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What is the name of India's first full-length feature film? Who shot the first advertisement ? Who made the first newsreel? When was the first talkie released? You might be able to answer all these questions, but perhaps no one can claim to have watched any of these 'firsts' of Indian cinema. Simply because they only exist in quiz books and encyclopaedias.
After screening a series of short films at Salon Indien du Grand Cafe in Paris, Lumiere brothers took just six months to bring moving pictures to Indian soil. In July 1896, the audience of Mumbai's Watson's hotel watched the screening of six silent movies. Indian film-makers didn't wait too long to pick up the art of movie making. In 1898, Hiralal Sen released India's first homemade short film.
But east is not west and the road to preserve history took a different course over the next 100 years. The first films shot by Lumiere Brothers are still available for aficionados to watch, while each one of the 25 films made by Hiralal Sen have been lost forever. "Sen was not alone, " says Suresh Chabria, professor of film appreciation at FTTI, Pune. "Most of his contemporaries were destined for a similar fate. Of the 1, 250 films made in India during the silent era, only about 25 could be preserved, " he adds. "There might be some prints available with private collectors in foreign countries, especially Algeria, which was a big market for Indian silent movies, " says film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla.
From Sen's first short film — Dancing Scenes From The Flower of Persia — to India's first ever advertisements, featuring Jabakusum hair oil and Edward's Tonic, the lost list has many a gem. It also includes India's first newsreel, shot by HS Bharvadekar. In 1902, Bharvadekar filmed the reception given to Cambridge fellow Sir Wrangler RP Paranjpye on his return to India. Then there's Dadasaheb Torney's Pundalik, which was the first Indian-made film released in the country. Although Pundalik was released a year before Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra (1913), the fact that it was processed overseas and was two reels short of the minimum feature length of 40 minutes, meant that it did not qualify as the first Indian feature film.
Movies made by Nataraja Mudaliar (whose Keechak Vadham, 1918, was the first film made in southern India) and Raghupathi Venkaiah (considered the father of Telugu cinema) are also nowhere to be found. Even Phalke's Raja Harishchandra could not be fully preserved. The NFAI has only two of the original four reels and its website acknowledges that the authenticity of those reels is debatable. Some claim those are prints of a 1917 remake.
The story doesn't end with the silent era. India's first talkie, Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara (1931), is also lost forever. A majority of the work that came out of Madan Theatre (a film production company founded by Jamshedji Madan, one of the pioneers of Indian cinema) such as the 1923-production Patni Pratap, in which Patience Cooper played the first double role of Indian cinema;and Indrasabha (1932), a film with 69-odd songs, also perished along with several reels of Calcutta Topical (the theatre's news periodical). The Kidar Nath Sharma-directed first version of Chitralekha (1941), which had a bathing sequence of the actress Mehtab, a first in India, is also not traceable.
Recently Mrinal Sen's Calcutta Trilogy, depicting the city's political scenario in the early 1970s, could not be screened in the classic section at Cannes because of bad quality prints. "Of the few available films of the '40s and early '50s, the prints are in such bad shape that films like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and Jhansi Ki Rani, which were shot in techni-colour, now appear black and white on screen, " laments Rangoonwalla.
Who should take responsibility for this loss of cinematic heritage — the government, film-makers or both? "The climate and ignorance, " says Chabria. "Silent era movies were shot on the highly unstable nitrocellulose base, which deteriorates rapidly if not preserved at controlled temperature and humidity. Unfortunately, the three major centres of film production at that time — Bombay, Madras and Calcutta — have coastal climate and humidity, both bad for the nitrate base, " he adds. Also, the inflammable nature of the base was responsible for frequent studio fires, which often destroyed entire archives of film reels.
Film-makers were also responsible for the loss. Films made in those days had little economic value after their theatrical run. Considering the high expense and risk involved in preserving nitrate film reels, these were destroyed by producers. In the West, it was common to recycle films for their silver content or sell parts of the print to private collectors. "Selling films to scrap dealers was normal in India as well, " says Chabria. "In those days, there was a practice of selling world rights of films. These were usually bought by NRIs. The negatives were also part of the deal, with the result that a lot of significant films left India, never to return, " says Rangoonwalla. "Perhaps Jwar Bhata, Dilip Kumar's first film, and Hamari Baat, Devika Rani's last film, were lost to foreign distributors, " he adds. India, of course, has always been negligent about preserving history. While the site of the world's first public movie screening now has a restaurant, named Cafe Lumière in its place, Watson's hotel, now known as Esplanade Mansion, is listed among the 100 endangered monuments of the world.
Silver screen vs celluloid
The surfaces of most screens of modern movie theatres are either aluminised or have glass beads. However, in the early days of film production, screens had embedded silver to increase their reflective property. From this comes the name silver screen, synonymous with cinema In the late 19th century, most motion picture experiments were performed on paper roll films. Viewing a continuous moving image was very difficult. The modern motion picture stack was created after the introduction of celluloid as a film base material. Celluloid, which is made from nitrocellulose, became the metonym for films
Did you know?
India's first short film was Hiralal Sen's 'Dancing Scenes from the Flower of Persia' (1898)
India's first advertisements were Hiralal Sen's ads for Jabakusum hair oil and Edward's Tonic.
Dadasaheb Torney's 'Pundalik' (1912) was the first film made by an Indian The first feature-length film made by an Indian was Dadasaheb Phalke's 'Raja Harishchandra' (1913) The first double role in Indian cinema was enacted by Patience Cooper in Madan Theatre's 1923 production 'Patni Pratap'
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