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Review of Devika Rani, Goddess of the Silver Screen performed at the Royal Opera House

This wonderful story has been written for stage by Kishwar Desai, wife of Lord Meghnad Desai and has been produced and directed by eminent theatre veteran Lillete Dubey

Primetime Theatre Company’s latest production ‘Devika Rani, Goddess of the Silver Screen’ was performed over the weekend at the Royal Opera House. It returns to Mumbai after premiering here in September and then travelling to Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune. Everywhere it has played to houseful shows.

This wonderful story has been written for stage by Kishwar Desai, wife of Lord Meghnad Desai and has been produced and directed by eminent theatre veteran Lillete Dubey. This is a really tough story to bring to stage, as it captures very vividly many of the events that were a part of actress Devika Rani’s life. She was First Lady of pre-Independence Indian cinema and a trail blazer in every sense of the word. The action in this play not only shifts through three countries but encapsulates two decades of Devika Rani’s career, and therefore it needs an experienced director like Lillete to breath life into it. She does so with ease and aplomb, as she strings together a host of short scenes to tell Devika Rani’s life story. This is difficult to do and if truth be told, the play could certainly have done with some clever editing.

Royal Opera House

Lillete Dubey has done a commendable job of being as true to the protagonist’s life as possible. She gives us a peep into Devika’s life in England where she was studying architecture. Then came her yearning to do something more creative, her meeting with the famous film director Himanshu Rai, who was sixteen years her senior. Then ensued their mutual passion for each other, which led to Devika being cast as the lead in his first ‘talking’ film “Karma”. It was a sure fire hit from the start and Devika was the toast of the film world. Himanshu Rai and Devika got married and went to Berlin where together with renowned film director Frank Osten, they made many films, that got Devika worldwide recognition.

Finally it was time to head home. Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai founded the well known professional studio, Bombay Talkies, that gave us super star actors like Raj Kapoor and Ashok Kumar. Devika was among the first ‘educated’ women to enter India cinema, and she was also extremely talented and utterly beautiful. Her films were strongly women-centric, and dealt with important social themes like caste issues and ostracism of barren women and widows. This play spans her twenty odd years in films, revealing the real Devika behind the reel one. It encompasses her falling out with her husband Himanshu Rai, her love affair with Najam (Rachit Bahal), the hero of many of her films, and many other ups and downs in her life. Finally at 37 Devika leaves the film world behind and goes away to live in Manali, with the love of her life, Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, as “sometimes the universe changes our desires”, and it had certainly done so in Devika’s case. It was now time for her to follow her heart!

Royal Opera House

Ira Dubey as Devika Rani is simply outstanding. Her’s is a tour de force of a role and she does it full justice. Not only does she look the part, but the role seems to fit her like a glove! Joy Sengupta as Himanshu Rai is a perfect foil for the delicate Devika and Joy manages to capture the nuances of his role admirably. Mark Bennington is excellent as Frank Osten, while Pranav Sachdev makes a charming Ashok Kumar.

The costumes designed by Pia Benegal are most authentic and appropriate. What impressed me most was the music by Omkar Patil and the singing by him and Ira Dubey on “Man ki Chidiya Bole Re” from Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar’s film “Achoot Kanya”. Though recorded, they sang it in the style of the original artists! A fabulous production, if only it were slightly tighter and shorter! Do look out for further shows.

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