Let's talk about Bombay Talkies

Updated: Feb 05, 2020, 07:26 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

No story mirrors the history of Hindi films as much as the one Lillette Dubey captures in her play, Devika Rani!

(Clockwise from L) Ira Dubey as Devika Rani; Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. File pics
(Clockwise from L) Ira Dubey as Devika Rani; Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. File pics

Mayank ShekharDirector Franz Ozten, being German, clearly had a tough time getting a hang of Hindi. Except Osten is responsible for the most internationally acclaimed/loved Indian films through his career — what with the silent classics The Light Of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928), A Throw Of Dice (1929), let alone talkies like Acchut Kanya (1936) that are still talked about in glowing terms.

Osten was a director, along with several British and German technicians, on the rolls of the visionary film producer Himanshu Rai's Bombay Talkies. While shooting for a Bombay Talkies film called Jeevan Naiya (1934), with the studio star Devika Rani, Osten could simply not pronounce the new lead actor's last name, Ganguly.

On the set, he called out to him by his middle name, "Mr Kumar." Hearing this, Rai got a brainwave, and he decided to change the hero's last name for good, to the casteless Kumar. He thought this would go down better with his ethnically diverse audience.

That hero was Ashok Kumar. And this nom de plume inspired a series of Bollywood heroes with the screen surname Kumar, through generations — right down to Akshay Kumar (who was born Rajiv Bhatia)! Sadly, this isn't quite how this moment pans out in Lillette Dubey's biographical play Devika Rani (that I watched this week).

But what the text on stage does though, while on occasion being fuzzy on history, is reveal sides of Devika Rani's story that can't help but fascinate you into reading and learning more. Which is what I've been doing of late — chiefly from Mihir Bose's deeply anecdotal book, Bollywood: A History.

So far as the play is concerned, why was Ashok Kumar making his acting debut opposite Rani anyway? Because sometime before that, Rani, married to Rai the studio-boss, had run away with his lead actor, Najam-ul-Hussein, to Calcutta!

True story.

Rai had managed to get Rani back, though their marriage remained on the rocks. He insisted on pairing Rani with Ashok Kumar — knowing that this nondescript good-looking boy, trained in law, with no actorial aspirations, working as a production assistant, wanting to be a director, would pose no sexual threat!

That Kumar subsequently became Bollywood's first freelance star, with the eventual decline of the studio system — where everyone, from the spot boy to the hero, would be on monthly salaries — deserves a study/historical of its own, with so much contemporary relevance. Who brought Ashok Kumar, born in Bhagalpur, Bihar, into Bombay Talkies? His brother-in-law Sashadhar Mukherjee, a physicist by training. Look around Bollywood, you're surrounded by Mukherjee's current progeny — Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, director Ayan Mukherjee, etc.

At the centre of Dubey's play is, of course, Devika Rani — educated in England; interned with the likes of Fritz Lang and Merlene Dietrich in Germany; a fine actor and stunner by all accounts on-screen, with brains and tenacity to match — steering Bombay Talkies, a joint stock company/studio with a R25 lakh corpus fund that she co-founded with her husband Rai.

Where was Bombay Talkies? In Malad. There was nothing there. And which effectively explains why the Hindi film industry eventually moved in that north-west direction, having flourished in South Bombay, pre-independence.

What is Bombay Talkies' significance, besides a 40-film roster, including the Kumar-Rani starrer Kismet (1943), which held the longest run in a theatre up until Sholay (1975)? The fact that Rai as a producer envisioned international co-productions back in the 1930s with distribution plans in the West.

Dubey's play (starring Ira Dubey as Devika Rani, and Joy Sengupta as Himanshu Rai) starts with the post-premiere shebang of the Indo-British bi-lingual Karma (1933) in London, where the local press simply can't get enough of Rani. Again, true story.

That the film back then had the longest kiss on screen, lasting four to five minutes, tells you of an unusually permissive space that Rani inhabited — determined to be her own person, and indeed a star on her own terms — while the society, in general, looked down upon acting as a profession for men, and equated the field to prostitution for women.

Dubey's Devika Rani, which I totally recommend for Hindi film and history buffs, does ignite interest in her life and times. Of a world of Bombay Talkies that employed writers, technicians and assistants from leading Indian universities, based on personal interviews, attracting the likes of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Saadat Hasan Manto.

Who was Rani's greatest find, though? She met this guy in Nainital, while he'd gone there to shop for fruits for his father's business. She had him over at Bombay Talkies and asked him four questions —if he could act, if he wanted to act, if he smoked, and if he spoke Urdu.

That gentleman was Mohammad Yusuf Khan.

She named him Dilip Kumar and offered him his first film as lead actor in Jwar Bhata (1944). Who worked as assistant on Jwar Bhata? Raj Kapoor. None of this is in the play, of course; but the story of Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani, Bombay Talkies, and all that stayed and followed seriously deserves a film/series.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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