From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

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Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

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Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

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The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

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Picture Credits: British Film Institute

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