Director: Lillete Dubey
Writer: Kishwar Desai
Cast: Ira Dubey, Joy Sengupta, Mark Bennington, Pranav Sachdev, Kashyap Shangari, Aakanksha Kadre
A blend of style and substance brings alive the real Devika behind the reel one, in this play that spans 20-odd years of her life.
Devika Chaudhuri aka Devika Rani (Ira Dubey), bestowed (fittingly) with the sobriquet ‘First Lady of Indian Cinema’ was a woman of many talents. She could act, sing, design sets and costumes, produce films, run a studio and leave a swooning trail of admirers in her wake. Devika Rani – Goddess of the Silver Screen! written by Kishwar Desai reminds us of that constantly, whether through Devika’s actions or the words of characters who are supporting figurines in her extravagant life.
Salim Akhtar’s lavish sets and Pia Benegal’s sumptuous costumes give us a glimpse of London, Berlin and Mumbai of the 1930s and 40s, and breathe life into Devika’s on-screen and off-screen histrionics. The story richly details her journey pre-cinema, her relationship with husband Himanshu Rai (Joy Sengupta), her acting career, the ‘Bombay Talkies’ era and ends with her decision to leave it all for personal happiness with Russian artist, Svetoslav Roerich (Mark Bennington).
The play offers a compelling look into Devika’s life. Ira Dubey is bewitching as Devika, showcasing her pride, ambition, pragmatism, guile and loneliness with great ease. She also gets to show off her singing chops with a lilting rendition of ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya’ from Achyut Kanya. She is ably complemented by Joy Sengupta who renders Himanshu as charming, desperately in love, hubristic, vulnerable and prone to fits of jealousy as the story progresses.
Ultimately, it is a story of human relationships. Director Lillete Dubey does well to remember that as she shines a spotlight on Devika’s story arc through the lens of her relationships with other characters ranging from Himanshu, her co-star and lover Najam-Ul-Hasan (Kashyap Shangari), her friend and confidant Poorna (Aakanksha Kadre) and second husband, Svetoslav Roerich. You see (and sense) Devika grow, not just literally, as each of these relationships teach her a lesson.
There is a line in the play that likens cinema to being a greedy mistress who demands a lot from you. And towards the end, as Devika turns her back on cinema in favour of peace and happiness, you can’t help but feel a kinship towards this path-breaking doyen of Indian cinema, who truly lived life on her terms.