on wildlife. After spending some years in Manali, they moved to Bangalore, Karnataka, and settled there managing an export company. The couple bought a 450 acres (1,800,000 m2) estate on the outskirts of the city and led a solitary life for the rest of their lives. Devika Rani remained childless and passed away on 9 March 1994—a year after Roerich died—in Bangalore. At her funeral, Devika Rani was given full state honors. After her death the estate was on litigation for many years as the couple had no legal claimants. In August 2011, the Government of Karnataka acquired the estate after the Supreme Court of India passed the verdict in favour of them.
Awards and honours
In 1958, the Government of India honoured Devika Rani with a Padma Shri, the country's fourth highest civilian honour. She became the first ever recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award when it was instituted in 1969. A postage stamp commemorating her was released by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in February 2011.
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