Kanan Devi was the first superstar of Indian cinema. When one hears of the journey from Kanan Bala to Kanan Devi she made to reach where she did as an actress, a mellifluous singer, a producer and a star rising from the slums to become an enchanting and regal personality, all debates will fall flat.
A centenary tribute to Kanan Devi was organised jointly by New Theatres where she blossomed the best and left her footprints as a singer-actress on the sands of time, and Nandan, the cultural wing of the state of West Bengal. Apart from talks and a seminar, some of her major films under the New Theatres wing were screened to a packed theatre at Nandan III, which stands testimony to her audience reach decades later. Women from red-light areas were called to work in the films. It is said that Kanan Bala belonged to one such family herself, and her entry into films was preceded by her talent in vocal music.
Her first film as leading lady was in Jore Barat (1931) one of the first Bengali talkies, and she became an overnight star. She dominated Bengali cinema for nearly three decades – first, as a talented singer trained under different schools of music, second, as a star and an actress, and third, as a fashion icon among women fans who modelled their fashion status by imitating her hairstyles. But she was considered as having risen from the dredges, and though her hundreds of fans adored her and worshipped her screen image, they were reluctant to bestow her with the respect she rightly deserved.
Kanan Devi created her own space in every film she performed in for two major reasons – her talent for singing as she acted in leading roles in many musicals and two, because though she had a dusky complexion off screen, she was extremely photogenic and the directors and cinematographers of those times took great care to construct her screen image to suit what the audience was looking for. Among some of her best remembered films are Maa (1934), Manmoyee Girls School (1935), Mukti (1937), Bidyapati/ Vidyapati (1938), Saathi/Street Singer (1938), Sapurey/ Sapera (1939), Parajay (1940), Abhinetri (1940) Haar Jeet (1940), Parichay (1941), Shesh Uttar/Jawab (1942), Jogajog (1943), Chandrasekhar (1947), Mejdidi / Majhli Didi (1950).
She became the first Bengali star whose name on the billboards assured that the film would become a hit at the box office. They mostly did. The optimum peak as an actress was after she quit Radha Studios to join New Theatres. She got two great directors to work with, Debaki Kumar Bose and P.C. Barua, and the best among music directors – Rai Chand Boral and Pankaj Mullick. The most memorable film that is as popular today as it was when it was made starring Kanan Devi and P.C. Barua was Mukti (1937). Mukti had a bold storyline. Released at Chitra on 18 September,, 1937, Mukti became an instant hit, turning Pramathesh and Kanan Devi into screen icons overnight.
Kanan Devi created her own banner Shreemati Pictures in 1949 and produced around a dozen films between 1949 and 1965. Most of these films were adapted / based on classics by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the film rights of which she had purchased.The directorial team she had created and named Sabyasachi to direct the film, included her name alongside the names of Ajoy Kar and Binoy Chatterjee. Though the films did not meet with great commercial success, the critics panned them quite well.
Among the productions of Shreemati Pictures, Andhare Alo (1957) based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay won the All India Certificate of Merit for the Second Best Feature Film at the 5th National Awards at the hands of Rajendra Prasad. It also won the President’s Silver Medal for the Best Feature Film in Bengali. It was the inaugural film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival where Kanan Devi and Haridas Bhattacharya were specially invited for the screening. Rajlakshmi O Sreekanto (1958) was perhaps the biggest hit under her banner because it starred Uttam Kumar and SuchitraSen in the title roles. The film was directed by Haridas Bhattacharya.Indranath, Sreekanto O Annadadidi (1959) was a well-crafted film that featured Kanan Devi in a very layered role.
Kanan Devi remains one of the most outstanding and versatile creative artists Indian cinema has ever produced. She wrote an autobiography Sabare Ami Nomi (1973) and in 1977, Kanan Devi was bestowed the Dadasaheb Phalke award for her contribution to Indian Cinema. She also worked as President of the Mahila Shilpi Mahal, an organisation that helps aged and needy female artistes of yesteryears. The journey from Kanan Bala to Kanan Devi was not just in the change of name but was a real symbol of Kanan Devi’s rise reportedly from the infamous bylanes and ghettoes of Kolkata to recognition and respectability, both as star-actress-singer as well as a respectable citizen of the city.