Devika Rani is in focus due to a play on her life and a book on the way. A superstar of her time, one of her biggest hits was Acchut Kanya (1936), a Bombay Talkies production and a fine example of cinema promoting social reform; this one was against the caste system coming in the way of true love. (Over 80 years later, caste still remains a major social evil in India).
In Acchut Kanya, Ashok Kumar played Pratap, an upper caste boy man and Devika Rani, was Kasturi, a lower caste girl. They grew up together and there was no parental objection to their childhood friendship, since their fathers were friends, but their romance was severely frowned upon. There was no way a film in that period could have shown a Brahmin-Dalit marriage. There is also a kind of village chorus of men, who uphold the caste system and cause the two families to undergo much misery.
Pratap gets married to Meera (Manorama), and she to Manu (Anwar), after some tear-shedding. They try to make their marriages work, but trouble comes in the form of Manu’s first wife, Kajri (Pramila), who gets jealous of her husband’s new bride. Kajri poisons Meera’s mind too and they both plan to disrupt Kasturi’s life.
They scheme to make Manu believe that Kasturi is still meeting Pratap on the sly. The angry husband attacks Pratap, and during their fight on the railway tracks they do not notice a train coming towards them. In trying to save them Kasturi gets run over by the train and dies. The villages make a monument to her so that her sacrifice is not forgotten. In fact, an old man narrates the story to a couple and saves their troubled marriage. The husband had been planning to kill his wife, and changed his mind, so, as the wife says, Kasturi continues to save lives years after her death.
Based on Niranjan Pal’s story, The Level Crossing, which he adapted into a screenplay, Achhut Kanya was a hit and struck a chord with young people of the time, when the movement against the caste system was starting to gather steam. Legend has it that this is the only film Mahatma Gandhi saw, because of its anti-untouchability theme.
The producer Himanshu Rai, co-founder of Bombay Talkies, a professionally run studio, was an early movie pioneer, and the film had the best technical crew possible– Franz Osten as director, Josef Wirsching as cameraman, Karl Von Spreti as the art director and Saraswati Devi (real name Khorshed Homji) as the composer of its hugely popular music, with songs like Main Ban Ki Chidiya, Choodi Main Laaya Anmol Re, Dheere Baho Nadiya and Kise Karta Moorakh Pyar and Kit Gaye Ho Khewanhaar.