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Reeling Ahead

Friday, August 24, 2012

This is the second of six articles on Indian cinema in the last century, tracing its early evolvement, during the 1920s and the 30s

1921-1930 :
Liberal Period

The First Movie Moghul
THE Madan Theatres Ltd., a joint stock venture, was launched in 1919, by India's first movie moghul, Jamshetji Framji Madan. Essentially a showman, Madan thought in terms of spectacle and melodrama.

The company had under contract a number of European technicians and directors. For their 1920 grand production, Nala and Damayanti, Framji chose an Italian director, Eugenio De Liguoro.

When Nala and Damayanti opened in 1921 in Bombay, the Times Of India said, "Nala and Damayanti...has all the finishes of a film produced in Europe and America..."

Being the largest importer of American films in the country, producing at least 8-10 films of their own each year, and maintaining a well-equipped studio and a premium staff,  Madan Theatres created an unrivalled monopoly in the film industry.

After J.F. Madan's death in 1923, his son J.J. Madan began a trend with his 'social' films which introduced such stereotypes as the wayward husband, the virtuous wife and the exotic vamp. He produced hits like Pati Bhakti (1922) and Patni Pratap (1923) on the same theme.

In 1924, Madan produced, with UG Italania, a mythological, Savitri, in Rome. Italians played the two lead roles of Savitri and her husband, Satyavan.

The Twenties were a rather liberal period by traditional moral standards. Kissing was common on the Indian screen, especially appreciated when the stars were Sulochana and Dinshaw Billimoria, the most popular lead pair of the time. The male heart-throb brigade was led by Billimoria, Raja Sandow and Master Vitthal. Most of the heroines were Anglo-Indian girls.

1921 — Dhiren Ganguly's Bilet Ferat or 'England Returned' was the first love story of modern times on the Indian screen, starting the long trail of 'social' films depicting love and romance.

1921 — Kohinoor's Bhakta Vidur (with proprietor D. Sampat playing the lead role) created India's first censorship controversy. The film had heavy political overtones, with references to Gandhiji and his ideals.

1922-'23 — Entertainment Tax was introduced in the Bombay and Bengal Presidencies.

1923 — Noor Jehan or Light of the World, a Madan film starring Patience Cooper, became the first historical film on the Moghul dynasty to catch the interest of the audience.

1924 — Kohinoor's Kala Naag / Triumph of Justice / Kalyug Ki Sati, created quite a stir. It was based on the life of a rapist-murderer, Haridas Chapsi, who was undergoing trial during the release of the film!

1925 — Baburao Painter's groundbreaking Savkari Pash or Indian Shylock focussed on the lives of countless, illiterate, impoverished farmers cheated by moneylenders. This artistically acclaimed film flopped badly at the box office.

1927 — Chandulal Shah's Bhaneli Bhamini or Educated Wife, with Goharbai, in the lead, started a new genre of movies depicting the Indian woman fighting for her rights.

 (Content provided by Amrita Bharati)

1931-1940 : Movies to Talkies
The Sound of Movies
IN the 1920's, Madan Theatres was already investigating the possibilities of synchronized sound and pictures. Having visited Hollywood at the time, J. J. Madan had started the construction of a sound proof studio in Tollygunge (Calcutta). By the end of the 30's, out of a total of 370 theatres in India, more than 30 had been wired for sound.

However, the thunder was stolen from under Madan's nose, by Ardeshir Irani.

On March 14, 1931, Irani's Imperial Film Company released India's first full-length talkie, Alam Ara (Light of the World).

The Indian audiences were thrilled by the song-and-dance routines in Alam Ara. Consequently filmmakers started using them indiscriminately, regardless of their relevance to the story or plot. Shirin Farhad had 42 songs and Madan's Indrasabha had as many as 59! Artistes like Mukhtar Begum, Gohar, Jaddanbai, Master Nissar and K.L Saigal, who had impressive voices, were much in demand.

Most of the early talkies were made in Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu). Eventually, film makers branched out into their vernaculars, making films in Hindi, Urdu, Gujrati, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi and Assamese.
Subjects and treatment were as diverse as their makers. For example, while  P.C Barua's films were dripping with romance, self-pity and morbidity, V. Shantaram's films (Kunku, Aadmi, etc.) were provocative comments on the  social millieu of the time, especially the subservient position of 'outclassed' women. In total contrast, Hunterwali was a landmark in itself, considering its phenomenal success in a patriarchal society.

1932 — New Theatres released its Bengali film, Chandidas, which shot its maker B. N Sircar and its talented director Debaki Bose into the limelight.

Prabhat's V. Shantaram made his first sound film Ayodhyecha Raja, in Hindi and Marathi. The aristocratic lead actress, Durga Khote, paved the way for women from respectable families to star in films.

Himanshu Rai released Karma, in Hindi and English. He and his wife-to-be, Devika Rani, played the main roles. The film was premiered in London and made its heroine the darling of the international press!

1935 — Prathamesh Chandra (P.C.) Barua released his Bengali film Devdas, based on the popular novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, starring Barua himself in the lead role of the drunkard,  Devdas. The film became one of the biggest commercial and critical successes of Indian cinema, forcing Barua to make a Hindi version in the same year starring Kundanlal Saigal (who became India's first major singer-star).

Hunterwali, starring 'Fearless Nadia' made its director Homi Wadia a household name, and popularized the stunt film genre.

1936 — Prabhat's Sant Tukaram became the first Indian film to win an international award. It was adjudged the third best film at the Venice Film Festival in 1937!

1937 — Ardeshir Irani released India's first colour film, Kisan Kanya.

1939 — Rai's Achhut Kannya was one of the first films to portray the plight of lower-caste women. It made Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar the most popular pair of the decade.

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