The film that eventually did get made was based on a treatment written by none other than Devika. It was to be called The Song of the Serpent or Karma, and strangely, the credit which should have been given to her went to Dewan Sharar, who was helping Himansu with the film production. Perhaps it was thought that she should focus on the acting and leave the storyline to Sharar.
However, unable to hide the reality for too long, an impressed Himansu was to write in a letter on 14 September 1932 to a friend who liked the treatment of Song of the Serpent:
Here is a secret which I am now going to let out—the treatment was done by Devika all on her own in three hours, working at a stretch one evening. None of us believed before she could do it—neither did she herself until it was produced. I find it is perfect and we mean to stick to it.
Devika’s contribution as the writer of their breakthrough film would never be publicly revealed, and like many things she did with Himansu for the promotion of cinema, this too would get buried under the weight of patriarchy which persisted at the time. Possibly, had she been asked, she could have written the entire script itself. She had the confidence and the skill. But she was being promoted as an actress, and it was not expected that an actress would write a treatment or a script. Dewan Sharar (who would later go on to earn fame with films like Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani in 1946) was at the time a young man, and completely in awe of Himansu. He had gained a reputation in India as a writer and was helping Himansu raise funds in Germany and Britain for his first talkie. Giving Sharar credit for the story may have enabled Himansu to make payments to him for the work he was to do on the production of Karma. Initially, the team consisted of just Devika, Himansu and Sharar—they would later be joined by Sir Richard Temple in London and Sir Chimanlal Setalvad in India.
Devika’s treatment was an interesting mix of socialist ideology and superstition colliding with the so-called modernity. It was also one of the first films that suggested that wild animals should not be hunted. According to the story, it was only under pressure that the princess of Sitapur agreed to allow a tiger hunt in her kingdom, even though it would upset her people. Ultimately, the punishment for killing a tiger was linked to the near-death of her love, a prince from a neighbouring kingdom, who would be played by Himansu.
Of course, there were differences in Devika’s treatment and the screen version. For instance, in the opening scene, as written by her, the Indian princess is playing tennis and receives great applause, while the next scene shows the prince being applauded for scoring a century for Sussex. Then they are both transported (oh, the joys of cinematic treatment!) to an Indian jungle where ‘the princess of Sitapur is finishing her song on a beautiful lake’. The prince comments, ‘We knew you could play tennis but who can say that the maidens of Sitapur cannot sing? Yes, the sweetest voice I have ever heard!’
In the final cut, instead of tennis and cricket, we have the song on the lake, followed by a romantic interlude with Devika, Himansu and a squirrel, in a jungle near the lake. The real reason for changing the script was that all the outdoor scenes were shot in India and the indoor scenes were re-created once the team returned to England.
This led to the final version being rewritten according to the link shots filmed in the British studio. Nonetheless, some of the scenes written by Devika were incorporated into the final film, such as the one in which Himansu is lying on the ground, ostensibly bitten by a snake, whereupon she kisses him and witnesses his miraculous recovery. The cure and the words of the snake charmer, as written by Devika, remain in the film:
‘Do not fear great lady, he will recover. I have a cure—the same snake will bite him. I will play my melodies and will attract that very snake. It is an old cure,’ the snake charmer tells her.
The snake charmer tries many snakes, and at last gets the right one. It crawls towards the Prince’s leg, and to her horror the Princess sees the snake biting the Prince—she screams and the snake charmer gently removes the snake saying, ‘Look Great Lady, his eyelids move.’
‘Yes,’ says the Princess and without restraint embraces the Prince, uttering at the same time sweet endearments.
It was this scene, in which Himansu lies supine on the ground while Devika ‘without restraint’ showers kisses upon him, which got written about as ‘the longest kiss in Indian cinema’. It was a pretty one-sided kiss, as Himansu lies knocked out by the snake bite, and it lasted all of two minutes. For some reason, most people imagined it was at least five minutes long. Perhaps, to the shocked audience of the time, it seemed fairly lengthy.
Karma brought Devika the fame she had longed for. All the training and observation that she had put herself through while working on A Throw of Dice, and later in Germany, created a new star for the screen. There was no doubt that she was a natural, as the accolades pouring in confirmed.
The film credits rolled as ‘A Love Drama of an Indian Princess by Dewan Sharar’ set in the ‘present day’. It was a joint production between Himansurai Indo-International Talkies Ltd, Bombay and the Indian and British Production Ltd, London. Himansurai Indo-International Talkies (with the appropriate acronym ‘HIT’) was the new production company that Himansu and Devika had launched. It was their first step towards making films independently and also setting up a studio in India.
They had been careful to get a British director, J.L. Freer Hunt, who also wrote the lyrics, as well as a British dialogue writer, Rupert Downing. The camera work was done jointly by their longtime German associates, Emil Schunemann and Desmond C. Dickinson.
Similarly, the production team was British and German—Eric Donaldson and Folke Reich. The original music compositions were by Ernst Broadhurst and Roy Douglas. Fortunately for Himansu, these were the inter-war years when the Germans and the British were still able to work together.
While the exterior shots were all taken in India, the postproduction and other recordings were done at Stoll Studios in Cricklewood, London. The Germans were in charge of filming in India, while the British team did the indoor shoots and the postproduction work.
As with all of Himansu’s previous films, this too was lavishly filmed in India, with the permission of His Highness, the Maharawat of Pratapgarh. There were plenty of tigers, snakes and elephants, and royalty, to create interest in the film, and of course, in the lead were the radiant Devika Rani and the slightly less impressive Himansu Rai.
Excerpted with permission from The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai, published by Westland.