There have been as many versions of how and where she spotted a young man called Yusuf Khan, later rechristened by her as Dilip Kumar, as advised by a writer, as there are about her life. For there has been no one in the annals of Indian cinema as bold, beautiful, charismatic, glad-eyed, unconventional, and, perhaps, rightly called the ‘First Lady of Indian Screen’ as the Walliyar-born Devika Rani Chaudhuri. Also known as Dragon Lady, though there are no explanations for her having acquired the synonym, perhaps after the demise of Himanshu Rai, her husband and first co-star in India, when she had to take control of Bombay Talkies.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, in his autobiography I Am Not An Island, describes his first look at her: “I remember Devika Rani holding court in the verandah of her studio-bungalow — a fragile, pretty, petite and glamorous figure in her simple chiffon saris, her head adorned with fresh red flowers. Every one of us young men was secretly in love with her.” The French film historian, Yves Thoraval, in his book The Cinemas of India takes note of her as: “Beautiful, cultured and cosmopolitan, this ‘First Lady of the Indian Screen’…” was renowned, together with Himanshu Rai, “for setting an example in social reform, notably for ordering that all studio employees, whatever be their caste or creed, would share the same canteen and eat the same food, a step that was as revolutionary then as it would be in India today.”
Devika Rani was born on March 30, 1908, went to study at Southampton School in London, won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts abroad; did a stint in a German studio, assisting Fritz Lang, a job that also entailed holding the make-up tray for the Hollywood beauty, Marlene Dietrich. She came in contact with actor-producer Himanshu Rai in 1929. She landed in then Bombay in 1930 and started Bombay Talkies, starred with Himanshu Rai in Karma (1933), a bilingual film that also had a four-minute long lip-locking scene between the lead players. They got married a year later once the shooting was completed. While still in London as a teenager, according to Ashok Kumar’s authorised biographer Kishore Valicha: “Her good looks and her general air of freedom were strong and attractive traits. In London, Devika drew attention and soon, she found herself befriended by an international jet set.” That was, perhaps, when Himanshu Rai offered her a role in Karma. She accepted it, and the rest is history.
Her co-star in Jawani ki Hawa was the handsome Najamul Hussain. Besieged by his charm, she eloped with him during the making of Jeevan Naiya, leaving the film incomplete. But, somehow, she was brought back. Reverting to Valicha’s description once again: “What transpired between husband and wife is not known. Perhaps she felt guilty. At any rate, she had certainly not expected to be found out so easily. And perhaps he forgave her, seeing her youth and how much younger she was to him. There were 15 years between the two.” While he forgave her, he had no such intention to do the same with the leading man. In came a reluctant laboratory assistant, Ashok Kumar, and the rest is again Bollywood movie lore. Their most famous starrer has been Achhut Kanya in which her performance as the beautiful harijan girl brought her a letter of appreciation from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Famous film historian, B D Garga observed: “Above all, the film had Devika Rani, whose magical presence reminds one of Gloria Swanson’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard — ‘There just aren’t faces like that any more.’ Her poise and assurance was the outcome of her lessons with the legendary Max Reinhardt, who had once counselled a nervous pupil, ‘When you recite, think of whatever you see in front of you as a field of cabbages’.”
Her other asset, described in Garga’s book, The Art of Cinema, was that she was quick to adapt and respond to challenges. Referring to Karma and its release in London, he states: “When the film was released in London, the loveliness of its leading lady, Devika Rani, seemed to have stirred the usually staid and circumspect English (The Star, London) to proclaim: Go and hear English spoken by Miss Devika Rani. You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction or see a lovelier face. Devika Rani has a singular beauty which will dazzle all London’.” No other Indian heroine as ever found a comparison with Devika Rani.
Himanshu Rai died in 1940 at the young age of 47, rumoured to be suffering with syphilis, though no one could be sure. With Devika Rani taking control of Bombay Talkies, the institution underwent a sea change, affecting the fortune of many of those who had stood by the company with sincerity and fortitude. Quoting Dr Paul Dietze, Valicha writes: “…it was not too difficult to see that the beautiful and glamorous Devika Rani could also be clever and calculating. It is perhaps a little doubtful if she had felt any genuine emotional pull towards her husband. Perhaps Rai had sensed this; internally, he had been upset at discovering her lack of fidelity.” In order to check the erosion of her empire from the ‘Bengali mafia’, she decided to resume acting. The film, Anjaan, directed by debutant Amiya Chakravorty co-starring Ashok Kumar, was a box-office disaster. Grapevine has it that she flipped for Chakravorty during the making of the film. With youth, beauty, poise and acting as her assets, one wonders what promoted her to put away the make-up tray.
During her stint at the top as an actor, she starred in 14 films, including five opposite Ashok Kumar alone. Her gait, style of acting, and rock solid portrayals (no matter what character she was portraying) were equated with Greta Garbo’s performances, some of which went on to become classics. These included Jeevan Naiya, Jawani ki Hawa, Acchut Kanya, Jeevan Prabhat Janma Bhoomi, Savitri, Nirmala, Vachan, Izzat and Durga. She was also instrumental in giving breaks to some Hindi film greats like Madhubala, Mumtaz, Leela Chitnis, and last, but not the least — Dilip Kumar. His account and encounters with her make interesting reading. Talking about her discovery, about which there are several versions, Devika Rani observed: “Dilip Kumar, the idol of millions of picturegoers today, was a shy young lad when he first came to Bombay Talkies in 1944. Even then he had a mop of unkempt hair, yet it was not this but his personality which impressed me. As soon as I set my eyes on him, I called Amiya Chakravorty who was looking for an actor to play the lead in Jwar Bhata and said: ‘Here is a young man. I am sure you will find him suitable.’ And Amiya did. Very shy when he came to romantic scenes, Dilip was always a serious artiste, right from the beginning… (Dilip Kumar: The Definitive Biography by Bunny Reuben.”
Apparently, the two later legends of Hindi cinema had first run into one another in the northern Indian hill resort, Nainital. According to Dilip Kumar, to quote Reuben again, “My meeting with her was quite accidental. She had come location hunting to Nainital with her director (the roving eye?) Amiya Chakravorty, when I bumped into her. I was shocked that a star of her status should show interest in a rank stranger like me. She gave me her card and said: ‘Do call on me when you return to Bombay, as I wish to discuss something with you… on my return to Bombay…on an impulse, I decided to take a chance, and meet Devika Rani… (after a brief interview) Her face was blank when she said she would get in touch with me in a few days’ time. I left her office, dejected. For me it was a chapter closed already, and tried concentrating on my business... when I received a letter from Bombay Talkies asking me to come and meet Devika Rani…After much thought I did. Devika Rani looked me over one more time, quietly, then without saying a word, handed me a piece of paper. It was a contract letter which stated that I would be paid a monthly salary of four hundred rupees… I couldn’t believe my eyes.” And it goes on.
Meanwhile, things began to go haywire at Bombay Talkies, and she decided to say, apparently after she met Roerich, goodbye to the arc lights forever. She sold her shares in Bombay Talkies for Rs 90,000 when the company closed operations in 1945. She then married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and shifted to Bangalore where she breathed her last on March 9, 1994, aged 85.
Very little is known of what she did in the intervening years until she suddenly decided to meet the media, decked up as a walking talking jewellery shop. For her distinguished services to society and screen, she was awarded the inaugural Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1970. She had also been a recipient of the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1989. Lineage-wise she was the great grandniece of the nationalist and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. She also remains immortalised through Roerich’s natural-coloured portraits archived in the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore. Many of these also find a pride of place in the Roerich Gallery in Himachal Pradesh.