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Sealed with a kiss

Rashmi Sarkar | Updated on December 28, 2020 Published on December 28, 2020

Life in focus: Devika Rani’s debut role in the 1933 Indo-German-British film Karma drew flattering reviews   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The biography of Devika Rani — rebel, superstar and abused wife — is the remarkable story of a woman who lived well before her time

* Devika was in her late teens when a chance meeting in Britain with Himansu Rai, then already a recognised actor, changed her life

* The book is largely built on 4,000 personal letters and studio documents, neatly kept aside by Devika Rani as advised by her second husband, Svetoslav Roerich

* She retired to the Himalayas in her late thirties and lived there with her painter-husband till her death in 1994

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A question that often crops up in Bollywood quizzes is about the longest kiss in Hindi cinema. What is the name of the actress who featured in it, the quizmaster asks. Devika Rani, someone in the audience (usually a film buff) correctly answers.

I am an avid film-watcher, too, but haven’t watched many of her films. I knew her mainly as one of the most celebrated actresses of pre-Partition India, and, thanks to the quizzes, about the record lip-lock. But when I picked up the sensationally titled biography of the late actress (The Longest Kiss, published by Westland) I knew I was going to be introduced to a person who seemed as bold as she was beautiful.

The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani; Kishwar Desai; Westland; Non-fiction; ₹599

 

The 450-page book by writer-playwright Kishwar Desai (whose books include Darlingji, the love story of Sunil Dutt and Nargis) initially looked like a daunting read. It turned out to be the remarkable story of a woman who lived well before her time.

Desai points out that she was inspired to write the book after she stumbled upon some reels of the films of Devika Rani’s first husband — the producer-actor Himansu Rai — at the National Film Archives of India. The book is largely built on 4,000 personal letters and studio documents, neatly kept aside by Devika Rani as advised by her second husband, Svetoslav Roerich.

It opens interestingly with the Indo-British-German film Karma opening at a theatre at Hyde Park, London, in 1933. The film starred Rai and Devika Rani in her debut role. British newspapers fawned over her, and the flattering reviews zeroed in on her beauty and natural acting. Devika Rani had arrived with a bang!

And it was quite an amazing journey, too. Devika Rani Chowdhury belonged to the Tagore family, and was said to have been a favourite great grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore. Educated in a British boarding school in the 1920s, the young and rebellious Devika was resolute in wanting a career.

She was in her late teens when a chance meeting in Britain with Rai, then already a recognised actor, at the house of Niranjan Pal (son of freedom fighter Bipin Chandra Pal) changed her life. The much older Rai was struck by her beauty and she by his worldly-wise ways.

She started to work with him, helping in design in his productions. Soon she was his heroine — and the two were married. The book points out that the educated Devika, with an impressive lineage, took up acting at a time when female roles were largely played by courtesans and sex workers.

Desai traces the turbulence in her married life — the financial problems and acts of domestic violence she faced. The book also deals with her growth as a much sought-after celebrity who paired not just with Rai, but with actors such as Najamul Hussain, Ashok Kumar and Kishore Sahu from 1933 to 1943, on the couple’s return to India.

The history of Bombay Talkies — the studio that Rai and Devika Rani set up — is in itself fascinating, with its international crew and the sharp discipline that it maintained. The author looks at others who contributed to cinema — from director-writer Pal, actor Ashok Kumar and the Parsi and Marwari communities up to Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.

Devika Rani also worked in other departments — such as art and costume — of the studio, but her work went largely unacknowledged. Unable to endure the domestic abuse she was subjected to, she ran away with Najamul Hussain, who was her hero in Jawani ki Hawa, to Kolkata — but returned to Rai later. Towards the end of his life, Rai was mentally ill and Devika Rani took care of him. He, however, died somewhat mysteriously, writes Desai.

After his death, even though she was the co-founder of HIIT (Himansu Rai Indo International Talkies), she was viciously targeted by the very men who had worked with and subjected to a great deal of studio politics. Her sole supporter was the writer Amiya Chakraborty, who, Desai writes, Devika Rani had mentored and was in a secret relationship with. Using her intelligence and negotiating skills, she successfully claimed her rightful position as the Controller of Productions.

The last part of the book deals with her meeting Roerich, the Russian artist and aristocrat. They fell in love, and many of her letters to him underline his role as a supportive anchor. After resigning from the Board of Directors at Bombay Talkies, she retired to the Himalayas in her late 30s to spend the rest of her life with her painter-husband till her death in 1994.

The Longest Kiss is a fascinating yet heartbreaking tale of a remarkable actress and studio head who was once widely known as the “Bengal Tigress”. Definitely one of the best books of 2020, it beautifully encapsulates a significant era in the Hindi film history. It is a book that will be enjoyed as much by the film buff as the non-aficionado.

And here is some trivia that quizmasters can add to their question about the longest kiss. Just what was the kiss all about? In the film, Devika Rani is not embraced in a romantic smooch, but is trying to resuscitate her husband (Rai in the film) who’s suffered a snake bite. Such was her natural abandon that the scene (and kiss) carried on for two minutes.

Rashmi Sarkar is a Delhi-based dermatologist and film buff

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Published on December 28, 2020
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