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The Sultans of Silent Era (Part 2)

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Ardeshir M. Irani is one of the outstanding pioneer of Indian Cinema and one most important after Phalke to contribute in technology as well as trade. Unlike Phalke, Irani had a strong inclination for commercial potential of cinema trade. An enterprising man, Irani opened his Alexandera Cinema at Loohar Chawl in parternership with Abdulally Esoofally in 1914, subsequent to his importing films to be shown in tents earlier. He joined his father’s business of musical instruments and phonographs in Mumbai. Seeing the craze for ‘bioscope’ entertainment in the early part of 20th Century, Ardeshir Irani understood the profit investment ratio of this enterprise quickly enough to start with exhibition sector and gradually move to production and direction. Being an exhibitor inspired by the success of early Phalke films, Irani looked for talent around and selected a freshly New York Institute of Cinematography trained Bhogilal Dave. Together they started Star Films and made ‘Veer Abhimanu’ in 1922. After 17 features, it was closed and Ardeshir Irani started Majestic Film Company in 1924 which also closed after 15 features, most of them being directed by Irani. Talent like Naval Gandhi and B.P Mishra got breaks to direct films in this company. Irani then opened Royal Art Studio with financial support from Seth Aboo Hussain. Irani patronised people like K.P Bhave, Nagendra Muzumdar and new actors like Elizer, Madanrai, Vakil and Zillu who became major players in his Imperial Film Company later.

1926 saw Ardeshir Irani form his Imperial Film Company with some of the best talent available at that time. Sulochana (Ruby Meyers), Zubeida, Jal Merchant, Billimoria Brothers, Prithviraj Kapoor, Mehboob, A.R Kardar, L.V Prasad and others from companies like Star, Majestic and Royal Art Studio. Imperial Film Company became associated with some of the finest films of silent era like ‘Anarkali’, ‘Madhuri’, ‘Flying Prince’, ‘Punjab Mail’ and ‘Red Signal’, ‘Cinema Girl’ and ‘Sindabad the Sailor’. 62 Silent features came out of Imperial Film Company till Ardeshir Irani saw ‘Show Boat’, a talkie that had 40 per cent sound included in the film in 1928. He ordered the Tenar Single Sound System, learnt sound recording from Mr. Deming, the agent of that company and went on to produce, direct and record ‘Alam Ara'(1931), India’s first full length talkie. Released on 14th March 1931, at Majestic Cinema of Bombay, Alam Ara set the ball rolling for a major revamp of Indian Cinema leaving little choice for competitive companies and cinemas but to upgrade to the talkie era. Ardeshir Irani was also responsible for first Tamil film ‘Kalidas’ (1931) and first Persian film ‘Duktare Lur’ (1933) besides a first Burmese film.

When colour came as an experimental element in cinema, Irani got excited enough to set up an agency in India of the Cine–Colour company. He also produced ‘Kisan Kanya'(1937) in colour and followed it with ‘Mother India’ (1938) but due to the limited returns of cinema at that time, could not meet the enormous production cost of a colour film. Ardeshir Irani had to close production at his Imperial company in 1939. Imperial became Jyoti Studios and the bridge next to that compound was rightfully named after Ardeshir M. Irani, as a homage to one of the major pioneers of Indian Cinema in 1974.

Chandulal Jaisingh Shah another legend of the silent and later talkie era came from a literary background and got into films quite by chance. His brother Dayaram was a publicity manager with Majestic Cinema and his friend Amarchand Shroff the solicitor of Laxmi Film Company. Mr. Manilal Joshi was to direct ‘Vimala’ (1925) but fell sick and was bedridden. Chandulal Shah was called to helm the project as a last minute choice, something which he did with success and stayed on to make two more silent films ‘Panch Danda’ (1925) and ‘Madhav Kamkundala’ (1926) before returning to his initial vocation at the Stock Exchange.

During the making of ‘Samrat Shiladitya’ (1926), Chandulal Shah met Gohar who later became a partner with him in Ranjit Studios. ‘Typist Girl’ (1926) was the first film he directed independently for Kohinoor in a record 17 days. The stupendous success of that film led to five more films with Kohinoor Company in which Gohar remained the leading lady. ‘Sumari of Sindh’, ‘Educated Wife’, ‘Sati Madri’ became box office successes, consolidating the Chandulal–Gohar duo as a commercially successful partnership.

‘Gun Sundari’ again with Gohar was written by Chandulal Shah as an exception to the rest written by Mohanlal Dave for the company as a permanent story writer. This film became a much bigger success commercially and brought in a certain amount of intrigue into the Kohinoor Film Company against the writer-director and actress duo. Chandulal Shah and Gohar went to Mahavdas Pasta’s Jagdish Film Company and made four films ‘Vishwa Mohini’ (1928), ‘Griha Laxmi’ (1928), ‘Chandramukhi’ (1929) and ‘Raj Laxmi’ (1930).

Financed by Vitthaldas Thakordas, Shree Ranjit Film Company became the new partnership Production House of Chandulal Shah and Gohar. Signing stars like Sulochana, Madhuri, Shantakumari, Sultana, Zubeida besides Gohar, and directors like Nandlal Jaswantlal, Nanubhai Vakil, Jayant Desai and Nagendra Mazumdar-Ranjit made a record 39 silent films in about little more than 3 years.

With the advent of talkies, Ranjit Film Company became Ranjit Movietone in 1931. It once again took the lead and signed all major star actors and directors to feature in productions that were planned to corner a large chunk of the new market opened with the revolutionary introduction of sound with visuals in cinema. It spelled a death knell for live theatre companies as performing auditoriums were converted into talkies. Few companies shifted lock-stock and barell into films. Ranjit Movietone made the most of this boom in the market making as many as 50 talkie films in a span of 19 years between 1931 and 1950.

The biggest contribution of Chandulal Shah was to create an organized studio system which was followed later by New Theatres, Filmistan, Filmalaya and others. Nicknamed Sardar, Chandulal Shah was also responsible for the Silver Jubilee and Golden Jubilee celebrations of Indian Cinema in 1939 and 1963 respectively. He made his last film ‘Papi’ in 1953 and retired from films to go back to his fondness for Stock Exchange and horses.

Hari Bhai R. Desai

Starting as General manager in Laxmi Film Company in 1924,Haribhai Desai was a man with background in Economics and several businesses before he came to films. He gave a break to Chandulal Shah in ‘Vimla'(1925), R.S.D Chaudhary in ‘Neera’ (1926) and Nagendra Muzumdar in ‘Asha’ (1926). When Laxmi Studio folded after 2 years, Haribhai entered journalism and also edited a magazine.

B.M Dave of Sharda Film Company planned to start a new production house in Kirkee suburb of Pune and chose Hari Bhai to head that enterprise. Named Suvarana Pictures, this new unit at the premises of United Pictures Syndicate soon became a vibrant place. Here, Haribhai took a deep in the technique of filmmaking, while being an executive head. He also directed the first feature of that company titled ‘Rup Basant’ (1928).

Haribhai then set up Surya Film Company with Purshottam Ved, who was a distributor of Sharda Pictures in South India. This company was dissolved and Haribhai went to study cinematography at New York Institute of Photography. Assembling talent from Bombay, Pune, Bangalore and Kolhapur, he decided to make action movies in his company. Surya produced a record 38 silent films in 3 years to become a major film company from South in the silent era.

(To be continued…)

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