Everyone’s familiar with Madhubala, Nargis, and Meena Kumari.
But few know of Devika Rani, a star actor and film producer, who co-founded Bombay Talkies, India’s first self-contained film studio.
Following her first husband Himanshu Rai’s untimely death, she headed the studio when the concept of working women wasn’t encouraged in mainstream society.
Devika acted in 15 movies in 10 years, and headed Bombay Talkies for 5 years, before abruptly quitting the film business altogether in 1945.
Here’s a glimpse into her life.
Born on 30 March 1908, Rani’s father, Manmathanath Chaudhuri, was the first Indian surgeon-general of the Madras Presidency. Rabindranath Tagore was her granduncle.
She was sent to a private school in London and earned a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the UK.
She met her first husband Himanshu in 1928, while assisting with costume design and art direction for his experimental silent film ‘A Throw of Dice’ in 1929.
Following the marriage, the couple moved to Berlin, where they worked at the UFA studios, a once-legendary German motion-picture production company.
Here, Rani received training in several aspects of filmmaking under various luminaries like director GW Pabst and Eric Pommer.
In 1933, she made her on-screen debut alongside Rai in his bilingual film, Karma.
The couple set up Bombay Talkies the same year on an 18-acre plot in Malad, Mumbai, alongside Bengali screenwriter Niranjan Pal.
The reputation of Bombay Talkies as India’s premier film studio was largely down to Rani’s charismatic performances on-screen and her ability to pitch these films to financiers.
In the following five years, the studio produced hits like Naya Sansar (1941) and Kismet (1943).
Despite her success, the film industry was an arena dominated by men where sexism reigned supreme.
After a string of films, which failed to break the bank, she resigned herself and quit the business altogether.
Suffice to say, Bombay Talkies never recovered from her resignation.
She passed away on 9 March 1994 in Bengaluru.
In a world where women would endure several hard knocks for even contemplating these measures in the film industry, Devika Rani stood out.
She walked a path that few women in Indian cinema have managed to, and showed them what it means to take ownership of their craft and finances.