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 Karma 1933

Devika Rani, Himansu Rai, Abraham Sofoer



Impressive canvas Stills from “Karma”

Going to Goa to cover the International Film Festival of India late last year one had a sense of anticipation. And maybe a dash of nostalgia too.

The timeless Karma — not to be confused with the time-tamed Karma, starring Dilip Kumar and Nutan along with a host of lesser stars — that boasts the first dream girl of the film industry, Devika Rani, was to be screened. An opportunity to see Indian cinema of the Alam Ara days is hard to come by — incidentally, Karma was released two years after Ardeshir Irani’s film which was the first talkie, released in 1931.

Truly international

And to think there was a chance to see it on the big screen! Life could scarcely offer better delights. One of the first truly international films from India: Devika Rani, Himansu Rai, one the grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, the other, a path-breaker, who set up Bombay Studios, and in many ways took the first step towards globalisation of Indian cinema.

As director J.L. Freer Hunt’s film rolled by, it was yesterday — no, day before yesterday — once more. Way ahead of its times, the film amazingly, has the longest kissing scene ever pictured in our films.

Of course the fact that Devika and the hero, Himansu, were a real-life couple too, helped! It was the first of her 15 acting ventures, having concentrated on costume designing in the early days of her career. Incidentally, it was Devika who discovered the handsome youth from Peshawar, the one who was to have a long innings in Bollywood beginning with Jwar Bhata in 1944.

It is said she spotted him at a military canteen — along with her second husband, the famous painter Roerich, whom she married after Himansu passed away in 1940, leaving her a widow when still in her 30s — on a holiday and christened him Dilip Kumar! A little irony was to be added to the relationship many years later: both Devika and Dilip Kumar were to go down in the annals among a handful of recipients of the Dada Saheb Phalke award!


Bilingual

Karma, a black-and-white bilingual film, made primarily for international audiences, shows India like never before. The Indo-German-British collaboration relates a predictable tale of a princess falling in love with a neighbouring prince despite parental disapproval. Along the way there is a lot of drama and an acting style that involves a lot of hand and feet movement. A little throwback to the silent era when a lot had to be communicated through body movements. However, it is not in storytelling but cinematography that Karma scores.

Of course, there are the usual concessions in the form of snake charmers, but some of the visuals are a treat. The long shots of palaces, the close-up of the headgear of men, the camera sneaking in to capture the rich embroidery on the women’s lehengas, dupattas, even pearls suitably added to blouses! Also, the canvas is impressive with some of the shots of horses and elephants in battle gear particularly striking. The outdoor shots are no less impressive with a fine depiction of natural elements blending into an eye-catching whole.

Then the music by Ernst Broadhurst. A wonderful confluence of the East and the West, the film uses western instruments in an Indian setting to stunning effect: again the film was among the first to have the heroine sing in both the languages herself!

Released in Europe with a special screening for the royal family at Windsor, Karma gives you more than moments of nostalgia. It is a study in the evolution of Indian cinema. And marks a milestone that can never be erased.

ZIYA US SALAM

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