Sunday, Jul 03, 2022

Sands of Time - Part I: The Forgotten Stars Of Silent Cinema In India

This weekend we start a brand-new series called Sands of Time, in which Amborish Roychoudhury, writer and National Film Award winner, will dust off forgotten stories from the vaults of Indian cinema and present them here. The first part of the series looks at the superstars of silent cinema, the first dance number, and how even before we had the first “talkie”, India had a thriving, wildly popular film industry.

Silent Cinema in India File Photo

From this weekend, we’re starting a brand-new series - ‘Sands of Time’, in which Amborish Roychoudhury, writer and national film award winner, will take us on a journey back in time to the early years of Indian cinema.

This series will look at the forgotten superstars of silent cinema, the story of Master Vithal - India’s Douglas Fairbanks, the wild days of Amitabh in Kolkata before he came to Bombay, how Dilip Kumar left Saira Banu for another woman in a momentary lapse of judgement, or how Shah Rukh Khan featured in a Dostoevsky adaptation in a Mani Kaul film, and much more.

In the first part of ‘Sands of Time’ we begin with first ever Indian film (it’s not Raja Harishchandra), the first dance number on the Indian screens, we introduce you to Sulochna the movie star of the 1920s who some said was “paid more than even the governor of India”, and we travel right up till 1931 when Alam Ara, the first Indian ‘talkie’, was released.

Before the “talkies” came around, Indian films were not segregated by language. The intertitles, or title cards, which flashed dialogues and description on screen, were written in one local language as well as English - and that’s the extent of language distinction. The almost 30-odd years of silent cinema, between the 1890s to the early 1930s, was one of the most unique and fascinating chapters in the history of film in India. Almost 1300 films were made in these three decades. Only about 20 survive.

Legends talk about the first ever public screening of a “movie” in the world, which depicted a train moving into a station, and the audience scampering about in fear that the steel giant would soon be upon them! In reality, the first paid public screening of moving images by the Brothers Lumiére was on 28 December 1895 in Paris, which began with the scene known as Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory. No audience members came to harm in the process. Consequently, the first Indian film to be screened in India, was Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar’s footage of a wrestling match in Bombay’s Hanging Gardens. For all intents and purposes, The Wrestlers (1899) was the first ever Indian film. In the following months, a whole bunch of enterprising men in various parts of the country joined this emerging field, among them Hiralal Sen, who shot plays being staged at the Classic theatre in Calcutta. Sen’s films were probably the earliest examples of indigenous narrative cinema with some semblance of a storyline. In 1902, Jamshedji Framji Madan started showing films inside a tent in Calcutta’s Maidan. He would soon set up the Elphinstone Bioscope Co., which would dominate the film production business in India for a while.

By the time Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra flickered on screen for the first time in 1913, “Indian cinema” was already more than a decade and a half old. But what Phalke’s film did was set the ball rolling for the first slew of “feature films” in India. Phalke’s own Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) and Satyavan Savitri (1914) followed in quick succession. While he was forced to cast men for female parts in Harishchandra because it was considered dishonourable for women to appear on screen, Mohini Bhasmasur featured in its cast two women, Kamlabai Gokhale and Durgabai Kamat, who became the first heroines of Indian cinema. What fascinates even more is the fact that they were mother and daughter. Durgabai, a stage actor, was the 13-year-old Kamla’s mother. The film also featured the first dance number ever performed by a lead heroine on screen.

Probably the most illustrious of Phalke’s contemporaries was Baburao Krishnarao Mestri, who would be known in history as Baburao Painter. He was behind a plethora of mythological and historical works made in the early 20s, under his own banner, the Maharashtra Film Company. His film Savkari Pash (1925) was likely the first example of a socially aware film. It depicted the exploitation of farmers by an evil moneylender. A rather passionate young man who played the farmer in the film was one of Baburao Painter’s assistants and partners in crime. His name was Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre, also known as V. Shantaram.

In the meanwhile, J.F. Madan’s Elphinston Bioscope had started producing feature films in Calcutta, one of the earliest instances being Bilwamangal (1919). Dhirendranath Ganguly directed and starred in Bilet Ferot, a.k.a. The England Returned (1921). Filmmaking also thrived in south India with the first feature from the region, Kichaka Vadham(1917). One of the first major stars of South Indian cinema was Raja Sandow, a man who was as big a star in the north as he was in the south. Like I said, language wasn’t really a barrier in cinema devoid of any sound.

Sandow belonged to a bevy of stars emerging off of the stable of Dwarkadas Sampat, India’s first bona fide star-maker. His Kohinoor Film Company was founded in 1918, and was home to a whole galaxy of stars, including Raja Sandow, Salil, Gohar, Sulochana, Sultana, Zubeida and Fatima Begum. Sulochana and Zubeida were from the first generation of female star actors who drove audiences crazy to be able to get a glimpse of them. But even before them, there was Patience Cooper, a find of J.F. Madan’s new company, Madan Theatres. Despite dismal lighting and technical conditions, Cooper was able to ace the “Hollywood look”. She was the first diva of Indian films.

Zubeida was the daughter of a Nawab from Surat. Her mother Fatma Begum was India’s first woman filmmaker, in addition to being an actress of some repute, while her sister Sultana was also a huge star in her own right. Zubeida and Sultana, the two sisters, were immensely popular, and shared the screen on many occasions. But one of the grandest and most glittering stars of the silent era was Ruby Myers, better known as Sulochana. Like Patience, Sulochana was also a “Eurasian” Indian star. In newspaper ads promoting her films - which had become a thing right from Phalke’s days - as “Queen of Romance” and “Jungle Queen”, amongst many other enticing and colourful epithets. Before Priyanka

Chopra appeared in 12 roles in the bizarre What’s Your Rashee? (2009) and Kamal Hassan’s ten roles in Dasavathaaram (2008), Sivaji Ganesan and Sanjeev Kumar held the record for highest number of roles in a single film, nine. Sivaji played nine distinct roles in Navarathri (1964), while Sanjeev featured in its Hindi remake Naya Din Nayi Raat(1974). But much before them, it was Sulochana who held the record by playing eight roles in a silent film, Wild Cat of Bombay(1927). Oodles of face paint and lots of costume changes made her don a unique look in every role. Typist Girl (1926) and Indira B.A. (1929) were some of her other hits. Unlike many of her contemporaries who almost exclusively featured only in mythologicals, Sulochana was starring in social dramas and romantic films. She was one of the highest paid stars of her generation - some said she was “paid more than even the governor of India”.

That brings us to Dinshaw Bilimoria, another of silent cinema’s highest-paid stars. Dinshaw formed a successful on-screen lead pair with Sulochana, co-starring with her in Wildcats of Bombay, Anarkali and Indira MA. One of the few remnants of India's silent era is a picture of Dinshaw and Sulochana sharing a deep, passionate kiss. Theirs was the first “hit jodi” of Indian mainstream cinema. Dinshaw and Sulochana’s pair flourished the most under the aegis of Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Film Company. Around the same time, Master Vithal was emerging as India’s first popular action star. A staple of silent swashbuckling action films, Vithal was contracted with Sharda Film Co., founded by Bhogilal Dave and Nanubhai Desai in 1925. Very soon, Vithal had audiences eating out of his hands, and was dubbed the “Douglas Fairbanks of India”. Headlining films like Ratan Manjari (1927), Swarna Kamal (1927), Balidan (1928). At the zenith of his popularity, Master Vithal moved to Sagar Studios, a branch of Ardeshir Irani’s flourishing Imperial Film Company. But in doing so, Vithal had committed breach of contract with Sharda Film Co, which promptly dragged the star to court. Vithal hired the best lawyer money could buy, and he won the case. The lawyer was a man who was destined to leave his footprint in the history of the Indian subcontinent. That lawyer who defended Master Vithal in court - his name was Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

In the 1920s, Ahindra Chowdhury and Durgadas Bandyopadhyay were blazing a trail through Bengali entertainment by doing prolific work in both stage and screen. Similarly in the south, there were Subbaiah Naidu and Raja Sandow. In addition to starring in the movies of Kohinoor Film Company, Raja Sandow kept going to Madras and starred in films made there. Once the talkies came around, he directed a good number of Hindi as well as Tamil films. Sandow’s contribution to the development and evolution of Tamil cinema is far-reaching.

Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial introduced two youngsters who’d go on to have quite a significant impact on Hindi cinema and its legacy. One was a youngster called Prithviraj Kapoor from Punjab, who would lay the foundations of an empire we continue to be enthralled by. The other was a boy from Surat, who played extras and bit roles but harboured ambitions of directing films one day. That boy was Mehboob Khan, who was to make Mother India in about thirty years.

Come 1931, Ardeshir Irani would cast Master Vithal, Zubeida and Prithviraj Kapoor in an experiment of a film that would sound the death-knell of silent cinema in India, in turn paving the way for the flourishing of different language-based film industries in the country. Alam Ara became India’s first “talkie”, and was a runaway success. In the same year, Irani produced the first Tamil/ Telugu bilingual talkie, Kalidas, and Madan Theatres came up with the first Bengali talkie Jamai Sashthi in April 1931. Talkie films posed challenges for established stars of silent cinema - they had to have impeccable diction, and a presentable voice. In films that never talked, they didn’t need those things. Some actors survived the onslaught, like P. Jairaj, Prthiviraj Kapoor, Sohrab Modi. But others were not so lucky. The likes of Master Vithal and Sulochana never saw the same levels of success. Soon, a new generation of stars eclipsed the old ones. This eclipse was so absolute that not even a trace remains of the dizzying heights of stardom the first generation of Indian actors witnessed. It’s as if they existed in a parallel dimension.

Amborish Roychoudhury is a writer, National Film Award winner, biographer and general filmi sociopath. He is currently working on the authorized biography of the veteran Indian filmmaker, Raj Khosla.