In many ways, the particularity of an epoch and the place often creeps into a biographical sketch. This is the case in The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai, an account of the unusual journey of arguably the first female superstar of Hindi cinema. The historical register of Bombay of the 1930s and 40s finds its way into the pages of the book, even if that may not have been the intention. While Desai doesn’t let the leading lady slip out of the narrative frame, the book offers some slices of evolving elite and middle-class mores in India’s western metropolis in the first half of the twentieth century.
One such instance of this appears in the epilogue of the book in the form of a newspaper headline about Devika’s marriage to her second husband Svetoslav Roerich, the Russian painter and aristocrat, in August 1945. It reads, “Miss Devika Rani remarried, honeymoon in the Himalayas.” The practice of honeymoon wasn’t a strictly elite affair in Bombay at that time and the press was possibly aware that even in its middle-class readership, the practice was catching on as a fad. One might remember that in 1938, professor Govind Sadashiv Ghurye, who taught Sociology at Bombay University, conducted a survey titled Sex Habits of a Sample of Middle- Class People of Bombay, probably the first sex survey in the country. Of his 311 respondents, 34 had been on a honeymoon.
In the preceding chapter about Devika’s final year in Bombay, Desai alludes to the social subtext in some of the letters she wrote to Roerich. “The letters also provide an insight into the swinging Bombay of the 1940s…a city where the cosmopolitan as well as conservative couples were rethinking the boundaries of their sexual life,” Desai remarks.
However, these are minor notes in the larger story that Desai meticulously tells, tracing the different strands of Devika’s eventful life in Europe, and later in India when she returned in 1933 with her first husband Himansu Rai to set up Bombay Talkies, arguably India’s first professional film production house. They came to India after the release of Devika’s debut talkie film Karma in England in which Rai had also acted. It was an Indo-British-German collaboration and was pitched as the first Indian talkie to be screened in Europe. Two years before, Alam Ara had already become the first Indian talkie. Produced in both English and Hindi, Karma is still remembered for a long kissing scene, probably the longest one on Indian screen. Interestingly, it wasn’t an amorous situation in the film and its duration was exaggerated.
“It was a pretty one-sided kiss, as Himansu lies knocked out by the snake bite, and it lasted all of two minutes. For some reason, most people imagined it was at least five minutes long. Perhaps, to the shocked audience of the time, it seemed fairly lengthy,” Desai writes. Nonetheless, the scene finds a way to the cover of the book and even forms the title. Given the wide canvas on which Desai attempts to recreate Devika’s life in the limelight as well as seclusion, the book could have gone for a more imaginative title.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Desai’s attempt at chronicling Devika’s life is its meticulous research. It has an air of authenticity about it as the narrative has been woven with primary sources like personal letters and professional documents (4,000 documents running into 8,000 pages, stored in two large suitcases, as the author cites in the acknowledgments). These are supplemented with sprinkling of other sources like the biography of Bombay Talkies scriptwriter Niranjan Pal and even scrutiny of the authenticity of Saadat Hasan Manto’s writings on the Hindi film industry, including a thinly veiled satirical short story about Devika and Bombay Talkies, and numerous press reports, articles, and reviews. Even film publicity material has found relevant use in reconstructing Rani’s life in the tinsel town.
Devika’s personal and professional papers are the base on which Desai builds his narrative. Prodded by Roerich, and helped by Rai’s habit of filing and preserving all correspondence and documents, Devika kept her personal papers safely. She even carried her repository of letters when she moved to Kullu, and later to Tataguni farm near Bangalore — places she chose to settle with Roerich after quitting the Bombay film industry in 1945.
There are three important ways in which Desai manages to use these letters to create a microcosm of that particular period. First, the global collaborations that defined the formative stages of filmmaking in India comes out clearly with the parallel lives of Rai and scriptwriter Niranjan Pal along with their creative, technical and commercial allies in Britain and Germany. While both Rai and Devika honed their cinematic skills at the Berlin-based UFA Studios, London-based BIF opened other avenues. German technical expertise powered Bombay Talkies, with the German director Franz Osten and his crew at the helm of most of its early films. At the same time, the entrepreneurial strides that theatre and filmmaking made were evident in Elphinstone Bioscope Company foraying into filmmaking and Madan Theatres Ltd getting listed on the stock market.
Second, it captures the life of the Indian community, mostly children of the Indian aristocratic or professional elite, living in London, the seat of the colonial rulers of their country. Some of them, like Niranjan, landed in the country for expedient reasons of evading police back in India. It is ironic that the son of well-known freedom fighter and revolutionary Bipin Chandra Pal comes across as an Anglophile. “His greatest admiration was reserved for the British in England, who he said were far more straightforward than the wily Indians,” Desai observes.
Even the anglicised nature of Devika’s upbringing comes to the fore. Despite being the great grandniece of Bengali doyen Rabindranath Tagore, the book informs us at one point, “She read the Bengali slowly because she had half-forgotten the script.”
Third, Desai’s account of the early years of Bombay Talkies also gives a sense of how the production house was the breeding ground for a number of fresh names in Hindi cinema who would later become stars. This included stalwarts of later years like Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Leela Chitnis, Madhubala, and writers and publicists like KA Abbas.
In his autobiography The Substance and Shadow, published in 2014, Dilip Kumar, who made his debut in Jwar Bhata (1944), wrote, “Bombay Talkies was the best thing that happened to me at that juncture in my life. I couldn’t have found a better job than the one offered to me by Devika Rani.” The legacy of talent that Bombay Talkies left was especially remarkable given the fact that it was a period when men and women from respectable and educated families were hesitant to work in films and, particularly, female characters were mostly enacted by courtesans and prostitutes.
The life of Devika Rani
Perhaps it’s in this context that Devika marked a point of departure as her elite background and foreign education were expected to bring respectability and a new sensibility to the craft and commerce of filmmaking in India. Besides her professional challenges in a male-dominated industry, Desai has also sympathetically dwelt on the leading lady’s personal space.
The book also dwells on a dark phase of Rani’s relationship with her first husband when she managed to hide physical and mental abuse from the public. Her adulterous flings with at least two of her colleagues, the reconciliatory tone of a cuckold husband, and the power games for control of the faction-riven Bombay Talkies after Rai’s death also form a sizable part of the book.
The final sections of the book deal with her triumph in seizing control of the production house she had built with Rai before disillusionment with a film world short of “great ideas, men and women” led her to leave it all and settle in the Himalayas with her second husband.
For all the sensitivity with which the book tries to relive phases of Devika’s agony, it inexplicably doesn’t evoke sympathy for her except for the abuse she suffered during her relationship with Rai. Perhaps privileges of a charmed life, rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty in London and the company of the political elite in India don’t lend the kind of vulnerability to her that the narrative tries to convey.
Blessed with abundant personal and professional documents but confronted with the challenge of bringing them into a narrative, Desai has managed to come up with an important account of one of the key figures in the early years of Indian cinema. In recreating the life of Devika, the book also makes informative detours to register the historical moments unfolding in the new entertainment industry in Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century.