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Jijai dragging her son to the temple as Tukaram tries to stop her. Sant Tukaram, a classic in Marathi Cinema, is the first Indian film to be picked for any international award of any kind. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jijai dragging her son to the temple as Tukaram tries to stop her. Sant Tukaram, a classic in Marathi Cinema, is the first Indian film to be picked for any international award of any kind. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A certified success

How the Venice Film Festival certificate of the Marathi movie Sant Tukaram's was lost, and found

This week’s column couldn’t get trendier even if it grew a beard, slipped into excessively short men’s trousers and drove a Tesla S. This week’s column talks about both bad journalism and Marathi films. Oh yes. Those livemint.com servers are going to take a beating today (I hope).

Let me take you back to December 2002. During a breezy booze party at the International Film Festival of Kerala, two men started shooting the breeze. At some point in the conversation cinematographer Sunny Joseph told K.S. Sasidharan, director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), a bizarre story.

Joseph told Sasidharan that he was in possession of a long lost document that was perhaps last seen in the late 1950s.

The document was a participation certificate presented to the Prabhat Film Company by the organisers of the 5th Venice International Film Festival held in August 1937. The legendary Pune-based company received the award for its classic Marathi film Sant Tukaram.

Prabhat Film Company later went out of business in the early 1950s. Its property was auctioned off, and the remaining assets were transferred to the government of India some time around 1960. The old Prabhat campus now houses the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

Who originally held this certificate and how it went missing remains an enduring mystery. Was it part of the Prabhat archives? Did it fall out of a box during the auctions or government takeover? Nobody really knows.

What makes the story of the certificate incredible is the tale of how it resurfaced. In 1979, according to Joseph’s story, he was walking along Law College Road in Pune when he noticed this very same certificate lying inside a rubbish bin. Just like that.

“My first reaction was of shock and awe. I knew the importance of the film and the certificate," he told The Times of India in 2004. “I was so in love with the certificate that for many years I did not want to part ways with it."

In other words Joseph, himself an alumnus of the FTII, decided to keep the Sant Tukaram certificate. So things remained until 2002, when he revealed his secret to the director of the NFAI. In 2004, he handed it over to Sasidharan.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes until I held the certificate in my own hands," Sasidharan later told the press. The NFAI director then reassured everybody that it wouldn’t go missing again: “The certificate is being preserved as per international standards inside a glass frame at the NFAI."

Ah yes. A glass frame. Good job.

The NFAI held a function to mark the return of the certificate. There is also a small, face-meltingly bad web page on the NFAI website dedicated to this certificate, along with a picture of aforementioned item inside impenetrable glass frame.

At this point you’re probably thinking: “Dude. Fine. Certificate in a rubbish bin. Cute. Interesting. So what? Say quickly because IPL match is starting."

This certificate is so important because it marks Indian cinema’s first big moment on the international stage.

Sant Tukaram is a landmark in the history of Indian and, in particular, Marathi cinema. Released on 12 December 1936, the film featured Vishnupant Pagnis in the title role of the 17th century Bhakti poet and saint Tukaram. It was a smash hit and ran for 57 weeks at the Central Cinema in Mumbai.

By all accounts, the film was also a critical success that has since been analysed extensively by scholars of cinema, media, society, religion, culture and combinations thereof. The NFAI website calls it a human document of great value.

In 1937, the film was sent to the Venice Film Festival. Where it was not only received warmly but was also picked for an award, thus becoming the first Indian film to ever win an international recognition.

This is where the bad journalism comes in: for some inexplicable reason, there are multiple versions of which award the movie won. The most popular is that Sant Tukaram was chosen by the jury in Venice as one of three best pictures of the year. Another version says it won a special jury award.

In 2004, some reports even suggested that Joseph had returned this best picture in the world certificate to the NFAI. He didn’t, of course. He returned a participation certificate.

In fact, in 1937 the Venice International Film Festival did not have a best picture in the world prize at all. It gave prizes for best Italian film, the Mussolini Cup for best foreign film and numerous other categories, including the cheerfully named Fascist Party Cup.

Sant Tukaram was picked along with four other films for a ‘special recommendation’.

It may not seem like much. But this was the first time an Indian film had ever been picked for any international award of any kind. It was a huge moment for Indian cinema. It may have been forgotten forever if Joseph hadn’t spotted that certificate in the rubbish bin.

There are at least two full streams of Sant Tukaram on YouTube. Why not celebrate Marathi film night this weekend? It has great music, some good acting and a rather splendid special effects ending. Vada pav optional.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs. Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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