Book Review: Silent Cinema in India

Watson Hotel, Historic Hotel, Mumbai
Watson’s Hotel / Esplanade Mansion

In the busy Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai is a run down, decrepit building called Esplanade Mansion. Once upon a time, it was known as Watson’s Hotel and is India’s oldest surviving cast-iron building today. Fabricated in England and assembled on site between 1867–1869, Watson’s has quite a bit of a history attached to it.

There are many stories about Watson’s, but the one I’m going to share here is in the context of the book being reviewed here — Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey (Harper Collins, 2012, Price: Rs.4,999/-) by B.D. Garga. It was at Watson’s Hotel that the Lumeire Brothers’ Cinematographie was screened on July 7, 1896, to an all-white audience for an admission fee of one rupee.

“Cinema arrived in India like an itinerant traveller, unannounced” (pg.15).

imageWhile cinema’s arrival in India may have been unannounced, it did not go unnoticed.

The Lumieres’ pioneering enterprise…planted the first seed of a new industry of vast potential, which would grow rapidly. (pg.19)

Silent Cinema in India traces, follows and documents that rapid growth of cinema in India from its quiet beginning at Watson’s Hotel (which incidentally happened just 7 months after cinema’s appearance in Paris) to the arrival of the first talkie film in 1931 and everything in between. Through the stories of the earliest film-makers — Dadasaheb Phalke, J.F. Madan, Baburao Painter, Dwarkadas Sampat and Ardeshir M. Irani — and the films they made, a heady world of the early days of cinema in India come alive. The narrative in Silent Cinema in India is supported and enhanced with the inclusion of publicity brochures, photographs, posters and trivia.

Though the stories of the prominent film-makers and films rightly take centre-stage in the book, the author hasn’t neglected the narratives and anecdotes of other people who had a role to play in shaping the history and development of silent cinema. For example, Abdulally Essofally, arguably cinema’s earliest showman, almost single-handedly made an entire country cinema conscious.

He moved with a projector, some cans of films, a folding screen, and a tent… large enough to accommodate 1,000 people… Between 1908 and World War I, Abdulally’s ‘touring cinema’ had covered most parts of India.  (Pg.32-33)

B.D. Garga (1924-2011), the author, was one of the founder members of the National Film Archive, Pune, and an eminent film scholar. Silent Cinema in India was a work of passion that he began in his 80s. In his Introduction to the book, Garga says:

The central idea of this book is similar to that of an anthropologist tracking the footmarks of a lost tribe or an archaeologist in search of the remains of a suddenly vanished civilization. (pg.xiii)

And Garga succeeds in what he set out to do. The meticulousness in his work is obvious as we see the reconstruction of an era that has not left a clear or documentation. The enormity of what Garga must have faced when writing this book really sinks in when one reads that of the 1,300 films produced between 1913 and 1931, barely 1% survive today and that too not all in their entirety. As for what happened to the lost films – they were sold as scrap ! I actually felt the Garga’s shock and horror when he discovered this.

As an aside things weren’t too different for the fate of silent films in the US:

Many years ago Universal Pictures melted down a stash of its silent films in order to salvage the silver and in 1948, dumped the remainder to free up storage space for its new films. Similarly, all of Samuel Goldwyn’s silent productions were destroyed to save money on insurance premiums. (pg.xiii)

I read Silent Cinema in India over many days, not because it was a difficult read but because of the sheer weight of the over-sized book. Also, while the book may look like a coffee table production, it is a serious, scholarly work, albeit without the jargon. I loved reading the book for the insights it offered into a world I had absolutely no knowledge of as well as for Garga’s comments. Do let me share some of the more interesting ones with you here.

  • Pundalik (1912) was the first story film made. However, it didn’t do very well and disappeared without a trace. (pg.40)
  • The artistic foundations of Indian cinema was laid down by Dadasaheb Phalke and commercial foundations by J.F. Madan. (pg. 77)
  • Sinhagad (1923) was India’s first, full-scale historical. (pg.83)
  • Baburao Painter was the first to issue programme brochures with photos and film details. He also printed posters for each of his films. (pg.89)
  • Karna (1928) was shot in outskirts of Kolhapur. The Maharaja of Kolhapur lent his elephants, horses and infantry to be part of the film. (pg.90)
  • Ardeshir Irani shaped the destiny of the early talkies. He introduced sound in Alam Ara (1931) and colour in Kisan Kaniya (1937). He was also one of the few who made a successful transition from silent to the talkies. (pg.115)
  • Censor Boards were set up in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), Madras (now Chennai) and Rangoon for approval of imported and indigenous films in 1920. (pg.202)

The advent of the talkies in 1931 brought about the end of the era of silent films. While many associated with the silent films — film makers, technicians and actors alike — could not cope with the change, few like Prithviraj Kapoor and V. Shantaram made the transition successfully. In fact, they went on to become successful film makers themselves in the talkies era.

Silent Cinema in India is an excellent read and Garga’s passion for the subject comes through. Kevin Brownlow puts it across perfectly and better than I ever could:

Posterity will be grateful for this book…this wonderful recreation of the silent period in India cannot fail to enlighten and enchant everyone who comes across it. (pg. ix, xi)

While I do like films, I am not really a film buff. But I do love history and this book has blended the two topics and has enchanted and enlightened me. The book is now a precious addition to my library and belongs to that category of books that will not be lent.

If you are a film or a history buff or both, then this book is a must buy. Do not let the steep price hinder your purchase as it is worth every rupee.

PS: Though the publisher, Harper Collins, sent me this book for review, the views and the review are all mine.

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Silent Cinema in India

  1. I have read this book and must stress that it will be liked only by those who can appreciate that Indian cinema is much, much bigger than the widest screen that they have seen a film in. Thank you, Sudha

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    1. Glad you liked the post Shrinayan. And to what you have said, I’ll also add what Garga has mentioned in the book: “There are only 6 plots in cinema. All films are variations or permutations and combinations of those plots.” I was also surprised to read how many of the silent film plots influenced and inspired modern day film-makers.

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    1. You know, Puru, I thought about you while reading the books and writing the review as well. It will be a fantastic addition to your Art House Cinema page and posts. 🙂

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  2. This is not typically a book I will pick up, but your review and the mention that it is to do with history too rather than cinema alone makes it worth a purchase. I can see there are some very interesting tidbits inside. 🙂 Thank you for an excellent review.

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    1. Atula, I would not have signed up as one of the hopefuls to to be considered as a reviewer for the book, if not for the history part. And I’m glad I did because, it has got me into reading up on films now, something I had avoided reading about all these years. And as it happens with a new genre of reading, it has opened up a whole new world. 🙂

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  3. Thanks for the brilliant review on cinema. It makes for an interesting read and, of course, collector’s edition. Love the delightful write up you’ve done with research on the subject.
    Cheerz

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  4. hmmmmmmmmm this time from india i bought 2-3 books that have cost me a lot and havenot had time to read them…

    this one also sounds good.. maybe i will get this one also my cousin is coming next week 🙂

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    1. Though “Silent Cinema in India” is an eminently readable book, I would not recommend reading it in one sitting. I didn’t. I actually read is over the course of a month. IT is a book that needs to be savoured little by little. So don’t worry about not reading it. Just buy it and read it whenever you have the time. 🙂

      Happy reading.

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  5. It sounds like a ‘weighty’ book both literally and figuratively. Like you, I was shocked to hear that the films of the silent era were destroyed by Bollywood as well as Hollywood. I am one of those who like to preserve the past. I wouldn’t call myself a film buff either, but am interested in them. I remember a programme on one of the channels which had interesting tid-bits about the making of a particular film, which I found most interesting. So I guess I would enjoy this one too. The problem of course is getting my hands on it, especially since you have made it clear that it is not for lending 😛

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    1. Yes, the book is weighty but the prose is surprisingly light and that is what has made such an impression on me. I’m quite surprised that no one had attempted to put together a book on this topic. But after reading the book and seeing the kind of trouble the author must have gone through to put together this narrative, I’m speechless with respect.

      Another plus was seeing rare pictures of the handsome Prithviraj Kapoor and the not so handsome, but still compelling pictures of V Shantaram both of whom were rare visionaries in the talkies era.

      Dear Alarmelvalli, the non-lending part is negotiable. Please apply in triplicate and your petition shall be considered. Thank you. 😛

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