KANAN DEVI, who made her debut in silent films in the Twenties, was the legendary glamour queen of Indian cinema for almost three decades. She redefined social norms to give respectability to women actors.
Known as the nightingale of Indian cinema for her mellifluous voice, she sang songs written by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate for literature in the Twenties, which were hummed across India. Acknowledged as the first lady of Bengali cinema, Devi declined lucrative offers to move to Bombay, India's movie capital, choosing instead to retire gracefully at the apogee of her career.
When acting as a career for women was equated with looseness, Devi launched Srimati, or Lady Pictures, and directed Ananya ('Injustice'), her first film, before going on to make 11 other box-office hits. Never allowing her lack of formal education to be a handicap, Devi, principally a Bengali-speaker, learnt Hindi and Urdu, the language of popular Indian cinema, to perfection.
Born to poor parents in Bengal in 1916, hunger led Devi - christened Kananbala - into the 'dubious' world of the bioscope at the age of 10 and her first role in Joydeb ('Hail to Gods'), a silent Bengali film produced by Madan Theatres in Calcutta. For this she was paid five rupees, or 50 pence at the prevailing exchange rate.
Soon after, Devi performed roles considered risque by existing standards but which endeared her to audiences for whom her beauty, charm and acting ability were devastating. Her role in Manmoyee Girls School, with its flashes of wickedness and innuendo, and Kanthahar in the early Thirties, assured Devi's future as an actress, and in 1936 she was lured away by the more progressive New Theatres on a monthly four-figure salary.
Here Devi starred in seven Hindi films, all of them hits like Vidyapati ('The Learned Man'), Mukti ('Liberation') and Jawani ki reet ('The Celebration of Youth'). But she won greater acclaim for Lagan ('Devotion') and Street Singer after teaming up with Kanhiya Lal Saigal, India's best- ever playback singer from the Forties and Fifties, and her haunting melodies from this period are still popular on Indian radio.
In 1949 she married Haridas Bhattacharya, a naval officer who left service in the Fifties to help Devi direct 11 films under her Srimati banner. Both, however, gave up all association with films in the late Sixties as their world had changed imperceptibly from one where all studio hands were considered family to one of financial cartels, pampered actors and obsequious directors.
Devi lamented the change in attitude and professionalism amongst modern-day actors whom she accused of behaving like spoilt prima donnas. To her the new generation of Indian actors were undisciplined, unpunctual and tantrum-prone when anything was not to their liking. She criticised them for spending too such time in the make-up room and, worse, interfering with dialogues, scenes and even the plot to suit their talent or lack of it. Gadgetry too, she regretted, had contributed to reducing acting skills to a minimum in raucous Bollywood productions, as Bombay studios are popularly known.
Devi's fame and gentle personality endeared her to people like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, the Pathan leader, all involved in the freedom struggle against the British.
She was also friendly with Krishna Menon, free India's first High Commissioner to London, and at his request sang 'Amander Yatra Holo Suru' ('Our Journey Has Just Begun') at the High Commission in Holborn, at the time of India's independence in August 1947.
A die-hard Calcuttan - all are fanatically attached to their neighbourhoods, however destitute - Devi refused to shift from her spacious home during the Naxalite or Maoist uprising in Bengal in the Seventies when armed youngsters brought armed revolution to the streets, killing whoever they whimsically deemed privileged. Although several bomb attacks were made on Devi's house, her husband's naval training proved useful as he was able to defuse many of the crude bombs hurled into their garden.
Never forgetting her humble beginnings, Devi contributed to charities and hospitals for the poor. She started the Mahila Shilpi Samiti, a charity to help destitute actresses, and operated it singlehandedly for many years, before ill-health forced her to close it. She was awarded the Padma Shree, one of India's highest civilian awards, in 1968 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the Indian equivalent of the Oscar named after the founder of the Indian cinema, eight years later.