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Book Review:Longest Kiss authored by Kishwar Desai adjudged Best Book on Cinema in 68th National film Award

Anjana Basu

While this is the story of Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai, their relationship and the studio, Bombay Talkies that they struggled to set up, what comes through is a woman’s struggle against patriarchy that judges her on the basis of her beauty and assumed behaviour. Tagore’s grandniece locked eyes with the much older producer through a window at midnight in London, as stagey an introduction as any. The relative she was staying with at the time warned Rai off the beautiful young girl, but karma intervened and eventually brought them together.

The first part of the book is about Rai’s struggles to finance his studio which involved seducing naive German frauleins, one of whom gave him a daughter, and while detailed and well researched the book does have readers wondering when Devika Rani will finally sweep in and take center stage. Desai does not disappoint—Devika Rani enters and becomes Mrs. Himanshu Rai. The first film that they starred in was fittingly called Karma. Launched in London’s Hyde Park, Karma dazzled all beholders and became infamous for the longest kiss in Indian cinema, two minutes of screen time in which Devika Rani lip locked with an unconscious Rai. Hyped as Tagore’s grandniece, she began attracting attention at a time when Indian cinema was in a nascent stage and when most actresses were women from doubtful backgrounds.

The woman herself, Devika Rani

To do him credit, Himanshu Rai, billed as the Indian Casanova and chased by creditors—mainly female—was solely devoted to setting up his production company. He and Devika advertised for educated actresses and the production crew they assembled was mainly German with a talented Bengali faction at its head. Desai keeps the interest in their personal life going by hinting at a dark secret and intersperses the text with letters from Devika Rani to Svetoslav Roerich whom she was later to marry. Desai’s research is based on 4,000 letters and studio documents, which Roerich had advised her to archive, and lockdown helped the author to organise the papers.

The fact that a beautiful actress’ life is not easy emerges from the book— driven to elopement by Rai’s abusive behaviour, Devika Rani chose to be branded a seductress rather than reveal Rai’s psychological issues and weaken the foundations of Bombay Talkies. The kind of strength that enabled her to hold her tongue while being misunderstood on all fronts—Manto shredded her character in his story of the actress Lateeka Rani—would seem strange in these kiss-and-tell tabloid days.

The Longest Kiss is as much a story of the setting up of Indian cinema as it is the story of the actress who became a studio head and who could sing and develop film concepts with ease. Ultimately internal politics shredded Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani found love in Svetoslav Roerich and abandoned the tumultuous film world. Her life is the stuff of films and was the subject of a successful play scripted by Kishwar Desai. The star-struck, as well as film historians, will find much to relish in her story.

About the author

Kishwar Desai

Kishwar Desai (née Rosha) (born 1 December 1956) is an Indian author and columnist. Her latest novel The Sea of Innocence has just been published in India and will shortly be published in UK and Australia. Her first novel, Witness the Night won the Costa Book Award in 2010 for Best First Novel and has been translated into over 25 languages. It was also shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award and longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Her critically acclaimed novel, Origins of Love was published in June 2012. Desai also has a biography Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt to her credit.

About Editor in chief

Ashok Palit has completed his graduation from Upendranath College Soro, Balasore and post graduation from Utkal University in Odia Language and literture.. He has also carved out a niche for himself as a scribe of eminence after joining the profession in 1988. He is also an independent media production professional. He brings loads of experience to Advanced Media, Ashok Palit as a cineaste has been active in film criticism for over three decades. As a film society activist, he soared to eminence for his profound commitment to the art film appreciation and aesthetics of cinema. His mode of discourse is often erudite but always lucid and comprehensible marked by a perfect acumen so rare in the field. A film aesthete with an immense fond of critical sensibilities, he wrote about growth and development of odia cinema in New Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Asian Age and Screen. He has been working as an Editor for Cine Samaya from 2002-2004.. He had made solid contribution on cinema in many odia Dailies and weekly such as Samaj, Prajatantra, Dharatri, Samaya, Satabadi, and weekly Samaya.
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