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Devika Rani

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Devika Rani

Devika Rani is one of the most delicately glamorous cinema stars we have ever seen. Sunday Pictorial, London

You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction. Or see a lovelier face. Devika Rani is a singular beauty. The Star, London

Devika Rani is so lovely, she puts the stereotyped charms of Hollywood blondes completely in the shade. Daily Despatch, Manchester

The aristocratic Devika Rani (granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, Sukumari Devi), is the only Indian actress ever to have garnered such rave reviews from the notoriously hard-nosed English press. Smitten to a man, they grovelled at her feet extolling her ‘large, velvety eyes’, upon the London release of her husband, Himanshu Rai’s, Karma, India’s first Hindi-English bilingual.

Devika Rani’s alabaster beauty has justifiably passed into lore. This Bengali blossom had the kind of face that makes love to a camera and indeed Devika was not a flower born to bloom unseen. She intrepidly left India in the 20s to take up a scholarship to study architecture in London. Cinema, however, claimed her when she met Himanshu Rai and agreed to design the sets of his first production — Light of Asia. The destinies of these two wonderkinds remained intertwined, when after their marriage, they left for Germany’s famous UFA (Universal Film AG) Studios. While Rai made A Throw Of Dice in collaboration with UFA, Devika studied filmmaking at close quarters, including holding the make-up tray for a Marlene Dietrich, yet to make the Hollywood leap.

The initial struggle paid off when Rai cast Devika as the heroine in his first talkie — Karma (’33). It catapulted her to great fame and it was a natural progression when two years later, Rai started his ambitious studio, Bombay Talkies, and she became its main female lead. She may have done only a meagre 14 films in her entire career spanning 10 years but when the camera feasted on her face and lingered on that complexion, creamy like mother-of-pearl, she never failed to draw gasps of approbation from a fawning public.

Acchut Kanya (’36) lent her personality the patina of an ‘actress’ too. The story of an upper class boy and a Harijan girl whose love could not cross the chasm of caste differences, Acchut Kanya’s thematic boldness was a thunderclap whose impact is remembered to date. Though her thinly pencilled eyebrows while playing an untouchable, caused consternation, she gave an eloquent performance in keeping with the contemporaneous idiom.

The success of Acchut Kanya made her the grand dame, the doyenne, the prima donna of films and the scandal which had erupted on her elopement with her co-star, Najmal Hassan, was now forgotten. In ’41, Rai died and this woman of substance took over the reins of the studio to become the first and only female studio chief ever in Bombay. She smoked openly, crimped her locks and ruled with an iron hand. Her discovery, Dilip Kumar, remembers how when he had once played hookey from the sets, she caught him red handed and promptly cut his salary.

Eventually, the economics of filmmaking and the strain of staving off the powerful Ashok Kumar-S Mukherji lobby in Bombay Talkies caught up with her. “When I saw that we were not working ahead on Himanshu’s ideals, I voluntarily withdrew,” Devika has been quoted as saying.

Subsequently, isolating herself from filmdom, Devika married famed Russian painter, Svetoslav Roerich and retired to their sprawling estate near Bangalore till her death in 1994. At her funeral she was given full state honors.

The legendary beauty did not endure but the legend did. Devika Rani is that rare pre-50s star whose fame is still intact. Thanks to the well-entrenched encomium, she will remain forever the First Lady of the Hindi screen.

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