TODAY ALL that remains of Devika Rani's Bombay Talkies is a beaten-up old placard, swinging on a rusty nail in the busy Nana Chowk district of Bombay. What was once a bustling, sprawling studio complex is now a warren of run- down, multi-storeyed apartment blocks. At its entrance stands a big, noisy garage, where battered cars are hammered into shape. They are getting a little tired down there of the odd cinema freak turning up, holding his heart and gasping at the fall of the great Bombay Talkies. The mechanics just shrug it off. Not their fault, really. Got to park your old cars somewhere.
Devika Rani's success as an actress, scintillating as it was, happened such a long time ago, that even the echoes had died down. No one had really forgotten her. But then, no one remembered her either. A condition one-time mega-stars, fed on adulation, find very hard to accept. Devika Rani wore full make-up every single day of her 50 years in retirement in case someone called on her.
From time to time, they did. In 1953 she was awarded the Padamshree, a prestigious national honour. In 1969, she was given the Dadafaheb Bhalke award for lifetime achievement in cinema. But, for the most part, the first lady of Indian cinema lived the life of a recluse with her artist husband on her estate at Tataguni on the outskirts of Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Rani's greatest achievement was that she sold cinema as an art form to the essentially puritanical upper-crust Indians. Before she became an actress, girls from Bombay's red light areas filled in as actresses because girls from decent homes didn't wear lipstick, let alone prance before a movie camera. So when Devika Rani, Rabindranath Tagore's great-niece and daughter of India's first surgeon-general, chose to make a career in films, it brought a certain respectability to the medium.
But Rani's embarking on a film career was more by accident than design. At 18, she was drifting around in London, studying acting and music at RADA and the Royal Academy of Music. She topped that up with degrees in architecture and textile design and was working as a designer at a leading art studio. But she lacked an axis. In 1928, a fortuitous meeting with Himanshu Rai, a lawyer turned film-maker, gave her life the creative direction she had sought.
Rai had already produced and co- directed Light of Asia (1926), based on the life of Gautam Buddha, and he was planning his next film, A Throw of Dice (1929). He was struck by the beautiful, intense young woman and invited her to work on the film's set and costumes. And so began one of the greatest partnerships in Indian cinema.
Rai, 20 years her senior, was impressed by Rani's exceptional skills and soon she was being involved in every aspect of the film. Rani accompanied Rai to Germany where the film was edited and there she got to see how the great German directors G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang worked. This was an experience that kindled a serious interest in film-making, and she enrolled with the UFA studio in Berlin.
By the time A Throw of Dice was completed, Rani was married to her mentor. Rai broke through her inhibitions and got her to star opposite him in their next film, Karma (1933). The film was premiered in London in May 1933 and the demure young Indian actress drew rave reviews in the London press. Indian audiences weren't all that enthusiastic about the film. If they went at all, it was to see the smouldering kissing scene, the first ever on the Indian screen.
After the film's release, the couple decided to return to India and set up their own studio. And so Bombay Talkies came to be established in 1934. It was one of India's best-equipped studios with exceptional technicians like the German director Franz Osten, and the cameraman Carl Josef Wirsching at the helm. Many latterday icons like Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor began their careers with Bombay Talkies.
Javani Ki Hawa (1935), the studio's first production, was unique in that it was shot entirely on board a train as it chugged along between Bombay and Lonawala, a picturesque hill station. The journey proved momentous. Things got a bit steamy en route between the young Devika Rani and her hero Najmul Hasan, and, in a fit of passion, the two eloped. When their ardour cooled, a contrite Rani asked to return home. An enraged Rai agreed to take his errant wife back. But Hasan was given the boot.
Now they were without a leading man for their next film, Achhut Kanya, which was to go into production immediately. Somebody remembered the company had an interesting-looking lab assistant, called Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly. He was dragged out of his lab, given a brand new name (Ashok Kumar) and practically nailed down into the lead role. He wanted to have nothing to do with the headstrong lady boss. Years later, he laughed off the experience: 'People said I had a lot of intensity in Achhut Kanya. It was more the hunted look of an animal in captivity.'
Achhut Kanya is a landmark film in Indian cinema, the searing tale of a Brahmin youth's love for an untouchable girl. The film had a universal resonance in a society that was beginning to question the barbarous caste system. After the film's release in 1936, Rani became a star. So did the reluctant Ashok Kumar. They went on to star together in nearly 10 successful films.
Thanks largely to Devika Rani, Bombay Talkies came up with several films exploring the predicament of the Indian woman. Jeevan Prabhat (1937) saw a reversal of roles, with Rani playing a doomed upper-class Brahmin woman. Nirmala (1938) dealt with the agony of a childless woman. Durga (1939) explored the life of an orphan.
There followed Janambhoomi (1936), Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940), Jhoola (1941), Vachan, Anjaam (1941), and Hamari Baat. Rani scaled great heights as an actress and a star and Basant and Punar Milan had unprecedented 50-week runs at the box office. What set Bombay Talkies' films apart was their moral vigour and social commitment.
In 1940, Rai had a nervous breakdown and within a month he died. It was left to his young widow to take charge of the studio. And she did it admirably. Bombay Talkies under her stewardship was known for its discipline and innovation. In 1943 came Kismet, which for the first time featured Ashok Kumar as an anti-hero with shades of grey. It ran for 104 weeks in Calcutta. Jwar Bhatta (1944) introduced yet another idol of the Indian cinema, the legendary Dilip Kumar. But just when Bombay Talkies began to look invincible, S. Mukerji and Rai Bahadoor Chunilal, Rani's closest aides, fell out with her and she was left to keep the banner aloft.
Then, in 1944, she met the artist Svetoslav Roerich, the son of the celebrated Russian painter Nikolai Roerich, and within a year she had sold off her shares in Bombay Talkies and retired from films. They were married in 1945; Svetoslav died 14 months ago, aged 88.