Actor and director Lillete Dubey tends to gravitate towards strong women as protagonists in her plays. The quest has led her to Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema, says Saimi Sattar
Who is the Indian actress who was on the verge of becoming our first global star, ran a production house, discovered some of the best known talent of the time (think thespian Dilip Kumar, beauteous Madhubala and the unparalleled Nargis) and was called the first lady of Indian cinema? Devika Rani was more than that. She was also the first woman actor who came from what could be termed as an elite family, lived her personal life on her terms and once she gave up the arc lights, never turned back dedicating herself to art and culture. With a life that was as varied and eventful as hers, it’s indeed a surprise that her bio file has not been recreated on screen or stage. Until now.
It took another powerhouse performer, Lillete Dubey, to recognise the intensity and magnetism that her story could exert when performed on stage. “The Primetime Theatre Company promotes Indian writers and dramatises works written by people like Mahashweta Devi, Girish Karnad. There are classics like Adhe Adhoore and Kanyadaan. There’s none that was written abroad and adapted for performance. Devika Rani too came out of that space,” says Lillete about the company where she has been the artistic director for almost 29 years now.
It was perchance that she met Kishwar Desai, a college mate, in March last year. “She had written a book on Devika Rani and I remarked that she was a fascinating woman which could make a terrific play,” recalls Lillete. And Kishwar promptly asked if she was interested in staging it. Both of them tried to figure out if there was something in her biography that could lend itself to a play “since she had such a wide arc and a long and interesting ride that went on till she was 87”. Lillete decided that it was not her cinematic history that she wanted to portray because neither was it a film nor the theme for a dissertation or a documentary. “We were looking at her real and not reel life. Her personal journey growth, trajectory and her evolution are what interested me,” says Lillete. So the play covers the period from the time she meets Himanshu Rai (1928), whom she later married and set up the production house Bombay Talkies with in 1934, to the time when she gave it all up after meeting Svetoslav Roerich, her second husband (1945), including the incident where she ran off with her co-actor, in Jeevan Nayya Najm-ul-Hassan.
Of course, when it came to Devika, her personal life was closely intertwined with her professional one. “We went with the flow of her personal life, her relationship with Himanshu, the shared dream of Bombay Talkies and the way it keeps them together irrespective of what happens in their relationship. There is a beautiful line which encapsulates the ups and downs with Himanshu where Devika says, ‘The further I go from you, the closer I feel to you’,” says Lillete pointing out to the fact that life and relationships are complex where there is nothing black and white, including their relationship. “It is a very poignant, touching and relatable relationship,” adds Lillete.
She says that the play ends when she meets Roerich as it isn’t possible to squeeze everything in two hours. “Cinematically, there’s more scope in a film. The two are different media.”
Kishwar and Lillete worked on 11 odd drafts for more than a year to get the nuances and essentials right for the play. “I used to keep telling her if a part needed rewriting or has to be thrown away or highlighted. The material was constantly reshaped. Of course, it is Kishwar’s play but I was moulding the shape as even in these 18 years, there is a lot of material. It was tough to decide what to leave out and what was important to our story,” she says.
Lillete was also particular about creating a world view of the time and period that Devika Rani lived in rather than just focussing on her life. This was done by some of the parallel stories. “Not just actresses, even women composers from respectable families were rare in the industry. There was this story of Saraswati Devi, a Parsi lady and an amazing composer, who practically stormed the male bastion. She also composed the iconic Main ban ki chidiya from Achyut Kanya, which we recreated. Ira, who plays Devika, has sung it herself,” points out Lillete.
In the play, the song is nicely woven with the incident where she comes back from Najm after the intervention of Sashadhar Mukherjee, an assistant sound-engineer at the studio as she was aware that neither could she get a divorce or marry Najm. “When she returns, she feels upset and says that he has had so many flings but that is fine because he is a man. I have done this one thing and I am untouchable. And the next film that is written for her is Achyut Kanya, so one blends into the other,” says Lillete.
However, it is not just Devika’s life during the time that she was a leading lady on the silver screen that fascinates Lillete but even the fact that she left it forever. “Yes, she was over the hill for her time as she was too old to be a lead actress. People were leaving Bombay Talkies and starting Filmistan Studios and she was struggling to stay afloat financially as the last few films that she had produced had flopped. But when she gave it away for a very different life, she had no desire to come back. Compare it to any actress today who would run back to the arc lights even if she is given half a chance by way of a reality show or the like. She was remarkable in that too,” Lillete asserts.
Moreover, her pedigree too made her exceptional. “All the kothas had shut and the tawaifs and nautch girls who had nowhere to go joined films. And look at her lineage, from her nani’s side, she was the grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore. Educated in England, she was certainly a far cry from others in films,” says Lillete, who made her film debut with Zubeidaa (2001), when she was over 40.
Devika was one hell of a feisty lady. “She was five feet nothing. She was independent-minded and too much of her own person. Devika was multi-talented as she acted, produced, did costumes, art direction and ran a studio so she can be called a pioneer. She was quite a path-breaker and chose the kind of subjects that people would be scared of putting on screen even now as she touched upon untouchability, barren women, widow remarriage and more.”
And then there’s her personal life which is, as tumultuous as, in some ways inspiring. “She was a woman who just did what she wanted and stood for what she believed in. When she returned after eloping with Najm, she asked for the separation of her finances from those of her husband, separate pay for working in his films while he would be required to single-handedly pay the household expenses for the home in which both of them would live. How many women do that even now?” asks Lillete.
Her personal correspondence that Kishwar had access to also gave an intimate peek into the formidable woman that she was. “Many things, which did not form a part of public domain were brought out in these letters, which also form a part of the play,” says Lillete.
Indeed, it is a travesty of our times that not many know this feisty lady who stood her ground and held her head high. “I am not saying that she was Mahatma Gandhi but she certainly holds up an interesting role model for women. When you talk about actors who have become global icons, she, after Karma, (which famously or infamously had a four-minute long kiss), was offered films in Hollywood. While she did debate over the possibility, she gave it all up for another dream of her production company. The Press was completely dazzled by her after Karma as she was gorgeous, a complete natural and articulate,” says Lillete.
Her world class studio made four international films in English of which one was shown at Windsor Castle while Karma opened in London. “It’s difficult to do this even now,” asserts Lillete. She had an eye for talent and her protege went on to dominate the silver screen.
Lillete tends to gravitate towards topics and stories that seem to have a strong women characters. “I am always looking for interesting scripts or material that will lend itself to a play but over the years I have found that my protagonists tend to be female and that happens unconsciously. A play called Gauhar which we did three years ago was on the first woman to sing on a waxed record,” she says. Of course it helped that Lillete is fond of classical music even though she insists that she cannot claim to be an afficionado or anything. “I enjoy it and I studied it for seven years,” she says.
Lillete wants to do a new play once a year while older ones are still running. Dance Like a Man, Kanyadaan are some which are running at present. But having made her big screen debut in 2001, where she has acted in some noteworthy films including Monsoon Wedding (2001), Kal Ho Na Ho, Lakshya and Pinjar (2003) there is certainly something that keeps exercising a magnetic pull to draw her back to stage. Lillete explains, “Anyone who has become an actor from theatre can never get it out of his system. You might leave it for sometime for money or exposure and work in films, serials or advertisements but the pull of theatre is so strong that once you have established yourself, you come back again when you don’t need the money as much. Naseer may do different things but he returns to theatre as there is no other place where an actor feels as alive as on stage.”
She also points out that in a film, one is a part of big project and team and does not drive a project. “It is the vision of the director and determined by commerce. Honestly, in 50 odd films, I did not feel challenged in even one. I need to do a play to feel challenged. I feel embarrassed when people tell me that I have done a fabulous role in a film. I want to say that I never needed to put my whole body, heart and soul in it,” she says and adds, “One reason why theatre demands such is because it is not commerce driven and can talk about whatever I want to including child sexuality, Gandhism or whatever.”
However, she does accept that while cinema looked jaded five years ago, it is evolving now thanks to the fact that people are travelling a lot and the internet has ensured that they are exposed global content. “The 18-35 age group forms 70 per cent of the audience and they are watching all kinds of stuff. They determine the change. Everyone is waking up to the power of small films becoming huge.”
The actor-director completes 30 years on stage in January 2021 and plans to celebrate it by reviving a huge megarock musical of Mahabharata like Jesus Christ Superstar which was performed 20 years ago. “It is a two hour plus rock opera,” she says. She is also doing two web series, one in Bengali and the other in Tamil.
So, here is to another 30 years of the feisty lady.