The Bengal Tigers of Cinema
It was in 1896 that Bioscope came to the British Capital of Calcutta in India. Besides Bombay, which being on the Western coast, attracted ships coming in from the West, Calcutta was the chosen centre of British rule in this country. Being the political and commercial capital of India under Queen Victoria, Calcutta was the obvious destination of most ventures. Company Theatre in Calcutta was the main source of urban entertainment and had several established companies right up till 1930. It was with sound coming to films that professional theatre crumbled under this new medium and its major talent got absorbed in emerging talkie companies.
But before this happened, one Mr. Hiralal Sen was so inspired by this new Bioscope show that he left his studies to open Royal Biscope Company and started to show imported movies and gained popularity. Born to a very respectable and educated family, Hiralal was fortunate to get full support from his father Chandra Mohan Sen, a leading advocate at Calcutta High Court. Like Phalke, he also got intrigued by this new medium and got catalogues of major equipment companies. He ordered a cinematographic machine and gave his first show on April 4, 1898 at the Classic Theatre. Importing films, he expanded the exhibition business to Eastern regions of Bihar, Orissa and Bengal. He then ventured to make his own films. When Pathé company from France sent its cameramen in India to film scenes from Indian countryside, Hiralal saw the camera and understood that this instrument was the key to filming moving images. Hiralal became an assistant to learn the basic technique of making films. He later shot scenes from life around. He made his own camera and with his hand held, mechanical movement pictured some scenes. Experimenting for a long time Hiralal filmed sequences from stage play ‘Alibaba’ in 1904. He later showed it with scenes from other plays at the Classic Theatre. He also made two ad films of C.K Sen’s Jabakusum oil and B.K.Paul’s Edward Tonic. Between 1900 to 1917, Hiralal made 40 short films of various kinds. His dream to make a feature film somehow remained unfulfilled.
Jyotish Sen, another still photographer turned cinematographer shot the partition procession of 1905 led by Surendra Nath Banerjee against the first attempt by British rulers to divide India on communal lines. He is generally acknowledged as the first documentary filmmaker of India. Hiralal Sen then shot the British Royal Durbar of Delhi in 1911. Debi Ghosh was another cameraman of note, who joined Aurora Cinema Company in 1915. He filmed a sequence of a play Bish Briksha, and showed it with the actual play in the same theatre.
Jamshedji Framji Madan was an actor with Elphinstone Natak Mandali of Cooverji Nazir and made a name for himself as a saleable star. He toured all over the country with plays and eventually bought this theatre company himself from Cooverji while in Calcutta, where he decided to settle down. He built his own Corinthian Theatre and later another called Alfred. A shrewd business man, he saw the commercial potential of this new medium and started showing films in Tents around key places in Calcutta, through equipment and films bought from Pathe. Realising the necessity of comfort and large numbers, he started to built cinema halls exclusively for films.
In 1907 he built Elphinstone Picture Palace (later Minerva) as the first permanent cinema hall in India. Subsequently he built Madan Theatre and Palace of Variety (later Elite), Cornwallis (later Sree), Crown (later Uttara), Electric Theatre (later Regal) and many more. Very soon Madan had 172 cinema halls as part of its distribution chain in India, Ceylon and Burma. Initially showing imported and Phalke and other films, Madan soon went into production to meet the growing demand of local content. Madan went in to production with Madan Theatres Limited in 1918.
He ushered a combined package of distribution, exhibition and production to provide a regular supply of films. He went on for almost thirty years with this enterprise giving the business of films in India a semblance of Industry. ‘Bilwamangal’ directed by Rustomji Dotiwala was the first film produced by Madan and released on 8th November 1919 at their Cornawallis Theatre in Calcutta. Between 1919 to 1931 Madan made more 100 silent films. J.F Madan not only made mythological and fantasy films, but could persuade the likes of Bankim Chandra Chaterjee and Rabindra Nath Tagore to give him the filming rights to literary classics like Durgesh Nandini, Kapal Kundala, Krishnakanter Will, Giribala and Naukadubi.
A visionary and pragmatic individual, J.F Madan played a big role in nurturing indigenous talent of Bengal like Sisir Bhaduri, Ahindra Chaudhary, Durgadas Banerjee, Prabha Devi and several others to lay the foundation of subsequent studios enterprises in Calcutta and other major cities.
Anadi Bose was another important name in the development of cinema in East India. He founded Aurora Cinema Company in 1911 with Debi Ghosh. He made extensive inroads with his mobile cinema into the interior of various states. He purchased two cameras and made shorts with Debi Ghosh. He started his first feature ‘Ratnakar’ in 1918 and managed to release it in 1921. Then he went into distribution and exhibition of films with production under Aurora Film Corporation. He purchased distribution rights of Bombay’s Imperial Company, Bangalore’s Surya Film Company and others and showed their films in his theatre chains. He bought Barua Studio in 1930 and built his own Aurora Studio at Narikeldanga, Calcutta in 1936, giving a fillip to his film production and distribution enterprise which was continued by his sons later.
Dhiren Ganguly, generally regarded as the father of Bengali cinema was the one responsible for giving Bengali films a certain character of their own. It was at Shantiniketan under Gurudev Tagore that Dhiren Ganguly nurtured his passion for drama and painting. These two inclinations were to shape his future life. After coming out from Shantiniketan he joined Scottish Church College for higher studies. He moved on to Government School of Arts, Calcutta and graduated in 1912 in School’s Life Course with distinction. His passion for painting and drama met with disapproval in his family being non-commercial pursuits. He had to leave his home and live in shanty places and made irregular income by selling his paintings to magazines. His skill with painting and make up got him a job at the Calcutta Police Headquarters in ‘Lal Bazar’ to make up disguises for police officers. He left that job in protest to the brutal force used by British officers of Calcutta Police against Auribondo.
Films of Charlie Chaplin awakened a desire in him to dabble into the medium of cinema, but he had to wait for the opportunity to come to him. His elder brother, who was the Chief Engineer of Hyderabad State got him the job of Principal of Nizam Art College in 1915. But cinema still remained an unrequited affair. He wrote a letter to J.F. Madan and asked for an opportunity to work in films. He got a response and came to Calcutta, but his meeting with N.C. Lahiri the General Manager of Madan Films, made him change his mind. He instead opened the Indo-British Film Company in late 1918.
‘Billet Pherat’ (England Returned) made in 1921 satirized the life style of British educated Indians coming back to live here. Dhiren Ganguly played the main role besides dramatizing the story written and directed by Nitish Lahiri. He produced two more films ‘Sadhu Ki Khaitaan’ and ‘Yashoda Nandan’ before moving back to Hyderabad and opening Lotus Film Company in 1923. He made ten films till 1927, before offending the Nizam with his eleventh film ‘Raziya Begum’ which depicted a love affair between a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl and was asked to leave Hyderabad for good.
Coming back to Calcutta once again, he now launched British Dominion Film Co. ‘Flames of Flesh’ was the first film made under this banner with Debaki Bose and Sabita Devi in 1928. He went on to make ten more films in this company and gave the socially backward trade of film making a certain respectability and industrial viability.
He was able to bring people from respectable families into films and introduced important talent which shaped the future cinema significantly. He was responsible for Debaki Bose, Prathmesh Barua, Dinesh Ranjan and Krishna Gopal getting their initial exposure to cinema under him, men who gave filmmaking in India a major fillip in the talkie era.
(To be continued…)