[Produced by: Bombay Talkies/ Directed by: Franz Osten / screenplay: Niranjan Pal/ dialogues &lyrics: J.S. Casshyap/ cinematography: Josef Wirsching/ music composer: Saraswati Devi/ Starring: Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar. P.F. Pithawala, Kamta Prasad, Kishori Lal, Kusum Kumari, Pramila, Anwar and Ishrat.]
India’s cinema has been reluctant to tackle the vexed issue of casteism from its very inception. The first major attempt to deal with the subject was attempted in the Bombay Talkies’ Achhut Kanya (1936). Achhut Kanya mounted the topic in a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers meeting their fate due to intolerant families and village community at large.
Bombay Talkies, as an institution was a result of the genius of Himanshu Rai (1892 –1940) who had not intended it as just not another of those fly by wire film making companies but an institution strongly conscious of its sense of social commitment.
Achhut Kanya, tried to piggy ride the genre of romantic tragedy established by Barua’s Devdas that had rocked India an year earlier at its core, it was a film made for the young of the thirties. The theme of untouchability was segued in by Himanshu Rai, who wanted to splash Bombay Talkies amidst the ruling élite. Pandit Nehru and Sarojini Naidu admired its progressive theme.
The film was based on the story, The Level Crossing by Niranjan Pal, freedom fighter Bipin Chandra Pal’s son who also wrote the screenplay. Achhut Kanya chronicled the tragic love story of a Brahmin youth (Ashok Kumar) and an untouchable girl (Devika Rani).
The cinematography, production design and acting in Achhut Kanya reached new levels thanks to the contributions of German technicians whom Himanshu Rai had brought along with him from Europe. There was Franz Osten as director, Josef Wirsching as cameraman and Karl Von Spreti as the art director.
Achhut Kanya, was directed by Franz Osten who employed flash back technique in narrating the story, a rare first in the history of Bollywood. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani played the lead roles and also became the biggest singing stars of their generation, lending their voice to the duet “Mein Ban ki chidiya…” which became a template for all romantic duets of the day.
It is claimed that solo playback singing was introduced in this film, when the composer Saraswati Devi (1912 – 1980) herself sang the song, Ki Gaye who.. In the film Dhoop Chaon (1935) helmed by Nitin Bose for New Theatres, an year earlier playback singing had been introduced for the first time in Bollywood although in a chorus of singing stars. Saraswati Devi was a Parsi whose real name was Khursheed Manchershah Minocher-Homji, while her sister played a role under the name of Chandraprabha.
Devika Rani, the grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore left for London in the 1920s to study architecture. There she met Himanshu Rai and became the set designer of his first production, Light of Asia (1925). They got married and the couple made the bilingual film, Karma (1933), in which a 4 minute kiss between them was the talk of the tinsel town. The couple set up the famous Bombay Talkies Studio, which started rolling out Hindi productions beginning with Jawani ki Hawa (1935).
A love curl or kiss curl was a shapely curl hanging on the forehead or turning into the cheek in films of yesteryear is unique to Bollywood stars, was first seen on Devika Rani in ‘Achhut Kanya’ (1936),besides being employed to a devastating effect on Vyjayanthimala in ‘Madhumati’ (1958), Madhubala in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960) and Asha Parekh in ‘Teesri Manzil’ (1966).
Ashok Kumar, born Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, a law student from Kolkata, wanted to become a director so he joined Rai as a laboratory assistant. Ashok’s brother-in-law, Shashadhar Mukherji was already employed with Bombay Talkies. The biggest stars of Bombay Talkies at the time, Najmul Hasan and Devika Rani, who had fallen for each other during Jawani Ki Hawa, eloped to Calcutta during the shooting of Jeevan Naiyya (1936) their film on the floor.
Sashadhar Mukherjee and Himanshu Rai tracked down the couple at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel. Sashadhar Mukherjee, convinced Devika Rani to return, without Hasan, and suggested Ganguly as a replacement for the male lead to Himanshu Rai. A protesting Kumar was thrust in front of the camera opposite his wife Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiyya (1936). Ashok Kumar’s father was a lawyer and his grandfather, an affluent district magistrate didn’t take it very kindly to his joining the films, however the aura of Bombay Talkies and a handsome salary of Rs 75 per month held back Ashok Kumar.
In his first film as a leading man Ashok Kumar was a green horn who for example had to garland the standoffish and sophisticated Devika Rani, and he would most gawkishly keep on getting the garland entangled in her hair! The very year of release of Acchut Kanya had Ashok Kumar getting married in an arranged match with Shobha. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani started as lead pair in films from Jeevan Naiya (1936) but it was Achhut Kanya (1936), which capitulated Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar to big time fame. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani did Janma Bhoomi (1936), Savitri (1937), Izzat (1937), Nirmala (1938) and Vachan (1938). The last film to co-star them was Anjaan (1941).
Devika Rani continued acting till 1943 and when Rai died in 1940 she took over the reins of Bombay Talkies. Among her discoveries at Bombay Talkies was Dilip Kumar. But the economics of filmmaking and tussles with other studio executives led her to take voluntary retirement in 1945. She married the famous Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and stayed at their huge estate near Bangalore in South India. For her contribution to Indian Cinema, Devika Rani was the first ever recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1970.
In an irredeemable loss to Indian cinema, master prints of over 60 films including prints of classics such as Achhut Kanya (1936), Ziddi (1948), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1942) were reduced to ashes in a fire that broke out at the Bombay Talkies studio in Mumbai on June 26, 2014! .