Decades ago, back when Indian cinema was just a sapling, a woman broke every barrier in her sight. A feminist, long before the term came in vogue, who gave Indian cinema the face it has today. Often referred to as Indian Cinema’s Prima Donna, Devika Rani was a performer who defined bold at a time when venturing out of their comfort zones for women was frowned upon and acting was unthinkable as a career.
Widely acknowledged as the Indian Garbo and First Lady of Indian Screen, Devika Rani was also a producer who gave Indian cinema some priceless gems in the likes of Madhubala, Mumtazand Dilip Kumar. The first actress ever to give a four-minute long liplock on screen, Devika altered people’s perspective towards actresses. On her death anniversary today, let’s go through some lesser-known facts about the life of the first lady of Indian cinema:
- Born in Visakhapatnam to an illustrious Bengali family, Devika’s father was the first Indian Surgeon-General of Madras Presidency. One of her paternal uncles was a famous lawyer in Kolkata High Court and another, a very famous Bengali writer. Devika was also related to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
- She spent the majority of her childhood in London, where she studied acting, music and architecture. She started her career as a textile designer but her life saw a turning point after she met Himanshu Rai, a barrister-turned-filmmaker.
- Himanshu insisted that she work with him in production. Devika assisted him in costume designing and art direction in a movie they worked together known as A Throw of Dice.
- They got married soon after and she left for Berlin to study filmmaking. Upon her return, Himanshu roped in Devika in her first acting assignment. The film Karma saw Devika play the lead and was her debut for a glorious career spanning 10 years.
- Devika’s performance in Karma was well received and garnered critical acclaim. She went on to do several women-centric films, important being the film Acchut Kanya. It questioned the caste system and became a landmark in Indian Cinema. Her pairing with Ashok Kumar in the film, and many other films later turned out to be highly successful.
- Devika, after her husband’s death in 1940, took complete control over their production house, Bombay Talkies. She was one of the women pioneers before independence.
- Devika was an empowered woman and did not shy away when it came to living life on her own terms. She chose her life partner whom she married after her husband’s death. She married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich at the peak of her career and decided to live in solitude.