The queen comes to stage

Published: Aug 30, 2019, 07:00 IST | Snigdha Hasan |

Lillette Dubey's new play brings to life the fascinating story of Devika Rani, recreating the era when the first lady of Indian cinema called the shots among men

Ira Dubey
Ira Dubey

In the early 1930s, separated from the era when men would play women's roles in films by merely two decades, a charming beauty graced the Indian silver screen. Acting was still not considered a respectable career choice, and finding women in the industry from sophisticated backgrounds was unheard of. But for a girl who studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and music at Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1920s, being in front of the camera came as naturally to her as it does to her NYU-schooled successors a century later — with the benefit of mass adulation. But the feisty spirit that she was, societal acceptance was of little consequence to her anyway.

That's why "trailblazer" seems like an apt description for Devika Rani when Lillette Dubey describes the protagonist of her new, eponymous play. Set to premiere in Kolkata this weekend, the play is the result of Dubey's engagement with Rani, hailed as the first lady of Indian cinema, for close to one and a half years. "It all began sometime last year when I met my college mate and [London-based] author Kishwar Desai. She was writing a book on Devika Rani and told me she had access to letters, which were not in the public domain. While I knew of the work Rani had done — who doesn't? — what interested me was the woman and what made her who she is," shares the noted actor-director, referring to her interest in original Indian writing and portraying strong female characters in her productions — the pioneering singer Gauhar Jaan being one of her more recent subjects.


Once Rani's life story was before Dubey (she also spoke to screenwriter and Rani's close associate Niranjan Pal's grandson), the task of identifying which phase of her life to put the spotlight on came next. "We chose to focus on the period between the point she met Himanshu Rai, whom she married later, to the point when she decided to leave everything for a life in the hills with her second husband and Russian artist [Svetoslav Roerich]," she says.

The period, Dubey explains, was a critical one. "She made her debut with Rai's Karma [1933; the first Indian movie in English] and the film premiered at London's West End. She managed to charm every reviewer in England. And while we talk of global icons today, she was already being approached to star in American and German movies. But she shared Rai's dream. They returned to India, set up Bombay Talkies in 1934, having learnt from the best to bring the best here," she adds, speaking of the studio the couple set up in Malad, which was run professionally in a corporate set-up, with German and British artistes sharing space with their Indian counterparts to make films on progressive subjects.

Devika Rani was a pioneering actor of the era

The final draft of the script materialised simultaneously with the casting for the play, and having just watched a full-fledged dress rehearsal, Dubey is a pleased director and a proud mother. Her daughter Ira portrays Rani's role while Joy Sengupta plays Rai. "I didn't choose her because she is my daughter. I didn't take her for Gauhar Jaan. But she works hard and she has come to own her character," says Dubey.

Speaking about the kind of research that went into portraying Rani, Ira shares, "While everyone knows about Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani as this gorgeous actor, nobody has really told her story. We didn't want to focus on her pinnacle of success, but what she had to go through to get there. And she was never apologetic about her life and choices." The most challenging part of her role, Ira admits, were the layers to Rani's persona.

"She was known as the dragon lady in the studio, cracking the whip in a patriarchal world; but she came from a very cultured family; Rabindranath Tagore was her granduncle. So, her feistiness and spunk played out in this set-up," she adds.

To recreate the era of the 1930s and '40s, Dubey roped in Pia Benegal to design the costumes, who has used cotton georgette, drill suiting, wool brocades, silk and satin, keeping Rani's classy sartorial choices in mind.
Even as the world of cinema is the backdrop to the production, both Dubey and Ira maintain that the play is far from being Rani's filmography. "Here was a woman trying to hold her own. A woman not being able to have it all, sacrificing some things as she tried to fulfil herself," says Dubey. "And I feel sad that after all these years, some things have just not changed."

ON September 7, 7.30 pm (Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point); September 8, (St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra West); September 21(Bal Gandharva Auditorium, Bandra West) and September 22, Royal Opera House, Girgaum.
Entry Rs 500 onwards

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