Kishwar Desai’s biography of Devika Rani, often called the First Lady of Indian cinema, is interestingly titled, The Longest Kiss. The reimagined illustration on the cover replicating a publicity still from her first film, Karma (1933), directed by J.L. Freer Hunt, with Himanshu Rai, her husband, and of her kissing him most freely sets the tone for the book. It is a thoroughly researched, conscientiously written biography. It is clear from the start that Desai is batting most vigorously for Devika Rani.
Himanshu Rai in Hindi films, like the prince from Gouripore, Assam, P.C. Barua did in Bengali productions, attempted to wed social issues with his own understanding of film craft that could sometime lead to art. Both were from the Indian elite and got interested in cinema when abroad. It was in England that he met Devika. She was educated there because her father Manmathanath Chaudhuri, a Bengali aristocrat by birth and a doctor by profession, had the vision to have his three children Nikhil, Devika and Mahim educated abroad, meaning England. Devika’s mother came from the Tagore clan, highly educated Bengali landowners who reached their zenith through Rabindranath, great litterateur, artist and social thinker and founder of Santiniketan, a seemingly Utopian rural university.
Desai’s meticulous research into Devika Rani’s life from her birth to death is commendable. Her reading of DR’s personality on the whole is accurate despite the scarcely concealed admiration of a gushing fan but the uncritical appreciation of the films made at Bombay Talkies owned by Himanshu Rai, produced by him and starring his wife in the lead until 1943, today seems lazy, though in their time almost every film produced by Bombay Talkies was critically hailed and financially successful. The greatest box-office success attained by a Bombay Talkie film was Kismet directed by Gyan Mukherjee which held the record for being the biggest hit in the annals of Hindi cinema until Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay came along in the mid-1970s.
The book deals quite openly with her fraught relationship with her husband. Himanshu Rai in the eyes of the world was Svengali to her Trilby, albeit a spoilt and beautiful one. It was believed, that like in the legend, Trilby loses her soul -stirring singing voice when Svengali goes away, Devika too would lose all her creative talent following Himanshu’s untimely death.
Devika, however, proved her critics wrong. She took over Bombay Talkies as owner-producer and made a grand success of it. The company did a number of films that were financially sound and critically appreciated. Among them were productions like Kangan, Jhoola ((dir: Gyan Mukherjee), her protégé, Amiya Chakravarty’s Basant, featuring a winning performance from Baby Mumtaz who would grow into Hindi cinema’s most sought-after star-actress, the beautiful Madhubala.
She, a western educated liberal woman, was often forced for reasons of prevailing sense of propriety and business constraints as well her stake in Bombay Talkies which was as great as that of her husband, to behave disingenuously. But her ingrained honesty invariably made her respond to the call of her own morality and the longings of her heart eventually. Himanshu Rai, it appears to the lay reader, was terrified of his much younger wife’s beauty, sophisticated sexual allure and innate talent. Despite making her work relentlessly in running Bombay Talkies, act in its major productions and take an active interest in almost all aspects of production, he became deeply distressed at all the public attention his wife was getting. He would often beat and berate her. The net result was his constant need for what passed for psychiatric care in those days. Devika Rani, made of sterner stuff, not only survived his sudden death, but came out a much stronger person.
Devika found emotional, and dare one suggest, sexual, satisfaction when she met Svetoslav Roerich, the very talented painter son of the Russian master Nicholas Roerich, who painted the Himalayas with sublime grace. Devika was threatened with dire consequences by the hypocritical male population, presumably mainly from Bombay. Somebody went to the extent of calling Svetoslav, the great love of her life and her soon-to-be husband a ‘Russian Roast’!
She survived all the calumny to find happiness for a long time with Svetoslav; for a while in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, and then for a long time, perhaps much too long a time, in Bangalore. She received the Padma Shri and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for her contribution to Indian cinema and Svetoslav the Padma Bhushan. In old age, having lost the strength in their legs and become immobile, they were held to ransom by the very people who were supposedly taking care of them. It was a sad, futile ending to a rich, eventful life.
Partha Chatterjee writes on cinema, music, literature and related cultural matters. He is also a filmmaker.
The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times Of Devika Rani