12 May, 2021

Reigning Queen Of Early Gold

An engrossing biography on Kanan Devi whose early years are shrouded in mystery.

Reigning Queen Of Early Gold

Kanan Devi was a beauty and unmistakably Bengali. She was the queen of Calcutta films eighty years ago, the toast of all India, from Pesh­awar to Chittagong. Unlike other Bengali stars, Suchitra Sen and Sharmila Tagore, for instance, she achieved this without setting foot in a Bombay film studio. It was a remarkable achievement. The pan-India glory of the Calcutta studios ended, more or less, when she retired.

As Mekhala Sengupta tells us in this fine, engrossing biography, Kanan Devi’s early years are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that she grew up in poverty. Her biological mother was a courtesan in a kotha in the red light area of Calcutta. Kanan Devi herself accepted that she may have been born out of wedlock. She was adopted by a couple and when the father suddenly died the mother and daughter were in dire straits. She was pulled out of school and for a time worked as a maid in people’s homes.

A chance meeting in 1926 when she was ten led her to employment as a child actress in silent films. Her strikingly good looks helped. When the...

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