Rani Dubé: Actress and film-maker who co-produced 'Gandhi' for Richard Attenborough
Saturday 29 May 2010
In a career spanning radio, television and film, as an actor, script editor, documentary-maker and producer, Rani Dubé will be remembered as an innovator, a pioneer and a force of nature. As a young girl Dubé would attend prayer meetings at Gandhi's ashram and the man she called "Bapu" would go on to have a profound impact on her spiritual, political and professional life.
Born in the ancient city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh to a high-caste Brahmin family, Dubé found herself embroiled in India's turbulent political history from an early age. Her father, Ram Saran Sharma, was a writer and poet and an influential figure in the independence movement, and when the family moved to Delhi when Rani was two their house became a focal point for figures from the National Movement including Sadar Patel and Nehru. Her father was imprisoned for a total of 11 years during the independence struggle and Dubé regularly found herself in trouble with the authorities – on one occasion aged five for leading a playground demonstration and on another, aged six, for throwing an inkpot on to the head of a passing British soldier.
On a school trip to All India Radio when she was nine her voice was noticed by a producer, who immediately offered her a part in a radio play as the baby Krishna. She was paid five rupees, which she took home and laid at the feet of her grandfather, a man who used to say that "boys are cheques I'll cash when I'm old. Girls are a decree; they will cost me dear." Determined never to be a financial burden, Dubé continued radio acting throughout her school and college years for All India Radio and Voice of America.
In 1957 she came to England with her first husband Hari Dubé, an anaesthetist who had taken a job in Birmingham. Arriving in England with two young children and knowing no one might have been very difficult were it not for the friendliness of the people she found herself living beside. Indeed the warmth of the reception she received from the working class people of Smethwick coloured her whole view of Britain and seemingly inured her from the racism that was part of the immigrant experience in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Dubé started working for the BBC Hindi Service, becoming at the age of 24 their first female producer. In the straight-laced atmosphere of Bush House in the late 1950s and early 1960s Rani Dubé, young, beautiful and dressed always in a sari, cut a striking figure. When Hari died she decided to stay in England. She became the first Indian to make the move from the Hindi Service to the Home Service, and after she had written a letter to the head of BBC television drama complaining that black characters were represented by blacked-up white actors, she was invited to meet him. She was offered a job and appeared in numerous television and radio plays, including a brief appearance on The Archers. She was also offered film roles, and although her part in the James Bond film Thunderball was cut, it is her swimming silhouette that can be seen during the opening credits.
She also made documentaries, and her first, Green And Pleasant Land, was a ground-breaking examination of the lives of immigrants in Britain. She trained as a script editor and worked for the BBC's Theatre 625 producing a 90-minute play every week. This was the golden age of television drama and Dubé worked with writers such as Samuel Beckett and John Mortimer on classic dramas such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Canterbury Tales and A Voyage Around My Father. On one occasion Dubé called Beckett into her office and asked him to shorten one of his plays so that it would fit more neatly into the television time slot. "Of course, of course" Beckett said. The next week his amended script landed on her desk with a note from the author saying, "I think this captures the gist of it." The new version was three lines long.
In the 1970s Dubé moved into production, her credits including Heritage in Danger, a six-part series presented by the MP Patrick McCormack about the loss of the UK's architectural heritage. The series had a profound impact on the nation's view of its historic buildings, and influenced the passing of the 1980 and 1983 National Heritage Act from which the National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up.
While at the BBC in the early 1960s Rani had met Richard Attenborough, and he had told her of his plan to make a film of Gandhi's life. Almost 20 years later, when he was still trying to secure funding, he turned to Dubé. Western financiers had felt that a film about Gandhi would not appeal to mainstream audiences, so in 1979 Dubé flew to India for a meeting with the country's prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She had known Dubé's father, but having written the book The Evil Within the previous year in which she criticised the Indian government, she was understandably nervous.
Throughout the meeting Gandhi sat behind an enormous desk empty except for a copy of Dubé's book in the centre. Nevertheless she walked out of the meeting with an unprecedented $10 million investment from the Indian government, on the back of which all the other money for Gandhi was raised.
Dubé was a hands-on producer, responsible for the Indian side of the production, from securing all government permissions to ensuring extras were appropriately dressed. During the filming of the funeral scene, 400,000 extras had gathered but their mood was excited than sombre. Attenborough handed Dubé the microphone and asked her if there was anything she could do. As Dubé started speaking about her memories of Gandhi a hush descended and the energy of the crowd started to change. "What's she saying?" asked the cameraman. "Who cares?" cried Attenborough, "Just shoot!"
Rani Dubé will be remembered as an unstoppable personality: a woman of tremendous warmth whose laugh could fill a room. She had an ability to command attention that was almost regal and occasionally terrifying, but combined with a relentless energy, optimism and trust in a divine plan which meant she never gave up championing the causes that matter. Despite working hard all her life she said not long before she died, "My real dream is to sit by the Ganges, wear saffron robes and meditate."
Rani Dubé, producer, film-maker and actor: born Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India 21 October 1937; married twice (five children); died 18 April 2010.
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