Devika Rani Chaudhuri, popularly known as Devika Rani, was an actress in Indian films who was active during the 1930s and 1940s. Widely acknowledged as the first lady of Indian cinema, Devika Rani had a successful film career that spanned 10 years.
Born on March 30, 1908, Devika Rani's early years were mostly spent in London where she studied architecture, and started her career as a textile engineer.
She was born into a Bengali family in Waltair near Visakhapatnam in present-day Andhra Pradesh. Her father, Col. Manmatha Nath Chaudhuri, was the first Indian Surgeon-General of Madras Presidency. Her paternal uncles were Ashutosh Chaudhuri, Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, the prominent Kolkata-based barrister Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri and the Bengali writer Pramatha Chaudhuri.
In 1928 Devika Rani first met her future husband, Himanshu Rai, an Indian film-producer, who persuaded her to join his production crew. Rai, an Indian barrister-turned-film maker, was in London preparing to shoot his forthcoming film A Throw of Dice. Rai was impressed with Devika's "exceptional skills" and invited her to join the production team of the film, although not as an actress. She readily agreed, and traveled to India with Himanshu Rai for this assignment, assisting him in areas such as costume designing and art direction. The two also traveled to Germany for the post-production work, where she had occasion to observe the film-making techniques of the German film industry, specifically of G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang. Inspired by their methods of film-making, she enrolled for a film-making course at Universum Film AG studio in Berlin. Devika Rani learnt various aspects of film-making and additionally also took a special course in film acting.
Debika Rani assisted in costumes design and art direction for Rai's film A Throw of Dice (1929). They got married in 1929. Rai cast her in the 1933 talkie Karma in which her performance received critical acclaim. The couple established their production studio Bombay Talkies in 1934 after coming back to India.
They produced many women-centric films throughout the decade, with Devika Rani portraying lead roles in most of them. Her on-screen pairing with Ashok Kumar became popular in India.
She was awarded with several awards including Padmashri (1958), Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1970) and the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1990).
Devika Rani was called the first lady of Indian cinema. She is credited for being one of the earliest personalities who took the position of Indian cinema to global standards. Her persona and roles in films were often considered socially unconventional.
Her films were mostly tragic romantic dramas that contained social themes.
The roles played by her in films of Bombay Talkies usually involved in romantic relationship with men who were unusual for the social norms prevailing in the society at that time, mainly for their caste background or community identity. She was highly influenced by the German cinema by virtue of her training at the UFA Studios.
At the peak of her career she retired from films, and in 1945 she married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, son of Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, leading thereafter life of a recluse. After marriage, the couple moved to Manali, Himachal Pradesh where they got acquainted with the Nehru family. During her stay in Manali, Devika Rani made a few documentaries on wildlife. After staying in Manali for some years, they moved to Bangalore, Karnataka, and settled there. She passed away on March 9, 1994 at the age of 85.