Devika Rani moved in front of the camera with a visible sense of comfort and assurance. One of Indian cinema’s earliest stars, Devika Rani was a trailblazer in numerous ways: the co-founder of the studio Bombay Talkies, an icon in her time, and a liberated performer unafraid to kiss her co-star on the screen, as the famous sequence from Karma (1933) demonstrates.

One song from Devika Rani’s career sums up her persona: Main Ban Ki Chidiya from Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya (1936). Kasturi (Devika Rani), a Dalit woman, looks deep into the eyes of her lover Pratap (Ashok Kumar), a Brahmin, and sings about how she will be as free as a bird some day. Kasturi doesn’t ask Pratap if he will join her. She looks around at the surrounding trees and dreamily sings about freedom. The song was composed by Khorshed Minocher-Homji, a Parsi woman known better by the name Saraswati Devi. She was India’s first female music director.

Achhut Kanya was progressive both for its time and the present. The movie questions the inherent injustice in the caste system through the tragic love story of Kasturi and Pratap. Caste doesn’t come in the way of their friendship, but rears its ugly head when it comes to the question of their marriage.

The song emerges after a sequence in which Kasturi is reminded of her low-born status. Pratap’s mother has declared that Pratap will not touch or eat food cooked in Kasturi’s house. Kasturi wants to spend time with Pratap, but knows that he cannot come inside her house. She escapes through a back door and begins Main Ban Ki Chidiya as she stands near a tree. Pratap wants to join her, but hesitates. He finds a way of reaching her without entering the house.

Kasturi’s song is not just about being a bird, but about belonging to a world that will not judge her. There is a sense of sheepishness and restlessness between the couple as they look into each other’s eyes and blush.

Main Ban Ki Chidiya represents the few minutes of calm before the storm in Achhut Kanya – moments that Kasturi steals for herself and Pratap to dream of a future in which caste doesn’t matter.

Main Ban ki Chidiya (1936).