‘Devika Rani’ Brings Back Memories of First Lady of Indian Cinema
This couplet recited by Najam-Ul-Hasan’s character in Lillete Dubey and Kishwer Desai’s Devika Rani sums up what the First Lady of Indian Cinema felt for most of her life. Brought up in England, Devika led a tumultuous life, right from marrying film producer Himanshu Rai at a young age to eloping with her Jawani Ki Hawa co-actor Najam-Ul-Hasan, and finally quitting films at the age of 36 to marry and settle with Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich.
Even though she faced these ups and downs in her personal life, she didn’t fail to leave her mark on Indian cinema. Be it setting up Bombay Talkies with Himanshu Rai, or making several women-centric films in the 1930s, Devika made sure that she was a game-changer in her field.
All this and more is shown effortlessly in the play Devika Rani, written by Kishwer Desai and directed by veteran theatre and film actor Lillete Dubey. The play traces her life from a young 16-year-old Devika studying architecture in London, to the superstar Devika Rani who launched actors like Ashok Kumar, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar.
However, it is not just Rani’s professional rise that the play focuses on; it is the emotional trajectory that she goes through in all those years, that forms the crux of the act. Right from the costumes to the dialogues, every aspect of the act has been created carefully, to make sure it takes the audience back to 1930s.
Capturing the extraordinary life of the actor in a two-hour play wasn’t as easy though. “Right from the beginning, the draft of the script went through nine versions. Then by the time mum (Lillete Dubey) and Kishwer (Desai) got it to us and spoke to us, we broke it down. And it was reworked and reworked with what the actors had to bring in,” says actor Ira Dubey, who plays the titular role in the play.
The play’s cast does an effortless job in portraying their respective characters. The crisp writing makes sure that at all times, the play remains about Devika Rani and the role different people play in her life. From Himanshu Rai, to Najam-Ul-Hasan and Ashok Kumar, all these men had a significant contribution to her life and the same translates on stage.
Actor Pranav Sachdev, who plays the role of Ashok Kumar, says, “Lillete ma’am was very clear as to what she wanted in the play with the character. And it is not a story about Ashok Kumar, but his role in Devika Rani's life. That's the tangent that we were trying to explore from.”
Pranav plays a character closest to the audience’s memory, and a man in whom Devika finds a true friend. Filled with anecdotes about how Ashok Kumar rose to stardom, the play highlights the drastic change in their relationship. From being a nervous technician turned actor in ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya...’ in Acchut Kanya, to being Devika’s confidante and a superstar, Pranav manages to portray Kumar’s character arc with utmost honesty.
“My character does not build through scenes. I just have to come up to do my bit, go back and then come back as a different person. I had to go into the craft aspect of it. So I had to derive in Ashok Kumar from the films that he did during that period and tried to catch the subtle nuances,” says Pranav.
With very little information available about these characters, the actors had to do their bit of research to bring these stars to life on stage. The play rests on Ira’s shoulders, and one can’t help but notice the accuracy with which she uses different accents at various points in Devika’s life.
“I did watch at least five of her films. I looked at them very carefully, just to see her body language. And then there comes a point where you have to you start experimenting,” replies Ira when asked about her research. “I felt she would speak with a very polished accent, and not in a very Indian way as she had been educated in London.”
Talking about complicated characters, one cannot forget Najam-Ul-Hasan. Played by actor Kashyap Shangari, Najam pays a big price of falling in love with Devika Rani as he didn’t get many films after his affair comes to an end. The couplet mentioned in the beginning, was written by Kashyap few years back, rightly depicting Najam’s frame of mind.
In a particular scene, when she decides to leave him and go back to Himanshu and Bombay Talkies, a silence ensues between the two lovers. Before leaving, Najam asks Devika, “Are you doing this for me, or for yourself?” leaving the audience with multiple questions too.
Calling it a difficult moment to enact, Kashyap says, “It's a catharsis moment. I'm guessing Najam must have had an outburst. But the way Kishwer has written it, I had two lines in which I had to show disgust, heartbreak and betrayal, and also the fact that I still love Devika. In order to bring that in one single line, was very challenging.”
While Himanshu Rai and Najam loved Devika, it appeared that she longed for someone to understand what lay behind that feisty, ambitious and confident woman. With everyone, including her fans, trying to pull her down after her widowhood, she forgot that she too, deserved happiness and freedom. From the Devika Rani who could never be caged by societal boundaries, she became the Devika who asks Ashok Kumar in the culmination scene, “Since when are we actresses allowed to have feelings?”
After receiving a great opening response in Pune Delhi and Kolkata, the play was staged in Mumbai on 21 & 22 September, and will be opening in Bangalore on 2 October.