9 August 1940. He ran to the studio as soon as he heard of it. He was at the stadium, watching a football match between Mohun Bagan and Aryan FC when someone spoke into his ear that his studio was on fire. By the time he reached the gates, the flames had devoured the laboratory. A decade’s worth of hard work, toil and artistic endeavour was turned to ashes before his very eyes. Pramathesh Chandra Barua, standing right beside him, was inconsolable. “My Devdas is burning!”, wailed Barua, referring to his seminal bilingual film, released in the 30s in Hindi and Bengali. Birendranath Sarkar, trying to make sense of the tragedy himself, touched him on the shoulder and said, “Not at all. Devdas is right here, standing beside me.”
Birendranath had an impressive lineage. His great-grandfather Peary Charan Sarkar had written one of the earliest textbooks on the English language by an Indian. His father Sir Nirendranath Sarkar was a lawyer, appointed as the first Advocate General of Bengal. Birendranath himself had studied civil engineering at the University of Glasgow. Once he started his practice as an engineer in Calcutta, many of his bills remained unpaid, much to his chagrin. Frustrated by this setback, he was said to be passing through Cornwallis Street (now known as Bidhan Sarani), when he noticed a long queue of humans lining up in front of a cinema house to buy tickets. He was awestruck. Here he was, worrying about being paid for a job already performed, and these people were eager to pay money for something they had not even experienced! No matter how the quality of the product turned out to be, this was a business where people had to pay upfront. Sarkar decided to switch careers and get into the movie business.
The year was 1928 and the Bhowanipore Club was the hub of young Bengali intellectuals where they huffed and puffed and roared about all sorts of problems that ailed humanity. In these circles, BN Sarkar ran into Haren Ghosh, a sophisticated impresario who could seemingly make a success out of any business. They entered into a partnership to make movies. The first product of this collaboration was a silent film called Booker Bojha (1930). It was directed by Nitin Bose, a young aspiring filmmaker who had been a cinematographer with the Eastern Films Syndicate. The cast included the reigning superstar of Bengal, Durgadas Bannerjee. The film was a disaster through and through, but it gave Birendranath aka BN Sarkar a taste of the inner workings of the film business. Next, he joined forces with PN Ray, an engineer like him who was also interested in the business of making movies and floated a company called International Film Craft in 1930. PN Ray came with some experience, as he had worked with Himanshu Rai (who was about to found Bombay Talkies a few years later). Under the new banner, Ray and Sarkar produced two films. The first one was Chor Kanta (1931) directed by Charu Roy (who had played the leading man in A Throw of Dice), and the other one was Chashar Meye (1931). By this time, Sarkar had also used his engineering skills to build the Chitra cinema hall, which was inaugurated by none other than Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Both the films were released in the newly constructed theatre, and flopped miserably and that was that for International Film Craft.
All his films so far were duds, and a lesser man would have given up by now. But as far as BN Sarkar was concerned, these were learning experiences. He assembled the pieces of his last two experiences and put together a fresh team of talented individuals. Among them were Nitin Bose, who was the director of Sarkar’s first film, Amar Mullick who had been a part of International Film Craft, and a certain IG Hafizji. With this skeleton crew, BN Sarkar launched The New Theatres Limited on 10th February 1931. The era of silent films was passing, and the first Indian “talkie”, Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara had just released. Though many believed this was a passing fad and good cinema will continue to be silent, Sarkar knew a trend when he saw one. He hired William Demming, who had just served as the sound engineer on Alam Ara. Unlike silent films, music was important for the talkies and even in those early days, songs were important. Two talented youngsters joined the ranks of New Theatres, Pankaj Kumar Mullick and Raichand Boral. Between the two of them, they would change the history of Bengali/Hindi film music.
New Theatres’ first two ventures, both adaptations of Sarat Chandra novels, Dena Paona (1931) and Palli Samaj (1932), shared the same fate as some of Sarkar's earlier ventures. They failed. But he was not to be fazed by this. He kept thinking of experimenting with fresh ideas. He happened to witness a staging of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama Notir Puja, supervised by Tagore himself. BN Sarkar was itching to try something new, and he requested the bard to allow filming of the play. Possibly impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm, Tagore gave his nod. Birendranath didn’t spare any expense to make the septuagenarian poet comfortable around his studio. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of Tagore’s haunt Santiniketan, even building a pond inside the studio complex. And thus it was at New Theatres that Tagore’s play was recorded on film, under Rabindranath Tagore’s supervision. Tagore was not only officially the director, but he also acted in it. Notir Puja was released at BN Sarkar’s own Chitra cinema on 22 March 1932. But despite Tagore’s name being involved with the film, it didn’t succeed commercially.
New Theatres tasted success for the first time after the arrival of a new singer. Kundan Lal Saigal arrived in Calcutta partly because it was the mecca of music, culture and the arts. Some say it was Raichand Boral who introduced Saigal to BN Sarkar, and another version of events says that Sarkar discovered Saigal at a party while on a trip to Jalandhar. The point is, Birendranath immediately hired this talented new singer and handed him over to Boral and Pankaj Mullick to sharpen his musical skills. Saigal debuted as an actor-singer with Mohabbat Ke Ansu (1932), but the film that brought both him and New Theatres on the map was Nitin Bose’s Chandidas (1934), a Hindi remake of an earlier film of the same name which they made in Bengali. The film was a runaway success and began an almost unending streak of successes. With Nitin Bose’s Bhagya Chakra (1935), the technology of playback singing was invented. KL Saigal reached the zenith of stardom with PC Barua’s Devdas (1935). Barua himself played the title character in the Bengali version, and Saigal reprised the role in Hindi. New Theatres was at the forefront of innovation, creativity and a pioneer in literary adaptations in Indian cinema. BN Sarkar was finally seeing the fruits of his labour.
But it all came crashing down on that fateful day in 1940 when all his work was burnt down in the fire, including Tagore’s precious film. But just like before, the 39-year-old BN Sarkar assembled all the pieces and started afresh, with renewed vigour. A new film called Udayer Pathe (1944) directed by a young cinematographer of PC Barua’s Devdas, created quite a stir. This young man’s name was Bimal Roy. BN Sarkar continued to make films till the 1950s. He was made a member of the Film Enquiry Committee in 1951. It was this committee’s report which led to the establishment of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Films Division and the Film Finance Corporation, which eventually became NFDC.
By the time Birendranath Sarkar passed away in 1980, the cinema of Bengal had entered a downward spiral, never again to witness the dizzying heights it had seen before.