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Indian Silent Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2015


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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Prapancha Pash / A Throw of Dice

Posted by keith1942 on April 21, 2013

Throw2This was the third collaboration between German film director Franz Osten and Indian film Producer Himanasu Rai. Rai was both an actor and producer and later set up the famous Bombay Talkies. Their three films Prem Sanyas / Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz  (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929) all offer fairly free adaptation of Indian mythical stories. They are by the standards of the time fairly opulent with substantial funding. A Throw of Dice was the most opulent and expensive, with a reputed 10,000 extras involved in the production. They were officially international productions, with Rai pre-selling the rights, hence the involvement of UFA and the British entrepreneur H B Woolfe. But the films also enjoyed support and resources from various Indian princes and Rajahs [Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore], hence the impressive locations in the films.

The film opens with a title card: “All Quiet in the Jungle.” We see a hunting party and startled animals, including snakes, monkeys and birds. In the jungle is a hut occupied by a healer and his daughter Sunita. The healer was once at the court of King Ranjit but left because of its vices. We now meet Ranjit with his hunting partner King Sohat. We soon see that they are obsessive gamblers, preferring to throw dice to hunting the abundant game. Ranjit is plotting to kill Sohat, but this plan misfires when the efforts of the healer and Sunita save Sohat. Both kings now become smitten with Sunita.

To Ranjit’s chagrin Sunita favours Sohat. Sohat now returns to his palace with Sunita and makes preparations for their marriage. Still obsessed with Sunita Ranjit plots to wreck their love. First he plants evidence that suggests that Sohat has murdered Sunita’s father. She leaves the palace but returns when Sohat’s innocence is revealed. So Ranjit attends the wedding and inveigles Sohat into another game of dice. He uses loaded dice and finally in a desperate gamble Sohat becomes his slave. However, one of the palace children unwittingly reveals the secret of the dice. Exposed Ranjit flees from Sohat and falls to his death. Sohat and Sunita are together on the skyline as the sun sinks below the horizon.

The plot is simple but the film is far more complex. It is also impressive. Much of this effect is due to the actual locations, with grandiose palaces, teeming streets and riversides and the rich fauna and animal life of the jungle. There are numerous elephants, tigers and later in the film camels. And the set pieces have massive crowds and beautifully rendered costumes, sets and props.

Equally impressive is the cinematography. The lighting cameraman on the film was Osten’s fellow German Emil Schunneman. The cinematography is sharp and clear, well served by a BFI restoration from 2006. The film uses techniques recognisable from the German industry, including impressive deep focus. There are frequent soft focus shots and effective backlighting setting off the star players. There is one striking tracking shot during the climatic sequence, which must have been technically very difficult. The final shot of Sohat and Sunita uses striking contrast as they stand on the skyline and the sun sinks away. This last technique seems to have become a regular of Indian films: Mother India (1957), screened in the same series, has a number of similar and equally effective shots.

The film’s qualities stem from a successful partnership between Osten, Rai and their regular storywriter Niranjan Pal. The production values are way ahead of surviving Indian films of the period. In fact, they rival some of the best work from the great Ufa studio. And they are certainly superior to the British films in which Woolfe invested funds.

The screening at Bradford International Film Festival was on a DCP. It included a recorded score composed by Nitin Sawhney. This uses the London Symphony Orchestra augmented by flutes and tabla percussion. It also uses the human voice, developing as the story progresses. In the early stages it is simple humming, this develops at one point into scat singing and finally fully realised vocals. The score is extremely effective. I thought it was probably too strong at moments of melodrama but one accustoms to it as the film progresses.

The screening ran for 78 minutes. When the film was screened at the 13th Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994 it ran 85 minutes, 6695 feet at 21 fps. The digital version seemed to run fine and seemed complete. However, the Giornate print was from the Indian Archive. It may well be that the various versions [domestic and exported to Germany and the UK] were different. But it also seems that this international distribution is one reason why the three Osten/Rai films survive. Most other Indian productions of the period have been lost.

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Raja Harishchandra

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2013


The screening of this film on May 3rd 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph is the centenary celebrated by Happy Birthday, Indian Cinema. This four-reel film is generally credited with being the first Indian feature. Actually there had been several non-fiction short films and several stage versions of theatrical plays: all now lost. But it was D. G. Phalke’s dramatising of a traditional Indian mythical tale in the new medium of cinema that provided a starting point for an Indian film Industry. In this sense Phalke is, like the Lumière Brothers, not the first but the key innovator.

As with so much of India’s early film heritage the film survives only in a truncated form. It was originally 3700 feet in length, now only 1475 feet survive. These consist of the opening reel and most of the final reel. What remains provides the basic outline of the plot. The film opens with King Harishchandra and his children shooting arrows. He deals with a petition from his subjects. He then goes on a hunt in the forest. He hears the cries of women. These are the furies. His investigation leads him to the hut of a sage living in the forest. Having intruded in the space of the sage the king has to undertake a penance. This is to surrender his kingdom to the sage. Returning to his palace the king breaks the news to his wife and children. Later he is sent from the palace, to the consternation of his subjects. The king and his family now have to reside in the hut in the forest.

In the final reel the wife is falsely accused of murder. A court finds her guilty and the king is forced to carry out the sentence of beheading. At this point the god Shiva appears, prevents the execution and also cures the king’s sick son. Having proved his virtue the king is restored to his kingdom and returns to his place to the rejoicing of the people. The surviving print runs out just before the end.

The film’s story is taken from the great epic Mahabharata and was an established tale in theatrical adaptations. Phalke was consciously taking a popular cultural story of India and translating it to the new and increasingly popular medium. As elsewhere the new entertainment medium [Cinematograph, Vitagraph, Bioscope,…] spread quickly. A Lumière operator had presented India’s first screening in Bombay on July 7th 1896. Exhibitors and distributors developed and soon urban centres had their own picture houses and rural areas ‘travelling picture show men’. Nearly all the screened material was imported, mainly from Europe still the centre of the new industry, but also from the rapidly developing US industry. Apparently two early successes were Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage de la Lune, (1902) and Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Phalke himself had some experience of engraving and photography. In 1910 or 1911 he saw an imported film The Life of Christ. This was an event that sparked his interest in bringing Indian stories and myths to the screen. In fact he made a short trick film, Growth of a Pea Plant. Then he journeyed to England to master the techniques of the new medium. He visited and learnt from one of England’s most important filmmaker, Cecil Hepworth. He also purchased a Williamson camera and Kodak film. With these he returned to India to make his mark.

The film shows the influence of the early western film style. Phalke uses standard black and white film.  Many of the shots are set like a tableaux. The performances and action are set within a proscenium just as in a theatre. Off-screen space appears equivalent to off-stage space in a theatre. Even the melodrama seems familiar: in the final reel the Queen finds a corpse and picks up the knife that committed the murder just as guards enter and arrest her for the crime. However, this is one distinctive feature as all the female characters are played by men. At this early stage, as in theatre, it was not considered a respectable activity for women. Indeed the first Lumière screening had provided separate seating for the two sexes.

But the characters, plot, and importantly the moral lessons of the drama are essentially Indian. The English speaking elite took little notice but the film immediately won over the popular urban and rural audiences. Phalke organised his own travelling film shows. And in 1917 he made a new version of the film. He continued making popular feature films, mainly with traditional Indian subjects, right through the Silent era. He is considered the ‘Father of Indian Film’ and still today in ‘Bollywood’ and other regional cinemas the sort of stories he adapted remain immensely popular.

Unfortunately the Indian National Film Archive has very limited resources. So the screening in the Bradford International Film Festival used a copy on Blu-Ray. This was a straight copy, which on film runs at 16 fps. On Blu-Ray at 24 fps it was running too fast, but the difference was not too bad: [a running time of 16 minutes instead of 22 minutes]. Rather more unfortunate the copy was cropped on one side, which was especially noticeable in the English language titles, [the film has English and Hindi titles]. The surviving film was screened at the 13th Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994. In fact just about the whole surviving corpus of Indian Silent films was presented then: a real privilege.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934, edited by Suresh Chabria for the Festival has a listing of all the films produced in this period: nearly all now lost.


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