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DEVIKA RANI ROERICH (1908–1994)


Devika was an actress and film entrepreneneur who set up Bombay Talkies, then retired into obscurity.

She was born Devika Rani Choudhuri, the daughter of Colonel M.N. Choudhuri, the first Indian Surgeon General of Madras, and Leela Choudhuri, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore. Devika Rani was educated in England and studied drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She also studied architecture and design and was soon working as a textile designer at a leading art studio in London. In 1928, she met Himanshu Rai, the producer of films like The Light of Asia, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice. Rai persuaded Devika Rani to join his production unit. She returned to India with his team to work on the costumes and sets of A Throw of Dice under the guidance of the art director Pramod Roy. In 1929, she married Himansu Rai and returned with him to Germany. Rai was the only Indian producer with the Berlin studio UFA. There Devika Rani learnt the finer points of costume designing, make-up, set design and other branches of production as well as acting under Eric Pommer, Pabst, Max Heinhardt and other famous directors. This was the time of change from silent to talking films, and with Himansu Rai she experimented in the new medium. They returned to India to produce their first international talking picture, Karma, in both in English and Hindi, variously produced under the titles Fate (UK) Nagin Ki Ragini (India: Hindi title) or Song of the Serpent (UK).

In 1934 Himansu Rai and Devika Rani founded Bombay Talkies Limited in Malad, Bombay, with backing from businessmen such as F.E. Dinshaw, Sir Firoze Sethna and others. The studio rewrote the standard of motion picture production in India bringing in experts from Europe who trained young Indian men and women in the arts and techniques of film production. It produced a vast number of producers, directors, stars, musicians, writers and technicians who rank among the best in the country.

Devika Rani’s international style of acting and fresh approach established a new tradition. She acted in numerous classics of the Indian screen, among them Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), Jeevan Nayya and Achyut Kanya (1936), Savitri, Jeevan Prabhat and Izzat (all 1937) and Durga (1939). They brought her many honours from the film industry and the public. In Achyut Kanya, for example, she played Kasturi, an untouchable girl who fell in love with a high caste boy (Ashok Kumar). In 1940, however, Himanshu Rai died, leaving Devika to look after his legacy as a partner in Bombay Talkies and also a producer. Although she had to share control with Sashadhar Mukherjee. She rose to the challenge with Punarmilan, Kangan, Bandhan, Basant, Kismat, Hamari Baat (1943), etc. sending Bombay’s Talkies’ stock skyrocketing. Some of the artistes trained and launched at this time were Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Mumtaz, Shanti, and many others. All was not well, however, and in that same year Sashadhar Mukherjee and a number of regular Bombay Talkies actors left to form a new studio, Filmistan. Consequently in 1945 at the height of her film career, Devika Rani decided to leave Bombay Talkies, marry Svetoslav Roerich, a Russian painter, and retire to her vast Tataguni estate in Bangalore. She continued her involvement with the arts, however, and was nominated to the National Academy of Dance, Drama, Music and Films, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi and was a member of the Executive Board of the National Academy, the Lalit Kala Akademi, the National Handicrafts Board and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

In 1958, the President of India conferred the Padma Shri on Devika Rani for her contribution to Indian films. On 21 November 1970, she was awarded the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award for service to the film industry. She also received the Soviet Land Nehru award in 1989. After her death, her priceless collection of artworks and artifacts was the centre of a legal battle between the Indian and Russian governments as well as the relatives and claimants of her estate.
 
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