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Devika Rani Chaudhuri, popularly known as Devika Rani was bold, brilliant and beautiful. She was bold as she shrugged off criticisms and went about defying social norms. Hers was an age (1030s -1940s) when women were in patriarchal domination. They seldom ventured out and more so for jobs and that too in the film world. Devika, not only joined films but coolly went about enacting scenes which were most objectionable and unconventional! She was brilliant, as she acquired formal and technical education of film making, before plunging into acting! She was beautiful as nature had been too benevolent. Her story is not that of one from rags to riches but of an elitist girl rising to the pinnacle of stardom! She ruled the Indian cinema for almost a decade-1930s-1940s! Her life and career can be read as a successful film story well interspersed with feminism.
She was born on 30 March 1908 to an affluent anglicised family in Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. She was the daughter of Col. M.N. Choudhary and Mrs Leela Choudhary. Her father had a notable medical career and was the first Indian Surgeon-General, Madras. Did you know her grand-uncle was Rabindranath Tagore?
At the tender age of nine, she was sent to a boarding school in England. After completing school, she went to London and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Royal Academy of Music. Together with drama, she studied subjects like décor design, textile, and architecture. It was here in 1929 that she met the very dashing Himanshu Rai, an Indian film producer. The next year she married him. With this, she started her association with films. Devika helped Rai in costume design and art direction for his debut silent movie A Throw of Dice (1929). Thereafter, the couple went to Germany and trained in film-making at the famous UFA Studious in Berlin.
In 1933 Rai brought out a bilingual film named Karma. This picture was made in English and Hindi concurrently. The director cast himself as its hero and his wife, Devika, as the heroine. The movie was a grand success in England but in India, it flopped. The reason being of a scene where the real-life husband and wife duo featured a prolonged kissing scene! It was the first time an intimate scene had been introduced in a Bollywood movie. Such enactment was taboo and against Indian tradition. But the couple remained undaunted. Devika was not at all perturbed. It was also in this film that she debuted as a singer. Her honeyed and melodious voice was quite enrapturing. The couple returned to India in 1934 and formed a production studio-the very famous Bombay Talkies along with some friends. Bombay Talkies is credited to have introduced several superstars like Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Mumtaz, and Madhubala! This studio has a good number of blockbusters.
In 1936 Achhut Kannya (Untouchable Maiden) was produced and had Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in the lead. The theme was social discrimination on caste and about the love story of a Brahmin boy and a Dalit girl. This film can be called a ‘reformist period-piece’. Surprisingly this issue still persists in our society! The movie was a great hit with the top actors singing most melodious songs. Their youthful exuberance is a treat to watch even today. Of course, the svelte and beautiful Devika is too gorgeous in the garb of an Achhut Kannya. Ashok Kumar is most fitting for his role.
The two were acknowledged hit pair and cast in several successful films.
Some of the other popular films were Izzat, Jeevan Naiya, Janma Bhoomi, Hamari Baat, Vachan, Kismet and many more!
Tragedy struck, when Himanshu Rai died in 1940 and Devika took over the charge of Bombay Talkies. Along with her husband’s acquaintances, she produced few films but was not successful. Hence, she retired from films. In 1945, she married the Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and moved to his estate on the outskirts of Bangalore. For five decades she led a recluse life. On 9 March 1994, she died.
Devika Rani was a fascinating actress and had an unconventional persona. For her wide contribution to Indian cinema, she was honoured with Padmashri in 1958. She is the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1970). Her other notable honour was the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1990).
No wonder Devika Rani is acknowledged as the First Lady of Indian Cinema!
Image via Youtube
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