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.

Ahead of time: In Dadasaheb Phalke’s Sri Krishna Janam (1918), Kansa dreams that he is being beheaded. Photo: Courtesy Donabelle Garga.
Film-maker Sheikh Fatehlal, one of the founders of Prabhat Film Co. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.
Film-maker Sheikh Fatehlal, one of the founders of Prabhat Film Co. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.

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.

Quiet revolution: Draupadi Vastraharan made in 1918, starred British actor Violet Bery as Draupadi. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.
Pioneering film-maker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.
Pioneering film-maker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.

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."

Patience Cooper, an Anglo-Indian from Kolkata who was the face of J.K.Madan’s company. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.
Patience Cooper, an Anglo-Indian from Kolkata who was the face of J.K.Madan’s company. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.

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).

Himansu Rai, actor, director and co-founder of the Bombay Talkies, in the Franz Osten movie The Light of Asia. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.
Himansu Rai, actor, director and co-founder of the Bombay Talkies, in the Franz Osten movie The Light of Asia. Photo: Courtesy Donnabelle Garga.

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."

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