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When Devika Rani assisted Marlene Dietrich

Before she stepped in front of the camera, Devika Rani had quite the cinematic training in Europe. On her 23rd death anniversary (9 March), we examine her path to becoming the First Lady of the Indian screen.

Marlene Dietrich and Devika Rani

Sonal Pandya

Devika Rani, recipient of the first Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1969, wore many hats in her celebrated career as an actress and, later, manager of Bombay Talkies. Known as the 'First Lady of the Indian screen', Devika Rani was one of the early stars of Hindi cinema. Her pairing with upcoming actor Ashok Kumar led to many hit films from Jeevan Naiya (1936) to Anjaan (1941).

Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya (1936)

Devika Rani was a true pioneer in the nascent industry where many women worked under a rigid studio system. The fiercely independent Devika Rani marched to the beat of her own drums from an early age. A grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, she was sent abroad for her education by her father, Col MN Chaudhury, the first Indian surgeon-general of Madras presidency.

Born on 30 March 1908, Devika Rani attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) as a scholarship student and the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she met her future husband, Himanshu Rai.

She encountered the former lawyer-turned-filmmaker at the house of playwright Niranjan Pal with whom she resided as a lodger. Devika, already a student of architecture and textile design, became art director and costume designer for Rai's film A Throw Of Dice (1929). Rai also sent Devika Rani to Berlin for further film training and hands-on instruction from German cinema's biggest names.

There, Devika Rani got the opportunity to work under screen legend Marlene Dietrich as her makeup assistant on Der Blaue Engel or The Blue Angel (1930). She picked up German quickly and learnt many a lesson under the distinctive Dietrich, who called her young assistant 'Liebling'. Some might even argue that the young Devika Rani modelled her look on the glamorous star.

Acting classes with master director GW Pabst were also on the agenda, as was working with stage director Max Reinhardt's production unit.

Devika Rani once told writer Amita Malik in a Filmfare magazine interview in 1958, “I underwent training not to be a specialist but because Rai wished me to have all-round knowledge to help me as an artiste. Training at UFA was a thorough and strenuous business. I first entered as an ordinary worker and was an apprentice in the make-up, costume and sets departments. I worked under their most famous make-up man and there were no other apprentices under him. And yet, after two years of intensive general training and tests, you were asked to forget it all, because you had become too mechanical! You were asked to become yourself.”

Himanshu Rani and Devika Rani in Karma (1933)

The journey abroad greatly aided the couple, particularly Devika Rani, who brought not just the filmmaking lessons but also foreign talent like Josef Wirsching to the fledgling film industry at home. Devika Rani's screen debut, Karma (1933), an Indo-German co-production, was shown both in Europe and in India. When the film was released, The Daily Dispatch of Manchester called Devika Rani "so lovely that she puts the stereotyped charms of Hollywood blondes completely in the shade".

In 1934, Devika Rani and Rai returned to India and founded Bombay Talkies, one of India's premier film studios, in Malad, which then lay well beyond the Bombay city limits. After Rai's untimely death in 1940, Devika Rani took over the reins at the studio and was responsible for some of its biggest successes.

With all that initial training and exposure, Devika Rani could recognize talent when it presented itself. She was responsible for giving parts to newcomers Madhubala and Dilip Kumar. Many talented artistes, both behind and in front of the camera, from Raj Kapoor to Saraswati Devi, passed through the legendary halls of Bombay Talkies.

After a decade of dominance on the screen, Devika Rani did not appear on screen again after Hamari Baat (1943) and retired quietly from films as Devika Rani Roerich, wife of Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, a far cry from the vivacious teenager who wanted to learn everything about the medium.