Monday, December 11, 2006

Devika Rani - Bollywood's First Lady

This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the landmarks of Indian cimema, 'Achut Kanya' (The Untouchable Girl). The star of the movie was Devika Rani, co-founder of Bombay Talkies and an icon of Indian cinema herself. She was the grand niece of the legendary poet & Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who was knighted but resigned his commission out of protest to British rule in India. Devika herself was no stranger to awards being the first ever recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award - annually given for lifetime achievement to Indian cinema and the Padma Shri Award for her contribution to the arts.

Devika Rani went to England in the 1920's to study architecture and also ended up studying drama & music at the Royal Academy of Drama. It was there that she met her husband (Himanshu Rai) who was an Indian actor and film producer. Together they collaborated on one of the first Indian talkies 'Karma' in 1933. While on their honeymoon in Germany they became well acquainted with many German filmmakers and technicians who came to Bombay to usher in Bollywood as we know it. One of those, director Franz Osten, was responsible for her most memorable role in 'Achut Kanya'. Starring opposite her was Ashok Kumar (older brother of Kishore) who incidentally was cast after the original hero eloped with Devika. However, she did return to finish the film.

The earliest (and still one of the few) films to deal with the Dalits/Untouchables, it was the fledgling Bombay Talkies first bonafide hit. This film about a Brahmin boy and an Untouchable girl who fall in love generated quite a bit of controversy during the same time that Mahatma Gandhi was crusading for the rights of the Dalits in Indian society. Gandhi gave many lectures regarding this issue and fasted for the Dalit's rights to enter temples, an act that resulted in many death threats against him. Gandhi declared that there is no such thing as an untouchable in the holy writings as the very idea conflicted with humanity and therefore could not be the divine truth. Despite many attempts to reform this issue it still persists in modern India to this day. See one innovative idea to help with improving the Dalit's lives here

The songs for today are not from the movie itself but rather are inspired by it. The first one is Phoolon Ke Rang sung by Kishore Kumar from the movie 'Prem Pujari'. Devika often teased her friend and co-star Ashok about how much a better singer his younger brother Kishore was and often listened to his songs on her movie sets. The second song is from another recipient of the Padma Shri Award, Diwaliben Bhil. She originally hails from Junagadh, Gujarat and is a member of the Koli tribe. Diwaliben also happens to be a member of the lower castes but this did not stop her from achieving international fame & success. The song is a traditional Krishna Bhajan but it is made very special by her rendition of it.

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