Kishwar Desai’s meticulously researched The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani is a double-weave of scenes from a marriage that transformed Hindi cinema as well as a woman’s lonely struggle to assert herself in a world run by men.
The biography traces the relationship between Himansu Rai, the actor and filmmaker who was among the early adventurers of Indian cinema, and his wife Devika Rani, who starred in Rai’s productions as well as became a founding partner of their studio Bombay Talkies in 1934.
The marriage lasted until Rai’s death in 1940 at the age of 48. Devika Rani spent the early part of her widowhood battling for control of Bombay Talkies. In 1945, she left Bombay Talkies and cinema and married the Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich, eventually settling down with him in Bengaluru. She died on March 9, 1994, at the age of 85.
In her introduction to The Longest Kiss (Westland Books), Kishwar Desai describes Devika Rani as “a rebellious and unusually talented and beautiful woman, a great actress and studio head who changed the course of Indian cinema in many ways, despite her intense personal suffering”. Among a series of letters written to Roerich before their wedding is a message from 1945, in which Devika Rani writes about herself in the third person: “She is so scarred my dearest, been beaten, been starved, been made to work and work without consideration, been crushed mentally, but God has saved her from being broken.”
The title refers both to the lengthy lip-lock between Devika Rani and Himansu Rai in the movie Karma in 1933 as well as the complicated relationship they shared before and during their marriage.
The reported abuse was among the themes in the play Devika Rani: Goddess of the Silver Screen, written by Desai and directed by Lillete Dubey in 2019. Among the triggers for Rai’s behaviour appears to have been Devika Rani’s well-documented affair with Najam ul Hussain, with whom she appeared in the first Bombay Talkies production Jawani Ki Hawa, in 1935. The pair briefly eloped, causing a scandal and putting an end to Najam ul Hussain’s future at Bombay Talkies.
Another possible factor was Rai’s precarious mental health, which was exacerbated by the pressures of running the studio. Between 1938 and 1940, Desai says, Rai had been receiving psychiatric treatment.
Apart from the rare and previously unseen letters, The Longest Kiss draws on original research and interviews. Desai throws in imagined conversations between Rai and Devika Rani and other characters – described in the book as “a bit of literary licence”. The Longest Kiss concludes in 1945, and covers Devika Rani’s later years in an epilogue.
Desai’s previous publications include Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, Jallianwalla Bagh: The Real Story, and the trilogy Witness the Night, Origins of Love and Sea of Innocence. The three novels has been optioned for a web series. Desai is in the middle of negotiations for a screen adaptation of The Longest Kiss too, she told Scroll.in. In an interview, the writer revealed how she distilled over 4,000 documents into a chronicle of the actor whom she describes as “a pioneer, then and now”.
How did your impressions of Devika Rani change as you conducted your research over a 15-year period?
To begin with, there wasn’t very much written on her except for a few write-ups or brief biographies. They had a lot of inaccuracies.
I knew that she was a gorgeous and accomplished actress, but not much more. I was intrigued when I saw her movies at the National Film Archive of India, and that somebody like her wasn’t talked about more. She and her husband were making cinema for an international audience. Himansu Rai started the trend of the globalisation of Indian cinema in the 1920s, and that has somehow been forgotten. Why weren’t we talking about this more?
My impressions in the beginning were a bit hazy. There was little written even on Himansu. The narrative was gradually built up brick by brick, little by little, through interview after interview and reading magazine articles and visiting Bombay Talkies in Malad. I collected material from the NFAI, watched as many films that were available and then began putting together a narrative about the globalisation of early Indian cinema.
My impression about Devika Rani radically changed. She did not get very good press in magazines and other places. Later on, she was considered the reason that Bombay Talkies fell apart. That impression changed when I realised how much she had to struggle, what all she had to go through, and how she kept her dignity despite all the things done to her.
Her case was unusual. She was a widow in her early thirties. She continued acting and fighting a battle with her back against the wall. She negotiated and manoeuvred and managed to get a majority share holding at Bombay Talkies. I hugely admire her – not too many women are so shrewd about money.
How did you get your hands on the letters, which form the backbone of ‘The Longest Kiss’?
There was no formal archive. The papers were all scattered about, which made it very difficult.
The letters came from research. I was going all over the place, to any person who had anything to do with Devika. I have done a lot of travel chasing down the material.
I did come across people who had material but wanted money for it. I managed to get some of the archival material as well as other papers regarding Bombay Talkies. Devika had kept all the letters. The accompanying documents had to be brought in and fitted in.
The latter part of her life could become a book by itself. I wanted to capture her story, the most poignant and most important part of her life, which was when she was at Bombay Talkies.
Devika Rani appears to indicate in her letters to Svetoslav Roerich that Himansu Rai abused her. How did this knowledge change your impression of him and his considerable achievements?
It was very distressing to find out that Himansu was abusive. Devika has spoken of how he hit her – she used the words I have been scarred and beaten, but she kept saying it made her stronger. I had to read these words many times many times over.
Himansu was really cruel toward Devika. These equations, when you are in such a precarious world that derives its success and failure from the success and failure of your films, are so fragile, so ephemeral.
A person can have two sides to his character. Himansu was a talented producer and actor, but that does not mean that he could not be an abusive husband behind closed doors. Without making excuses, he was going through psychological problems. His breakdown continued until his death. The reason I know he was under psychiatric care was that I managed to locate the hospital bills at the time. A psychiatrist and a general physician had been taking care of him for three years before he passed away.
Himansu worked relentlessly, raising funds, getting together the board for the Bombay Talkies. Devika contributed too, and this brought out a disturbing element. They had to produce three films a year. She was the main actress in every film and couldn’t take a single day off.
Devika Rani was a product of her times. Do you also see her as an early victim of the gender tensions that we now characterise as MeToo?
The tensions, definitely, but she wasn’t a victim. She somehow managed to fight her battles with the men in the studio, and she invariably won. Otherwise, it would be somebody trying to make a pass at her or going over her head to take a decision at the studio.
Whether sexual or professional, Devika was a strategic thinker. She was also one of the early women in Indian cinema who understood and was in charge of her sexuality. There were people she chose to be linked with – she was aware of her power, in that sense. She chose to be romantically linked with [director] Amiya Chakravaty, with Najam [the actor] and later with Svetoslav.
During MeToo, many of the cases are about exploitation. In Devika’s case, she drew the line. She wasn’t afraid of the hard life, but she would not enter into an exploitative relationship. She was somehow fortunate that she could pick and choose the person she wanted.
The device of using imaginary conversations is risky for readers not reading closely enough. It blurs the line between research and imagination.
I have always been keen that the study of Indian cinema should be more broad-based, and should drag in the reader who is not reading an academic book.
There are about 10 to 12 imagined conversations. I used one in the beginning because I wanted to grab the attention of the normal reader, who is reading the book as the story of a woman. I also wanted to bring in the environment as it was at the time, the descriptive values. I wanted to emphasise the early love between Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. I wanted to bring in a certain amount of feeling into certain aspects of their lives. Her later travails with Bombay Talkies as described in the book are all based on actual meetings.
How different was the process of writing ‘The Longest Kiss’ from ‘Darlingji’, your book on Sunil Dutt and Nargis based on their letters to each other?
They are completely different. Nargis and Sunil Dutt are contemporary figures, in a sense. They had children and families. I had 50 hours of tape and letters and diaries for Darlingji, and that had its own rigour too.
It was far more difficult with regard to The Longest Kiss. Devika Rani became a recluse after 1945 and 1946. The documents were scattered. I had to read over and over again to figure out which event was happening when.
I tend to overdo my research. In the case of The Longest Kiss, I had to forcibly lock myself down and write. Every available chair was covered with documents that had to be put in order. If it hadn’t been for the lockdown [in 2020], I don’t know how I could have finished the book.
What does the Bombay Talkies experiment say about showbiz then and now?
I think that it was an experiment that could not be repeated. It was a dream studio, where everybody, from the studio head to the employees, stayed under one roof. It was run like a school.
Bombay Talkies set the terms for later studios in terms of the professionalisation and corporatisation of cinema. Already at the time, Devika was complaining about the influence of the black market and all kinds of people coming into the industry.
If ‘The Longest Kiss’ does yield a movie or a web series, will you be involved?
I am already working on a couple of other books and a novel. I would love to be associated as a consultant. I was keen to write the web series, but it would mean spending a lot of time in Bombay, which I won’t be able to.
I have done a play and a book on Devika Rani. Let someone else look at her with fresh eyes.