Often referred to as ‘Indian Cinema’s Prima Donna’, ‘Indian Garbo’, and ‘First Lady of Indian Screen’, Devika Rani was an Indian actress and producer and is celebrated for giving Indian cinema its gems – Madhubala, Mumtaz, and Dilip Kumar, to name a few. Known for her exceptional talent and scintillating beauty, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958, and the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1969.
Born on 30th March, 1908 in a highly educated and affluent Bengali family near Visakhapatnam, Devika Rani Chaudhuri did her schooling at Southampton School, a boarding school in London. She later won a scholarship and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Royal Academy of Music in London, where she studied acting and music. She also studied textile and decor design as well as architecture, and took up a job in textile design in 1927.
In 1928, Devika Rani joined the production team of A Throw of Dice, a film produced by an Indian barrister-turned-filmmaker and her future husband, Himanshu Rai. For the post-production work, she travelled to Germany and Austria, where she enrolled into a short film-making course. Soon after the release of A Throw of Dice, Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai got married in 1929.
Known for her exceptional talent and scintillating beauty, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958, and the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1969.
They later returned to India, where Rai produced Devika Rani’s acting debut film Karma (1933), the first English language talkie made by an Indian. Devika Rani also sang a bilingual song in Hindi and English, which is often said to be Hindi cinema’s first English song. Karma was also one of the earliest Indian films to feature a kissing scene. A special screening of the film was held for the Royal Family at Windsor, which garnered acclaim across Europe. However, Karma flopped in India and did not interest the masses, although it received good critical response.
Devika Rani then set up a production studio named Bombay Talkies, along with Rai, Niranjan Pal–a Bengali playwright, and Franz Osten–a German filmmaker. One of the best-equipped production studios in India at the time, her studio was also acclaimed for the launch of actors such as Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, Mumtaz, Dilip Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Raj Kapoor.
Bombay Talkies’ first production, Jawani Ki Hawa (1935) was shot entirely on a train between Bombay and Lonavla. It was during the shooting schedule of this film that Devika Rani and her co-star Najam-ul-Hassan developed a romantic relationship, which resulted in their elopement. Due to the absence of the leading pair, production was stalled and the studio suffered significant financial losses. Owing to the negotiations carried out by Sashadar Mukherjee–an assistant sound engineer for the film, who shared a brotherly bond with Devika Rani–she returned to her marital home. Hassan was replaced by Ashok Kumar and many portions of the film had to be re-shot, leading to additional expenses.
With Bombay Talkies’ next film Achhut Kanya (1936), Devika Rani’s ten-year long film career gave the studio its golden era. The film was a tragic-drama starring Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar, who played the roles of a Dalit girl and a Brahmin boy who fall in love with one another. The film is considered a milestone in Indian cinema, as it challenged the caste hegemony in India. Arguably the most notable film in Devika Rani’s career, it also earned her appreciation from the future Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.
Devika Rani is best-known for selling cinema to the upper-class Indians as an art-form, who previously considered it to be performed only by girls from the poorest parts of Bombay.
Throughout the 1930s, Devika Rani starred in many women-centric films which often led to the displeasure among the male co-stars who felt ‘overshadowed’ by her. Nirmala (1938) portrayed the agony of a childless woman, while Jeevan Prabhat (1937), also starring Devika Rani, saw a role-reversal wherein she played the role of a Brahmin woman who is presumed to be having an extra-marital relationship with a lower-caste man, played by Kishore Sahu.
Decline of Bombay Talkies
With Himanshu Rai’s death in 1940, Devika Rani took control over Bombay Talkies. Under her leadership, the studio produced films such as Anjaan (1941), Basant (1943), Kismet (1943) and Hamari Baat (1943), which marked her last film appearance. She also gave Dilip Kumar his first break in Jwar Bhata (1944). However, as internal politics arose in the studio, Sashadar Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar (among others) walked out and set up a new studio called Filmistan. Due to lack of support, Devika Rani quit the film industry and retired from cinema altogether.
Retirement, Death and Personal Legacy
Post-retirement, Devika Rani married the famous Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and moved to Manali, where she filmed several wildlife documentaries. Following the death of her husband in 1993, she contracted bronchitis and died on 9th March 1994, in Bangalore. As she remained childless throughout her life, the Government of Karnataka acquired her estate, based on a ruling by the Supreme Court of India.
Devika Rani is best-known for selling cinema to the upper-class Indians as an art-form, who previously considered it to be performed only by girls from the poorest parts of Bombay. As the daughter of India’s first surgeon-general and great-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, her decision to act and produce films on social issues made Indian cinema look respectable to the upper-class Indians. It is indeed remarkable that over her ten-year long acting career, she raised Indian cinema to global standards, and was thus known as the First Lady of the Indian Screen.
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology released a postage stamp in her honour in February 2011. She has also been immortalised through Roerich’s natural-coloured portraits that can be found in Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad, Bangalore, as well as in the Roerich Gallery, Himachal Pradesh.