Early & Silent Film

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Indian Silent Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2015

BritishEmpire-1

India around 1900

Film on the Indian Sub-continent – Early years 1896 to 1924

Prior to 1947 the British Raj occupied the whole of the Indian sub-continent, including what later became Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was in this context that cinema arrived in India. And the early and developing years of film were carried on under the eyes of the British. That would seem to a be a factor in the scarcity of examples of early film: along with resources and the climate. When I first saw early film from the sub-continent it was at Il Giornate del Cinemas Muto in 1994. And we were able to see the entire early film archive at that festival. Unfortunately most of the films only survived as fragments. However, along with the archive came a group of talented musicians who accompanied the films with traditional music

The central figure in indigenous cinema in this period was Dadasaheb Phalke, who made the first Indian feature films. He also set the trend for mythological films, representing the riches of the indigenous culture. The arrival of sound in the 1930s led to the development of the film musical form, the growth of Film Studios and the central importance of stars to audiences.

Early Days

On July 7 1896, at the Watson Hotel in Bombay, the French cameraman of the Lumière Company, Maurice Sestier, screened the first film show in India. The show was patronised by both the European and Indian elites of the city. Within a week the show moved to the Novelty Theatre, allowing different classes (and even women in a separate section) to view the new wonder. Other showmen followed, and soon the residents of both Calcutta and Madras were able to experience the marvel. The shows used theatres, public halls and even tents set up in playgrounds. And the programmes soon included ‘exotic’ views shot in India.

Harischandra S. Bhatvadekar was the first indigenous Indian to import, in 1898, a camera and to start making films. The films included important political events such as the reception given to a mathemematics scholar, R. P Paranjpye, after he achieved a First at Cambridge University. As is common with early silent film, much of this footage is lost, including what was the first Indian story film, Pundalik, made in 1912. However, at least some of the films of Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke do survive. He is India’s equivalent to the great early North American filmmaker D. W. Griffith.

Phalke: the father of Indian Cinema

In 1910 Phalke saw a film of The Life of Christ. He was inspired:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gogul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’ (Quoted by Suresh Chabria, 1994)

Phalke taught himself the skills of filmmaking, and made a trip to England and the studio of the pioneer filmmaker Cecil Hepworth. Phalke then set up the first production company with its own studio, Phalke Films, in Bombay. In 1913 he released Raja Harischandra: the surviving print runs for 23 minutes at 16 fps with titles in Hindi and English. The original at just under 3,000 feet, probably ran for fifty minutes. The film’s tale came from the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and narrated the story of a king whose love of truth is tested by a god. The film was both a commercial and critical success. Indian audiences powerfully identified with images from their own culture. Despite this, Phalke encountered problems, including the prejudice against cinemas as a ‘low form’ of culture and the fact that no ‘respectable’ woman would appear in a film. His early films used men playing female characters. Later filmmakers at first recruited women less susceptible to the taboo, such as Anglo-Indians. Phalke also had to raise his own funds, as established financial institutions would not invest in film.

Phalke followed his first success with Lanka Dahan (1917) the story of the abduction of a wife by a demon king, Shri Krishna Janma (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919).   The films centred on the god Krishna, played by Phalke’s daughter, Mandakini, and Phalke used early special effects to create the magic of the god hero. These are three important titles in a series of films, and parts of them have survived and have been restored and housed at the National Film Archive of India.

Kaliya Mardan

Kaliya Mardan

The first production company

Phalke filmed Raja Harischandra in the vicinity of his own house, then moved his enterprise to Nasik, where all the subsequent films were produced. According to film historians Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980), the family lived in a three-story house, on a few acres land. The family included Dadasaheb Phalke and his wife, Kari, their five sons and three daughters and various relatives. All the children appeared in Phalke’s films. Kari Phalke loaded and unloaded the camera, rushed film to the laboratory – a portion of the kitchen area – and supervised all laboratory work.

Several dozen people worked on Raja Harischandra, but during the following years the company grew to about a hundred. They all lived on the Nasik estate. The company became an extension of the joint-family system and the members of this extended family did all essential work. Outsiders were only involved occasional crowd scenes. The Phalke enterprise set a pattern that dominated Indian film production for several decades.

His films were shown in cinemas in the large cities, such as Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph, when it opened and to the vast peasant population in the countryside. As Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980) indicated,

‘In due time Phalke, like other producers of this period, became an exhibitor and travelled far and wide by bullock cart, with projectors, screens and films. The people who came were seldom two-rupee customers. Most paid four annas, two annas, or even one anna, and most of them sat on the ground. The revenue was in coins. The weight of the coins, on the homeward trip, could be enormous.’

In the 1920s other entrepreneurs followed in Phalke’s footsteps. The main centre for these production companies was Bombay/Mumbai, however there were also film studios in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai. An important producer was H J F Madan, who launched a Bioscope show in a tent in 1902. He expanded into theatres and later film production. This company was an early example of vertical integration. When Madan died in 1923 he owned 50 movie theatres, a third of the national total.

There were a series of high value productions mainly down to the efforts of Himansu Rai, who also acted in the films. They were directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten working with a German cinematographer Emil Schünemann. Rai raised monies both in India, Germany and from the British film industry. The final and most sumptuous of these epics was Prapancha Pash / A Throw of the Dice (1929). The film retells an episode from the Mahabharata about a king who is cheated of his throne and must struggle to win back the kingdom and his love. She is played by Seeta Devi, reckoned to be an Indian film diva. This is credited to British Instructional Films and Pro Patria Films Ltd. The surviving print is 6694 feet in length with English titles; it ran at 21 fps for 85 minutes. The other two films, which also survive, are Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) this debut film from the production grouping dramatised a story about the life of the Buddha. Their second film was Shiraz (1928) which told the legend of the building of the Taj Mahal.

Gallant Heart

An example of a genre film is Diler Jigar / Gallant Hearts, produced by the Agarwal Film Company in 1931 in Pune. A slightly shorter version survives, running 8672 feet and with titles in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and English: it ran for 117 minutes. It seems that this film was partly inspired by the Hollywood films of Douglas Fairbanks. However, it also fits into a wider cycle of swordplay and stunt films. A tyrant usurps the throne, but the baby prince is saved by a courtier. He re-appears with a love and her brother. Much of the film is shows them outwitting and outfighting the tyrant. What makes the film especially notable is that some of the finest sword play features the heroine  Saranga, as a masked woman avenger,  outdueling the henchmen of the usurper. She was played by a young actress Amboo who played on in the talkie era. Another film from the company survives, Gulaminu Patan / The Fall of Slavery (1931). This is a costume drama lacking the panache of Gallant Hearts. However it does depict the exploitative conditions in rural areas, a theme to which Indian cinema would constantly return.

There were Indian comedies. A three reel film, Jamai Babu survives, from the Hira Film Co (1931). This is an early Bengali film centred on a ‘country bumpkin’ visiting his urban in-laws in the city of Calcutta. It is rough and ready but provides glimpses of Calcutta at that time. It runs for 35 minutes hand has titles in Hindi, Bengali and English.

With the exception of Raja Harischandra and A Throw of the Dice it is really difficult to see these films outside the sub-continent. Though extracts appear in many of the television programmes about Indian cinema.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934 edited by Suresh Chabria was published to coincide with the 1994 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It includes a complete filmography for the period. The above post has been developed from a piece in the BFI CD-Rom on Indian Cinema [no longer available]. For sound cinema – for Parallel cinema.

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6 Responses to “Indian Silent Cinema”

  1. popegrutch said

    Thank you for this! I’ve been wanting to research the topic, but never seem to find time. Hopefully these films will again be available to view sometime. I suspect that India will one day be seen as the most important producer of film, and the more we can understand its film history, the better.

  2. This is a great overview! Thank you for writing. Apart from Prapancha Pash, I don’t think any Indian silents are on DVD (although digital copies of Kaliya Mardan and the other Osten co productions are out there, as you wrote). It is heartbreaking home much is lost.

  3. […] the eve of the sound era, 85 per cent of films screened in India were imported, predominantly from Hollywood. These were […]

  4. […] Indian silent cinema – for Pre-Independence sound […]

  5. Awesome site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get opinions from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Many thanks!

  6. keith1942 said

    Good question. I do not know of any. I will keep my eyes open for one.

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