‘Devika Rani must have known about Himanshu Rai’s first wife’

Updated on Feb 22, 2017 07:36 PM IST

An interview with film historian Amrit Gangar on Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies, and his two partners

Peter Dietze is the grandson of Himanshu Rai and his first wife Mary Hainlin(Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)
Peter Dietze is the grandson of Himanshu Rai and his first wife Mary Hainlin(Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)
Hindustan Times | By

Amrit Gangar is a film historian, curator and author of the book ‘Franz Osten and the Bombay Talkies: A Journey From Munich to Malad.’ Excerpts from an interview with him on Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, who founded Bombay Talkies in 1934, and on Himanshu’s first marriage with a young German girl Mary Hainlin. From this first, secret marriage, there is a grandson Peter Dietze, who is now the custodian of the Bombay Talkies archive.

Peter Dietze discovered that he is Himanshu Rai’s grandson, and came into the Bombay Talkies archive…

I had the privilege of meeting and working with Peter when he visited Mumbai twice before. And for him I had organized an extensive visit to the Bombay Talkies studios a decade back. We were able to take many photographs inside and around the studio relics and precincts, reminiscing the glory days of this great studio, one of its kind in the whole of the Indian subcontinent. I was able to take permission from the local bodies then. Now the situation is quite different and the location has changed a lot and is not easily accessible. Hence what documentation we had done becomes important.

According to Peter, after Himanshu Rai married Mary, they went to Germany and Mary introduced him to the major German film production company, UFA, and to prominent German filmmakers. Their daughter was born in 1926. Was this the time Himanshu made contact with the Germans? How *did* he meet them in fact?

Peter Dietze’s story about Himanshu Rai’s marriage with Mary Hainlin, a German stage actress, is quite revealing and would help us join several historical missing dots, though joining them and producing a logical, credible narrative would demand more research.

Himanshu Rai with his first wife, Mary Hainlin (Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)
Himanshu Rai with his first wife, Mary Hainlin (Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)

To my information and knowledge, locally, no substantial information is traceable about the Himanshu Rai-Mary Hainlin marriage and the birth of a child out of wedlock. The photograph of Himanshu Rai with Mary Hainlin is an important clue as also Mary with Devika Rani. And hence the Dietze Family Archive becomes extremely significant to us now. And if there is any correspondence between Rai and Hainlin or any diary notes are available, they would be really invaluable as a research tool. The only person to authentically substantiate this interesting episode in Rai’s life was Niranjan Pal and from his writings we don’t find any clue. I had met his son Colin but he had never mentioned this episode in Rai’s life. However, according to Colin Pal, in 1923, Devika Rani was staying with Niranjan Pal and his family in the borough of Paddington in London. I am sure then the Bengalis living in London knew each other well and would have also met at festive occasions. Niranjan Pal was working with Kent Film Co. in London from 1913, and he was married to an Englishwoman, Lily Bell – around 1918.

In the early 1920s Himanshu Rai had gone to London to study for the Bar at the Inner Temple. [We need to locate the exact year when he left Calcutta for London].

How did Himanshu Rai meet Devika Rani in London?

As we know, Devika Rani studied textile designing, décor and architecture, and when she met Rai she was already earning an income from textile design. It was on Rai’s advice that Devika joined films and both of them sent a telegram to her mother about her decision to join the film business. Though in the beginning her father wasn’t in favour, she had full support from her mother. And she began her career as an assistant set designer under Promode Roy for A Throw of Dice in 1929. After the film A Throw of Dice, Rai asked Devika to marry him. She agreed. But as she said, ‘he was really like my father – much older than me.’

And the Himanshu Rai-Mary Hainlin wedding?

The plausible connecting link for Rai-Hainlin meeting is theatre or stage – as Hainlin was a stage actress and Rai had started playing on stage in Niranjan Pal’s play Goddess – which should be around 1924. This must also be the time when Pal and Rai were planning to make The Light of Asia / Prem Sanyas, released in 1925. There are some conflicting accounts that Devika Rani had worked on this film as a costume designer. But all these events (including Mary giving birth to a child in 1926) seem to have taken place in quick succession – and everyone, including Devika Rani, must have been in the know.

Apparently, it is this period of Rai’s marriage with Devika and him departing from Mary that becomes a mystery – we don’t know what happened and how it happened, why it happened. Where in London did Mary and her child live, who cared for them? When did she return to Germany? When exactly did they marry? Was she responsible for introducing Rai to the Germans? Also - why did Devika agree to marry Rai if she really knew about her previous marriage and their child? Rai, as she said, was like a school teacher and she used to be frightened of him, he was also ethical in his dealings, believing in the Indian ethos. He would approve of her dress, her hair and she could not put on any lipstick. Rai addressed Devika as ‘Moni’ (Jewel).

I think, here the Dietze Family Archive becomes extremely significant as also the work that Peter is doing.

The assumption that Mary Hainlin introduced Himanshu Rai to the Germans and to UFA Studios needs to be examined and established. Until then, we have the information that Niranjan Pal and Himanshu Rai were already in contact with the Ostermayer (Osten) brothers, viz. Franz, Peter and Ottmar. Significantly, Himanshu Rai had sought collaboration with the Germans not only because of their high standards of technical facilities and expertise, but also because there would be no conflict of interest as might occur if he were to collaborate with a British producer.

Also, at that time there was considerable interest about India among the German intellectuals. Herman Hesse had written his mystical novel Siddhartha in 1922 after a visit to India; Brecht’s Book of Transformations also dealt with Buddhism, In Europe as well as in America, films such as Lubisch’s Sunburn (1920) and Joe May’s Tiger of Eshnapur and The Indian Tomb (1921), with an Oriental setting and subject matter, enjoyed substantial success. I am sure both Niranjan Pal (who had adapted Edwin Arnold’s long poem) and Himanshu Rai were very much aware of all these developments while deciding to co-produce The Light of Asia.

And prior to Rai and Rani joining UFA, Pal and Rai had already established contacts with the Ostermayer brothers of the Emelka film company – they had visited Munich in 1924.

Devika Rani, one of the most beautiful actresses of her time. (Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)
Devika Rani, one of the most beautiful actresses of her time. (Photo: Peter Dietze Archive)

After Himanshu married Devika Rani in 1929, she too went to Germany with him and worked in the UFA studio in Germany…

As the editing of A Throw of Dice progressed, Devika Rani had become a trainee in the Erich Pommer unit at UFA. As she recalled much later, his was the best production unit at the UFA at the time. In it were Fritz Lang, Emil Jannings, Sternberg (who was Marlene Dietrich’s director). At that time, they were the only Indians at UFA Studios and Rai, the only Asian to have the position of producer in a Western studio, and to be treated at par. Apparently, Rai had taken his young bride along with him to UFA.

But as the sound film arrived, UFA was completely reorganized and as a result many a staff member had to leave the studios. It was also the time of Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany. Now Indo-German co-productions no longer seemed feasible and the German career of Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani ended abruptly. It was also combined with the worldwide economic depression that sounded the death knell for joint ventures, but with Rani, Rai made his first sound film Karma in 1933.

Himanshu Rai died in 1940 at the age of 48. Apparently he had a nervous breakdown. Was running Bombay Talkies becoming very difficult for him by then?

The precise reason for his premature demise is not known but during my research I was able to find out that he was admitted to a nursing home in South Bombay. The plausible reason could be mental stress as is mentioned everywhere.

Around this time, the WWII was unsettling the world and the Germans (Franz Osten) had to leave Bombay Talkies / India. But Bombay Talkies was flourishing nonetheless. 1940 was the year of the hit film Bandhan. Prior to that, in 1939, Kangan had already gripped the popular imagination and was a big box-office success.

What is significant is that this success was even without Devika Rani. Film India of November 1939 had these comments to make about Kangan: “Bombay Talkies have come out with another winner – even without Devika Rani. The departure of the German technicians has been marked by not the slightest fall in the technique.” This film, unlike the studio’s Niranjan Pal melodramas written for Devika Rani, ignored the reformist dimensions of the story and opted for a conventional romance.

The exit of the Germans (particularly Franz Osten) might have affected Himanshu Rai emotionally but otherwise there were no apparent reasons for mental stress or nervous breakdown. This aspect needs to be examined – and here again, the Dietze Family Archive might become crucial.

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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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