A review of Franz Osten’s silent film Shiraz (1928) showers praise on actress Enakshi Rama Rau. About Rau, who played a princess and was paired with Himansu Rai, an American newspaper noted, “Miss Rau’s career is worth watching. Her performance in Shiraz alone was impressive.”

Rau is an “accomplished young woman who is also gifted with a level head, and a pioneering spirit”, the review noted, further declaring, “Miss Rau is a specimen of the new India.”

Shiraz, a fictional drama about the construction of the Taj Mahal, had been released in America in 1930, two years after its completion. Rau had a short-lived career before the camera, but she continued to be associated with cinema in direct and indirect ways.

Her second film, Vasantasena, was directed by Mohan Bhavnani in 1931. In the same year, Rau and Bhavnani were married, sparking off a relationship that was always very much a “working partnership”, in the words of their daughter-in-law Marjorie. (Their son Ashok, an architect who settled in the United States, died in 2015.)

Marjorie Bhavani remembers Rama Rau as “a cultured and gentle person” who had a “quiet and pleasant speaking voice”. Mohan Bhavani was “handsome and known for his affability and warmth”, Marjorie Bhavani added. “At six feet, he towered over his wife who barely reached five.”

Enakshi and Mohan Bhavnani after their wedding on February 6, 1931. Courtesy Bhavnani Family Archives.

The Rau-Bhavnani coupling is the story of two fascinating individuals, each of whom emerged from different backgrounds but then went on to find a common cause – the making and promotion of films and documentaries.

Enakshi Rama Rau was born on August 17, 1910. She had attended Baldwin Girls’ School and Queen Mary’s College in Madras (now Chennai) and was an accomplished dancer. Her father, Benignus Rama Rau, had served as district court judge in the Madras Presidency. Her mother, Sagunna, played the piano. Enakshi Rama Rau too played the piano and violin in the western style as well as the dilruba and veena, Marjorie Bhavnani told Scroll.in.

Rama Rau was 18 when she was offered a role in Shiraz. It was produced by Himansu Rai, the future co-founder of the pioneering studio Bombay Talkies. According to Marjorie Bhavnani, the offer elicited consternation in Rama Rau’s conservative family. Though approval was granted grudgingly, Rama Rau was strictly chaperoned during the film shoot.

Enakshi Rama Rau in an undated photograph. Courtesy Bhavnani Family Archives.

Rama Rau would soon meet Mohan Bhavnani, who, like Himansu Rai and V Shantaram, had trained in filmmaking in Germany and returned to India to apply some of his lessons to the nascent film scene.

Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani was born on April 12, 1901, in Hyderabad, Sindh. He had left to study film and photography at College of Technology at Manchester in 1919.

Bhavnani’s stay in England coincided with the success of the touring theatre troupe Indian Players. It was set up by Niranjan Pal, who wrote the screenplay for the Himansu Rai productions Light of Asia and Shiraz.

In Berlin, Bhavnani’s friends included the German critic Willy Haas, who later worked on two of his film scripts, and Walter Kauffman, who scored music for Navjeevan (1935), Bhavnani’s film based on a screenplay by Premchand.

Mohan returned to India from Germany in 1924. He directed Veer Bala for Dwarkadas Sampat’s Kohinoor studio. The movie starred Ruby Myers, the Jewish actress whose screen name was Sulochana. Bhavnani directed Sulochana again in Wildcat of Bombay (27) – she played eight roles in the movie.

Mohan Bhavnani in an undated photograph. Courtesy Bhavnani Family Archives.

Bhavnani was instrumental in initiating the careers of Bibbo (originally Ishrat Sultana), Durga Khote, and David Abraham. Bibbo starred in Bhavnani’s Rangila Rajput, produced by his banner Ajanta Movietone.

Bhavnani’s Mazdoor (1934), the first screenplay written by Premchand after he moved to Bombay, also starred Bibbo. David Abraham, then a struggling actor, was offered a role in Zambo, the Ape-man (1937), and Double Cross (1938), Marjorie Bhavnani said.

Enakshi Rama Rau too was a part of Bhavnani’s films. She appeared in Jagran (1936), where she danced in the Manipuri style, Marjorie Bhavnani recalled. Then came Himalaya Ki Beti and Yangrilla (both 1938.)

Rama Rau also wrote screenplays for Bhavnani’s films, including Bisvi Sadi (1945). She kept up an extensive dance career as well, giving performances around India and occasionally pairing up with European dancers.

(L-R) Actor Linda Christian, scriptwriter Robert Hardy Andrews, Enakshi Bhavnani, actor Tyrone Power and Mohan Bhavnani in Hollywood in 1954. Courtesy Bhavnani Family Archives.

Marjorie Bhavnani speaks about her father-in-law’s prodigious work ethic, how he kept long hours and worked hard to make his films despite financial constraints. Premchand, who had written Mohan Bhavnani’s Mazdoor, also wrote Sherdil Aurat and Navjeewan (both 1935).

Mazdoor, which explored the tensions between management and labour, ran into trouble with the British censors and was banned. It was re-released in 1937, under the new title Daya Ki Devi, but was a commercial failure.

Freedom from British rule in 1947 brought new tidings for Bhavnani. When the Films Division was set up to produce documentaries and newsreels in 1948, Bhavnani was named as its chief.

Bhavnani made documentaries while at Films Division – including Festival Time and The Private Life of a Silkworm – as well as participated in efforts to spread film culture throughout India. Meanwhile, he travelled widely with his wife, including trekking through the Himalayas.

Their trips took them to places such as Kulu and Kangra, Lahaul-Spiti, Ladakh, Darjeeling and Sikkim. In 1951, Enakshi wrote an essay on her trip to Ladakh for National Geographic Magazine, with photos taken by acclaimed photographer Volkmar Wentzel.

Enakshi and Mohan Bhavnani at Nanga Parbat. Courtesy Bhavnani Family Archives.

In 1954, the Bhavnanis travelled to the United States. There, Bhavnani bought equipment, shared the scope of the work he was then doing for Films Division and hoped to gain insight into the world of animation, Marjorie Bhavnani recalled.

In 1958, Bhavnani was invited to China by Premier Zhou En-Lai. Enakshi Bhavnani accompanied Mohan Bhavnani and a filmmaking crew on a three-month tour of the country. The resulting 70-minute documentary China on the March had commentary by Enakshi Bhavnani and Romesh Thapar.

Mohan Bhavnani died on December 30, 1962. Enakshi Rama Rau continued her involvement in the arts. She wrote short stories and collected folk tales across India. She also wrote numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. Four of her books were published between 1965 and 1978, including Dance in India and Decorative Designs on Stone and Wood in India. She died on May 10, 1981.

“She was a kind, peaceful and elegant woman who never raised her voice and listened intensely to others,” said Raoul Bhavnani, her grandson. “She was very interested in the world and in the arts. She cared passionately for the preservation and promotion of the arts in India.”

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