India might be celebrating the centenary of cinema this year, but it’s fair to say that the show and tell can begin only from around the mid-1930s.
The country’s various film industries produced a little over 1,300 silent films from the late 1800s before moving to sound from 1931 onwards, but barely 20 titles have survived. The picture of Indian cinema resembles a building with several storeys and a hollowed out basement. Much of what has endured into the digital age is in bits and bobs. Devotees of the pre-talkies pioneers can take some hope from the surviving material, even if hope must be parcelled out in pieces. There is a fair amount of recent scholarship, DVDs of three silents, and occasional screenings of the extant films, to remind us of the foundational years of Indian film.
Bhagwan Das Garga’s Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey, which was released recently by HarperCollins, contains movie and production stills, portraits of film-makers, posters, lobby cards and advertisements. The historian and film-maker, who died on 18 July 2011, had previously written So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India and From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-Fiction Film in India, a documentary history. “It took six years to bring out the silent film book,” says his wife, Donnabelle. “I am very pleased with the eventual product, since this was so close to Bhagwan’s heart.”
Apart from gorgeously reproduced images, Garga also provides a snappy history of silent cinema as it developed in major film-making centres such as Nashik, Kolhapur, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. There are chapters on key characters, such as Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, who directed Raja Harishchandra in 1913 (previous efforts had produced documentary shorts such as Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar’s The Wrestlers and A Man And His Monkeys, and Pundalik, a 60-minute adaptation of a play), and Jamsetji Framjee Madan, “the first movie moghul of India to own a vast production, distribution, and exhibition network, which was to dominate the entertainment industry for nearly two decades”.
Mythology and ancient history inspired several early films, some of which were allegories against colonial rule, such as Kanjibhai Rathod’s Bhakta Vidur (1921), which was based on an episode from the Mahabharat and was banned by the British administration in Karachi and Chennai. Baburao Painter “chose for his themes the lives of heroic warriors, particularly Shivaji…” and made Sinhagad (1923), “India’s first full-scale historical”, writes Garga. Dwarkadas N. Sampat, one of the founders of Kohinoor Film Co., was a “superb showman” who “did away with painted scenery as a backdrop” and “brought in artificial lighting for more dramatic effects”. Garga also has chapters on silent film production in the other major centres, Kolkata and Chennai.
Several publications have mapped the history of silent cinema in the past, including the hard-to-find Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen and the out-of-printIndian Filmography, Silent And Hindi Film: 1897-1969 by Firoze Rangoonwala. One key historical reference, which has been out of circulation for years, is now returning into view. Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934, edited by former National Film Archive of India (NFAI) director Suresh Chabria, will be released by Niyogi Books in a few months. The anthology, which was issued alongside a retrospective of Indian silent cinema at the 1994 edition of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, includes notes on the films shown at the event and contributions by Chabria, Rajadhyaksha and historian Virchand Dharamsey. “… by the mid-20s India had a large and flourishing studio system based in the three leading economic and urban zones of British India,” Chabria writes. “Reflecting the culture and ethnic character of each region films were made in nine broad genres—the mythological, the devotional, the social, the historical, the costume movie, the stunt movie, the comedy, the literary adaptation and the crime movie.”
Descriptions of landmark films are often tinged with regret. “Historical factors, apathy and the inexorable process of nitrate decay have virtually wiped out the Indian silent cinema’s greatest and best known achievements,” Chabria writes. Frequent fires and neglect swallowed up most of silent cinema, both in India and in other film-producing nations, but the subcontinent had a unique disadvantage: its weather. “Even the United States of America, France and the Scandinavian countries have lost about two-thirds of their silent cinema, but they made many more films,” says Chabria, who also teaches cinema appreciation at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. “In India, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were the leading centres of film production, and they have the lousiest climates for maintaining and preserving films. There were also nitrate fires, such as at the Maharashtra Film Company and Kohinoor Film Co.”
Since much of silent cinema had already disappeared by the time the archive was set up in 1964, most of the historical excavation is based on written material rather than on the films themselves. “One has had to piece together a history from ancillary material—booklets, newspapers, magazines in various languages, lobby cards,” Chabria says. “There’s little surviving from the twenties, the glory days of Bombay cinema. There weren’t just mythologies but also social crime thrillers and melodramas. It would have been exciting to see the films of (actors) Sulochana, Dinshaw Billimoria and Gohar.”
The 1920s, says film historian and curator Kaushik Bhaumik in his unpublished PhD thesis, “The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry, 1913-1936”, “were defined by momentous change”. Bhaumik writes about Mumbai, “People changed names, dress codes, sexual codes and habitat… People increasingly spoke a homogeneous urban lingo. A certain amount of levelling took place in the cultural and social life. The congruence of lifestyles of the classes was repeatedly emphasised in the media—in the texts, photographs and films of the time.” Bhaumik is in the process of converting the thesis into a book, to be published by Oxford University Press.
The films that survive from this decade include the Orientalist spectacles directed by German director Franz Osten for the Bombay Talkies studio and stories inspired by religious myths. Whatever is left of silent cinema lies at the NFAI in Pune, which has been sending the prints to festivals and retrospectives over the years.
In October, the Mumbai Film Festival screened 11 titles, some of them accompanied by music, the same way in which silent films used to be shown. The archive showed four of these films again in Mumbai on 24 January at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). “It’s the centenary of India cinema, and it’s time to revisit some of our old films,” says Deepa Gahlot, who programmes the film and theatre sections at the centre. The NCPA will show other Indian classics from the archive throughout the year.
The silent film treasure trove at the NFAI could fit into a single chest. There are two of the four reels (roughly 15 minutes) of the 1917 version of Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (version I was made in 1913) as well as Kaliya Mardan, featuring his daughter Mandakini as the infant Krishna, says NFAI director Prashant Pathrabe. There are complete versions of pre-1930s Osten films—The Light of Asia (directed with Himansu Rai), Shiraz and A Throw of Dice—and two Agarwal Film productions, Diler Jigar and Ghulami Nu Patan. The stash includes Painter’s Sati Savitri and portions of his Muraliwala and Maya Bazaar, P.V. Rao’s Marthand Varma, the Christian propaganda film The Catechist of Kil-Arni by Thomas Gavin Duffy and R.S. Prakash, and short-length documentaries, such as The Shortest And Best Route to South India (7 minutes) and Bangadarshan (11 minutes).
Pathrabe says efforts are being made to widen the reach of silent films. “These films are not reaching the common people beyond film-makers and researchers,” he says. The NFAI has issued a DVD of the 1917 version of Raja Harishchandra, Kaliya Mardan and Kalipada Das’ Jamai Babu, the only surviving Bengali title. The three films on the DVD contain background scores by Pune-based composer Rahul Ranade. The process of acquiring the DVD is cumbersome: In order to receive the films, you need to send a demand draft to the archive in the name of the Administrative Officer, NFAI Pune (the DVD costs Rs.399, with Rs.60 for postage) along with a letter.
Apart from the odd screening at a film festival or a cultural centre, the country will have a more sustained way of appreciating silent cinema when one of two phases of the National Museum of Indian Cinema (NMIC) opens in Mumbai in May. “The first phase will be dedicated to the nation on 3 May, which is a hundred years after Raja Harishchandra was screened in Mumbai,” says Amrit Gangar, the NMIC’s consultant curator. The pre-silent and silent phases are part of a series of interactive displays on the march of cinema over the subcontinent. “We plan to have actual artefacts, dioramas, photographs, posters and song booklets,” Gangar says. There are also plans for an auditorium that will screen silent films, he adds. “Museums get fossilized but we want to have a live space. It will be a place of engagement, it will be more experiential.”
The chances of expanding the collection of Indian silent cinema remain slimmer than a noodle. “A large majority of the films were destroyed by the producers themselves,” Pathrabe says. “The archive’s main focus has been to salvage whatever is available. The fact is that we don’t have a culture of preserving films in a proper manner. Even the film industry doesn’t care about how it preserves its films. But I am not being pessimistic.”