Kanan Devi was a beauty and unmistakably Bengali. She was the queen of Calcutta films eighty years ago, the toast of all India, from Peshawar to Chittagong. Unlike other Bengali stars, Suchitra Sen and Sharmila Tagore, for instance, she achieved this without setting foot in a Bombay film studio. It was a remarkable achievement. The pan-India glory of the Calcutta studios ended, more or less, when she retired.
As Mekhala Sengupta tells us in this fine, engrossing biography, Kanan Devi’s early years are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that she grew up in poverty. Her biological mother was a courtesan in a kotha in the red light area of Calcutta. Kanan Devi herself accepted that she may have been born out of wedlock. She was adopted by a couple and when the father suddenly died the mother and daughter were in dire straits. She was pulled out of school and for a time worked as a maid in people’s homes.
A chance meeting in 1926 when she was ten led her to employment as a child actress in silent films. Her strikingly good looks helped. When the talkies arrived five years later, her world changed entirely. It turned out that she possessed a magnificent voice. She became a singing sensation at New Theatres, one of the biggest Indian studios at that time. She was trained by composer R.C. Boral, who is acknowledged as the pioneer of Indian film music. Composer Anil Biswas has memorably called him the Bhishma Pitamah of film music.
Kanan Devi became part of Calcutta’s cultural elite when she married Oxford-returned Ashok Maitra, but because of her humble origins, snooty Calcutta society never fully accepted her. It was scandalised when none other than Rabindranath Tagore sent her a wedding gift. It was not a happy marriage and ended in divorce five years later. Then she married Haridas Bhattacharjee, a naval officer eight years her junior. That marriage too did not last. They quarrelled over money and he hated being Mr Kanan Devi.
She left New Theatres after five years because felt she was underpaid despite giving the studio seven hits in a row. Certain incidents may have also preyed on her mind. When Lord Brabourne, the governor of Bengal, visited the studio with his wife, some actors on the payroll were invited to join them for tea. Kanan Devi was not one of them.
Most of her films were bilingual, in Bengali as well as Hindi. Her most successful film, Jawab, was made after she left New Theatres. It has stood the test of time. P.C. Barua, who had also quit New Theatres in a huff, wrote the script, directed the film and played the leading man. The story: a rich zamindar steps off a train and falls in love with the station-master’s daughter. Complications arise, since he is engaged to be married to a rich city girl, played by Jamuna.
Barua had earlier wanted Kanan Devi to play Paro in his most famous film, Devdas, but the studio she was working for at that time would not release her. As for Jawab, years later Kanan Devi complained that Barua, who was also in charge of the camera, lit her badly so that her beauty would not eclipse that of Jamuna, who happened to be Barua’s third wife in real life. The popularity of the film was largely due to its evergreen songs. You can still hear two of them on the radio, Aye chand chhup na jaana and Duniya yeh duniya Toofan Mail. That’s Kanan Devi at her best.
The Indian government awarded Kanan Devi with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for her illustrious career in 1976. She died quietly in 1992. The funeral was low-key. The author of this book considers her the first superstar of Indian cinema. That is debatable. Perhaps that honour more appropriately belongs to another Bengali beauty, Devika Rani.