Ms Representation: The first superstar
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about Devika Rani's Princess of Sitapur in 1933's Karma
The serene precincts of Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai is currently home to an exquisite exhibition on Indian cinema’s early years. A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and The Bombay Talkies features gorgeous black-and-white photographs from the sets of early post-World War II films, offering invaluable access to behind-the-scenes photographs and videos from Wirsching’s (the German cinematographer who made Bombay cinema his home) archives. A large part of the exhibit is devoted to India’s first screen superstar, the winner of the first-ever Dadasaheb Phalke award, Devika Rani, who ruled the screens for a decade, who studied cinema at the UFA studios in Berlin and assisted Marlene Dietrich in the making of Der Blaue Engel in 1930, and was Rabindranath Tagore’s grandniece. Wall-length pictures of the star beckon, offering a rare peek at the work of a pioneering artiste.
I left the exhibit beguiled by Wirsching’s exquisite photos of Devika, and by her grace and screen presence in particular. The next day I watched Karma (1933), directed by JL Freer Hunt. It stars Devika in her debut role, and it is around her role (a princess) that the entire movie revolves. The film has, over the years (just as it had when it released), garnered a ‘reputation’ for being the first Indian film with a long lip-lock scene, but the ‘scandal’ or the forthrightness of the kiss has stolen attention from the fact that here was a film that kept its camera focused on the leading woman, her aspirations, fears and feelings.
Devika plays the Princess of Sitapur who is in love with the Prince of Jayanagar (played by her husband in real life, Himanshu Rai, who helmed Bombay Talkies along with her). The film opens with a song she sings as the two row a boat. The King of Jayanagar does not approve of their match, however, and the royal guru or the ‘Holy Man’ convinces the king to get them married. The princess is a woman of progress, she wants to modernise her kingdom, and the king is a man of tradition. The Holy Man proposes that the marriage will put an end to her dreams of modernisation, for tradition will bind her to his whims after she marries the prince.
The princess organises a hunt, much against the wishes of her people who consider the tiger a holy animal, to win the king’s heart so he will approve of her love. Karma is, in a sense, about the circle of life. Everything goes against the princess from the time she decides to organise the hunt. The king agrees to the wedding but then asks the prince to lead the hunt, making her worry for his safety. She also comes to realise that he has only agreed to the wedding to thwart her plans for modernising the kingdom ("turning temples into hospitals and rice fields into playgrounds," as he puts it).
A karmic cycle gets underway as the prince narrowly escapes an attempt on his life, but ends up shooting a man while aiming for the tiger. As he offers his elephant to the wounded man and walks, he is bitten by a cobra and falls unconscious. The princess goes to a temple of Shiva to pray but is disconcerted the entire time. She hears of the snake bite and heads to the forest. Though the film features many kisses (none hidden by flowers as Bollywood would choose to in later years, fearing censors — this film passed colonial-era censors smoothly), the kiss that follows in the forest, where the prince lies nearly lifeless and she tries to kiss him to wakefulness, as if he were Sleeping Beauty is what supposedly set the tone for notoriety among Indian audiences. Even so, the film did very well in England (this was an Indo-English-German production), as well as in India, though it did fare far better in England than here.
The whole snake bit in the film feels like it feeds into orientalist notions of the East in hindsight, but it is simple storytelling too at the end of the day, original and whimsical. Perfect for the talkies. The princess is a wonderfully complex character. She falters, she loves, she fears, she fights for her beliefs, she wants to progress and take her people with her, she believes, and she succeeds. Karma is her story. How did we come so far away from where we started in Indian cinema?
A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and The Bombay Talkies by Goethe-Institut is on till August 4, 10 am to 6 pm at Lalit Kala Akademi.