Considered the ‘first lady of Indian cinema’, Devika Rani impressively juggled many hats. She was an actor, producer, studio boss at Bombay Talkies, costume designer and art designer from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, a time when there were few women in positions of power in the film industry. Her story is now being brought to life on stage by theatre director Lillete Dubey, whose new play, Devika Rani will premiere in Pune on Saturday, August 31 and travel around the country. It has her daughter Ira Dubey as the actor and long-time collaborator Joy Sengupta as Himanshu Rai. This is Dubey’s second biographical play after Gauhar (2016), on the singer Gauhar Jaan. In a phone interview, Dubey told us why she’s fascinated by Devika Rani.

What made you do this play? 

I was on the jury of META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) last year when I met Kishwar (Desai), an old college friend and she told me she was writing a book on Devika Rani. I was extremely interested and thought it would make it for an interesting play. So when she said would you like to do it, I said why not! It wasn’t planned, I wasn’t looking for the story, but sometimes the universe gives you something and you just say okay. And that’s how it started. 

Tell us about the story.

First, we had to distill what we wanted from her life because her life has been so vast. I told her (Kishwar), that I’m interested in the time and moment from which she met Himanshu (Rai), and really the time of her life pre-Himanshu to the beginning of her entry to the world of theatre followed by cinema. She was extremely multi-talented. She was studying architecture and design in London when she met Himanshu. She had a very artistic eye, and she designed all the artwork and costumes for almost all their films without taking any credit for it. Aside from being a lead actress and co-owner of Bombay Talkies, she was also putting on her producer hat and was very involved and interested in the scripts they produced. All this makes her a rather contemporary woman for me. More contemporary than a lot of women, frankly. I decided to take the tenure of the play from when she meets Himanshu, to when she leaves it all. 

First, I picked a period that was interesting to me. Then I picked a lens through which I would showcase that period. We are talking about her personal journey of 18 years against the backdrop of films. It’s about how she evolved. There are so many firsts associated with her. She joined films when respectable women didn’t join films; certainly not the great grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore. Her entire sensibility was different compared to the women who were working in cinema at that time. She actually paved the way for women from respectable families to join cinema. She ran Bombay Talkies by herself for five years after Himanshu passed away. In those days, she was a path breaker in every way and she broke the glass ceiling. She did everything on her own terms. And I just felt that the fact that she flung open the door for educated women to join films, fought the patriarchal film industry, kept her studio going, made her a remarkable, amazing woman. 

What were the challenges of staging the 1930s and ’40s? Tell us about the costumes and sets.

The set is a modern sort of abstract set. I didn’t want to go the projection route. I want people to believe Ira (Dubey) is Devika so I didn’t want to show any clips (of Devika Rani) on screen. I wanted to show one song from her film so we chose ‘Ban Ki Chidiya from Achhut Kanya, which Ira insisted on singing as well. We also have some snippets from a few films to give a flavour of her life. But everything is set against her personal story. It’s not there to be her filmography. It’s a lot like Gauhar; it’s a woman’s journey against the backdrop of the world that she lived in and made her name in. But it’s about her relationships. Because at the end of the day, people are fascinated by relationships. You connect because you relate to a character and their interactions and relations with another human being rather than information. 

When it comes to costumes, Pia Benegal (director Shyam Benegal’s daughter) has done a lovely job. She’s very meticulous and has researched the period thoroughly. Except for Ira who is playing Devika and Joy (Sengupta) who is playing Himanshu, all the other actors are playing three-four different characters. 

For sets, we’re going the old fashioned way with shadow projection and utilising painted backdrops when we’re showing scenes depicting film shoots. The sets are not very complex because all my plays travel a lot.     

Like Devika Rani, Gauhar Jaan was an unconventional character, also from Calcutta. Is there a common appeal to both women?

Yes and no. Of course, they were both path-breakers and trailblazers. But their backgrounds were very different. When Gauhar joined the music industry, she came from that lineage, so she didn’t break any ceiling in that respect. Of course, she was very young and prodigiously talented. It’s quite mind-boggling to understand how she did classical music. She had a very strong professional life where she achieved a lot. But she was a very dependent woman in her personal life. While someone like Devika showed a very steely spine when it came to handling adversities; she managed to rise above. I think they were different when it came to how they dealt with obstacles in their life. You see, there’s a certain fearlessness to try and grab what you aspire for. Most of us are too scared and bound by what will people say and think. But when you have a fierce, burning passion, it overrides everything. What really defines an achiever is a relentless pursuit of excellence. This fearlessness is what they had in common and what made them so inspirational.