Mekhala Sengupta reintroduces actress-cum-filmmaker-cum-social game changer Kanan Devi via her book Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema, published by HarperCollins Publisher India.
I confess I had heard about Kanan Devi, but not got to the point to truly knowing her or understanding her position in the Indian film industry. This Bengali beauty was one of the early successful singing actors of her generation, filmmaker, social game changer and first lady of Indian cinema. However, there is a more to Kanan Devi. Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema penned by debut author Mekhala Sengupta & published by HarperCollins Publisher India sets the ball rolling to truly knowing Kanan Devi.
Kanan Devi is an interesting but rather offbeat topic to write about. Mekhala preferred to reply to this question in a slightly indirect manner. “In the early to mid-eighties, I was a young officer in Mumbai in development banking. I learnt & sang many of Kanan’s hit songs in Hindi at public performances. A group loved pre-playback singing music. I knew absolutely nothing of her extraordinary life. It was only when I mentioned this almost 27 years later to someone in Delhi that the rags to riches story was mentioned. I read a little bit about her and decided her story had to be told. Therefore, the book took shape.” Once Kanan’s actual hardships at that time was revealed, Mekhala just marveled that despite issues, Kanan held onto her beliefs of a better world. “She viewed adversity as a challenge that had to be dealt with. She did not just accept, compromise or crumble. She worked hard & succeeded in her lifetime without a godfather, lineage or resources. This had to be showcased to a new generation.”
The term powerhouse equals to Kanan Devi. The
book covers that element and features how she influenced others & her image
back then. Mekhala reveals, “She was a huge box-office star who appealed to
both the intelligentsia & front benchers. Much loved & admired, she
symbolized glamour & hope and her voice touched hearts of those who heard
her. She started fashion trends and changed fashion. She handled many different
characters – first coming across as a feisty girl woman, then a society girl
torn between her love for her artist husband and the aspirations of her
affluent but non-artistic father, a singer who continued working after her
marriage and so many others.” The book helps us appreciate how Kanan brought
her own USP to each role, in both the character’s spirit & form it took on
Celebs have two images – one that we hear from media and the other that we see for ourselves. An author has the privilege to know the real celeb. While researching, Mekhala got some insights of the extraordinary woman. “The first impression was that given Kanan’s origins, how she dealt with adversity & extracted herself out of her grim origins, she showed sheer determination in skilling & tooling herself, never wasting time or giving up hope to make the best of any situation she found herself in. She kept working on herself. There was hard work and sacrifice. She has stated that hers was a childhood without playtime. The fact that she was a powerhouse emerged later on finishing the book, when I looked at her as a modern person would.”
A well-done research work throws in extraordinary facets. Mekhala calls this research ‘a process of discovery’, as it meant countless reading between the lines on what she wrote or said and what she left unsaid (and the reasons behind it). “As a start, we all identify with our parents in a way and we carry their names. Kanan knew nothing of who her biological parents were. There were just foster parents. When do these things happen? I have tried to be a true biographer to bring the facts to light and the sheer scale of accomplishments that Kanan achieved in her lifetime, that she could be introduced just as herself, as Kanan,” Mekhala confesses.
“She viewed adversity as a challenge that had to be dealt with. She did not just accept, compromise or crumble. She worked hard & succeeded in her lifetime without a godfather, lineage or resources. This had to be showcased to a new generation.”
The one aspect, which stuck Mekhala the most as a woman, has to be Kanan’s steely resolution, decisiveness & determination. “These are the phrases that come to mind about Kanan. Typically, women dither or get self-sabotaged with emotions hijacking mental states, disempowering them, while men successfully can compartmentalize their emotions away to address the tasks. Kanan maintained very high standards of excellence and kept working towards improving her knowledge and skills base.”
Indians, I feel, do not give due credit to most who probably are not on the constant popularity wave. Mekhala wants to share unlike opinion on this. “Due credit? Popularity wave? What are these terms speaking? If we define look at a condition where people relate to another and want to emulate them, the popularity wave terms becomes clear. In an analogy, good food comes from good ingredients, which is put together in a way so that it appeals. The fact is that a good story is a good story. An inspiring story or a charismatic person always remains so because of the particular energy & passion they bring in their situation. It is a question of putting their quest in life in their generation in the context of the current generation. In generic terms, a struggle is a struggle in whichever period you put this in.”
Mekhala’s own journey is something extraordinary. The former banker & financier studied at studied at Lady Shri Ram College (Economics Honours), Moore School of Business, Columbia (Finance & International Trade) and London Business School (Investment Management). Her musical foray includes studying Dhrupad under Dagar Brothers. Mekhala prefers calling herself straightforward rather than unusual. “I am not publicity shy but do not crave it either. About my life journey, I have made some serious money in past avatars and have taken some serious knocks as well. Life’s canvas has also taught me that it is vital to have passion and energy in life as also some detachment. Your life is yours alone. It is important to know yourself and to understand what motivates you and then follow your dreams and not live life as dreamt by another for you. And humility & compassion are needed to stop being a self-centred megalomaniac.” Clear-cut she definitely is!
"Typically, women dither or get self-sabotaged with emotions hijacking mental states, disempowering them, while men successfully can compartmentalize their emotions away to address the tasks. Kanan maintained very high standards of excellence and kept working towards improving her knowledge and skills base."
A true author worth his pen has his or her list of favourite books or literature. Mekhala confesses to admiring imagery & humour in literature. “I have read George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Lawrence Durrell and Gerald Durrell, Alastair Mclean, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Tagore, Mustafa Ali, Premchand, Sarat Chandra, a good deal of science fiction and vast accounts of mythology & folklore from different parts of the world. I have also read a lot of non–fiction, in terms of books on management books and brain entrainment.”
Kanan Devi admirers will surely pick up Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema. But it is a mission for reintroducing Kanan Devi to an even younger audience. Mekhala feels the readers will discover a woman whose life was filled with hard work & struggle that she achieved success without any godfather, lineage, resources or affirmative action. “She had to be ruthless as a street fighter as the situation needed, but retained her compassion & humility where it was needed. Kanan rewrote her life story and was a true self-made woman. This story & message had to be showcased to a new generation and what I plan to achieve.” It is time we get acquainted with a true heroine of reel & real life.
KANAN DEVI: THE FIRST SUPERSTAR OF INDIAN CINEMA
AUTHOR: Mekhala Sengupta
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins Publishers India
PUBLISHED: October, 2015
PRICE: Rs 350
P AGES: 228