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While this is the story of Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai, their relationship and the studio, Bombay Talkies that they struggled to set up, what comes through is a woman’s struggle against a patriarchy that judges her on the basis of her beauty and assumed behaviour. Tagore’s grandniece locked eyes with the much older producer through a window at midnight in London, as stagey an introduction as any. The relative she was staying with at the time warned Rai off the beautiful young girl, but karma intervened and eventually brought them together.
The first part of the book is about Rai’s struggles to finance his studio which involved seducing naive German frauleins, one of whom gave him a daughter, and while detailed and well researched the book does have readers wondering when Devika Rani will finally sweep in and take centre stage. Desai does not disappoint—Devika Rani enters and becomes Mrs Himanshu Rai. The first film that they starred in was fittingly called Karma. Launched in London’s Hyde Park, Karma dazzled all beholders and became infamous for the longest kiss in Indian cinema, two minutes of screen time in which Devika Rani liplocked with an unconscious Rai. Hyped as Tagore’s grandniece, she began attracting attention at a time when Indian cinema was in a nascent stage and when most actresses were women from doubtful backgrounds.
To do him credit, Himanshu Rai, billed as the Indian Casanova and chased by creditors—mainly female—was solely devoted to setting up his production company. He and Devika advertised for educated actresses and the production crew they assembled was mainly German with a talented Bengali faction at its head. Desai keeps the interest in their personal life going by hinting at a dark secret and intersperses the text with letters from Devika Rani to Svetoslav Roerich whom she was later to marry. Desai’s research is based on 4,000 letters and studio documents, which Roerich had advised her to archive, and lockdown helped the author to organise the papers.
The fact that a beautiful actress’ life is not easy emerges from the book— driven to elopement by Rai’s abusive behaviour, Devika Rani chose to be branded a seductress rather than reveal Rai’s psychological issues and weaken the foundations of Bombay Talkies. The kind of strength that enabled her to hold her tongue while being misunderstood on all fronts—Manto shredded her character in his story of the actress Lateeka Rani—would seem strange in these kiss-and-tell tabloid days.
The Longest Kiss is as much a story of the setting up of Indian cinema as it is the story of the actress who became a studio head and who could sing and develop film concepts with ease. Ultimately internal politics shredded Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani found love in Svetoslav Roerich and abandoned the tumultuous film world. Her life is the stuff of films, and was the subject of a successful play scripted by Kishwar Desai. The star struck as well as film historians will find much to relish in her story.
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