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).
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.