The Sultans of Silent Era by Salim Arif (Part 1)


While Phalke remained a pioneer in establishing the initial foundation of Indian Film Industry, there were others who followed him and took to the new medium with great enthusiasm.

S.N Patankar was one of the early pioneers of Indian Cinema. A decorator in Chitre’s Coronation Cinema in Bombay in the early 1912 with his friends like Karandikar and Divekar, Patankar was able to see imported films several times and like Phalke, nurtured a desire to make them some day. He also saw all Phalke films. Patankar bought a camera from Save Dada and with four other partners namely Karandiker, Divekar, Ranade and Bhatkande produced Satyavan Savitri in 1914 which had a disastrous outcome – the film was blank and all his efforts went to waste. He learnt from his mistake and made a short film ‘Passion v/s Learning’ in 1915, on a legend from Bhagwat Purana. It had a female actor Narmada Mande in a small role which was a rarity in those days.

Murder of ‘Narayan Rao Peshwa’ (1915) was the first historical he produced. During the making of ‘Bhakt Prahalad’ (1917) he met Dwarkadas Narayandas Sampat who became a financier for his next ventures. Together they formed Patankar Friends and Company, but parted ways later. Patankar continued to make films as a producer, cinematographer and director using stage actors and stories of Mohanlal G. Dave. He formed National Film Company with a new financier produced 18 pictures, all photographed and directed by him. He also acted in his own films like ‘Mahashweta Kadambari’ (1922),’Videhi Janak’ (1923), and ‘Vaman Avatar’ (1923). From 1912 to 1926, in 15 years, he made about 35 films. He was one of the earliest filmmaker to give Phalke some competition.

Dwarkadas Narayandas Sampat was one such producer who understood the commercial potential of this new medium. Between 1920 to 1929, his Kohinoor Film Company made 98 feature films, making it a popular form of entertainment for the masses. Beginning in 1917, with Narayandas Patankar as partner he formed Patankar Friends and Company.

They produced a few films before differences arose about casting of female actors in female roles. Dwarkadas started his own independent banner Kohinoor Film Company towards the end of 1918 in partnership with Maneklal B. Patel. Patel in turn left Kohinoor later in 1923 after a big fire to form his own Krishna Film Company.

Zubeida, Sulochana and Fatima were the early female stars to emerge from Kohinoor ranks. Directors like Homi Master, Chandulal Shah, Nandlal Jaswantlal, V.M Vyas were introduced in what was a major open air studio in Dadar of Bombay. Dwarkadas was responsible for making Bombay into the biggest film producing centre of India. He was also responsible for Bhakt Vidur, a covert Nationalist Film depicting Vidur a character from Mahabharata as a Lathi wielding, Khaddar Clad, Gandhi Cap wearing character much to the chagrin of British Indian Censors and was banned in several places. He also produced one talkie in 1935 called ‘Ghar Jamaai’ under the banner of Premier Cinetone.

Vaman Shridhar Apte, financier and producer was introduced to Phalke through a letter given by Dr. Bhandarkar when he was looking for financiers to support his production. He became Managing Partner in Dada Saheb Phalke’s Hindustan Film Manufacturing Company with Mr. Maya Shankar Bhatt, Mr. Gokuldas Damodar, Mr. Madhavji Jesing and L.B Phatak.

With the sudden departure of Phalke, Apte continued making films with his erstwhile assistants and technicians from other companies. The businessman in him understood the need of constant feeding of theatres with new material. He ventured into distribution of films, opening offices in Bombay in 1919 and Madras in 1922. He maintained a constant supply of an average of six or more films per year to meet commercial requirements. Apte produced 96 feature films for Hindustan Film Company between 1920 to 1931 in addition to 10 other feature films produced by his Bharat Film Company in Pune. He was responsible for organising the distribution and exhibition sector for his films and thus established what would be the early model of Financier-Producer-Distributor in India.

Bhogilal K.M Dave was a relative of Mayashankar Bhatt who was a partner in Hindustan Film Company of Phalke and was also in charge of Bombay distribution office of Hindustan Film Company. Bhogilal got fascinated by this new medium and decided to get a first hand learning experience. He went to New York Institute of Photography and graduated in Cinematography. Returning after two years, he met an equally enthusiastic Ardeshir M. Irani. They decided to start a new film company for making films. Star Films Limited became the first limited company for producing films in India. Bhogilal shot and mostly directed mythological subjects revealing a flair for trick photography. Leaving Star films, Bhogilal joined Nanabhai Desai to start Saraswati films. ‘Sati Sardarba’ (1924) his second film at Saraswati films starred Fatima Begum and her daughters Zubeida and Sultana that became a major hit. Bhogilal and Nanabhai left Saraswati films after making one more film ‘Social Pirates’ or ‘Mumbaini Mohini’ (1925) to form Sharada Film Company in 1925. Bhalji Pandharkar directed the first historical of ‘Sharada-Bajirao Mastani’ (1925). A handsome young lad, who worked as an extra in this film was spotted by Nanbhai for his good looks and the ability to fight with expertise. Inspired by Douglas Fairabanks starrer ‘Thief of Baghdad’, Nanabhai planned a similar action packed story with this young man. He christened this man “Indian Douglas” and Master Vithal became a trailblazer with his action packed offerings to become India’s First Action Hero. Sharada with Boghilal Dave’s trick photography became a name in Indian Cinema and these action pictures were a big hit with masses adding a new genre to the mainly mythological and fantasy subjects of silent films.

With advent of sound Bhogilal went abroad once again to learn about the new invention and purchase new machinery. But indifferent health made Bhogilal fade away without making any major impact in Talkie Era.

Maneklal B. Patel was a partner in Ahmedabad’s Cinema-De-France where he could see the impact this new medium was making on the masses. The financial gains drew him to produce a film ‘Shakuntala Janma’ (1918) at Lonavala near Bombay. He later joined hands with Dwarkadas Narayandas as partner in his newly formed Kohinoor Film Company.

A big fire destroyed Kohinoor Film Company in 1923. Maneklal got the saved prints as his share of the dissolution deed and Dwarkadas the machinery and company property etc. With loss of negatives and several prints, Maneklal got the idea to dupe the surviving prints. He set up Shri Krishna Laboratories to start this new work of making prints from prints. Subsequently he started Shri Krishna Film Company in 1924.

Experienced in the mass production of films, Maneklal produced 44 feature films between 1925 and 1931, almost six to eight films in a year. Maneklal was shrewd enough to understand the need for variety in content and took stories from several writers including renowned writer-politician K.M Munshi. Maneklal also took over Dubhash theatre in 1926 and named it Krishna Cinema to ensure a regular outlet for his films.

Makelal gathered a team of directors, actors, cameramen to create a volume of films that remain an important legacy of the silent era. Besides films like ‘Hothal Padmini’ (1925), ‘Khubsoorat Bala’ (1926), ‘Tarunima Tarang’ (1928), Maneklal made a serial film on Hatim Tai which ran into four parts and 35891 feet of film in 1929.

He later made more than ten films in the early talkie era before retiring from films.

(To be continued…)


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