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Legends of the hall
What happens when a particular artistic creation does not have precedence? Common wisdom has it that pioneering artists - well, at least the ones whose works endure - endITS So follow. They start a trend, and sometimes the trend lasts forever. They also start a communion of followers. The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival's recent showcasing of rare silent Hindi films was an ode to one such cinematic revolution.
As a tribute to Indian cinema's centenary year, MAMI offered cinephiles a rare treat - early silent films made in what was then called Bombay. There were works of visionaries like Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (widely known as Dadasaheb Phalke) Baburao Krishnarao Mestri (affectionately called Baburao Painter), Kalipada Das and G P Pawar.
Early Indian cinema was all myth. Films such as Raja Harishchandra, Kaliya Mardan, Lanka Dahan, Shri Krishna Janma, Muralivala, Sati Savitri and A Throw of Dice were based on various legends, usually from India's two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Besides the cultural immediacy of fleshing out old myths, historians also point to the Swadeshi movement as a big factor that determined this content skew of early Indian films. Audiences lapped them up.
Interestingly, these films also employed editing and filming techniques that were rather advanced for their time. A sequence in Raja Harischandra in which the king goes out hunting is a good example. There is a shot that shows the monarch and his retinue reflected in a lovely river. This awareness of the establishing shot, which was widely adored and used in world cinema in those times, speaks volumes of Phalke's understanding of the grammar of filmmaking.
What made many of these directors trendsetters is the deftness with which they edited their films. Techniques such as the dissolve, trick photography and other special effects helped transport audiences to the world of gods and demons. One example sticks in the mind: some rare footage directed by Phalke in which several demons spring up and return to the body of Mahakal (harbinger of doom). It's a fine example of how seamlessly special effects were employed by these pioneers. Another interesting aspect is the performances, especially in films such as Sati Savitri and Muralivala, which are clearly far from being melodramatic.
The genesis of such performances is in the very personal interpretation of our living myths by the actors and directors. For instance, the marriage of Savitri and Satyavahan in the film Sati Savitri by Baburao Painter is depicted in the Maharashtrian tradition.
The caps worn by Krishna's friends are also distinctively Maharashtrian. Such innovative localisation brought much-needed familiarity. Lanka Dahan, for one, celebrated a a silver jubilee and had viewers lining up to pray to Rama and Sita.
Among the pioneers, Phalke clearly stands out. An avid stage magician, Phalke also studied at the JJ School of Arts in Bombay and Kalabhavan in Baroda. He also learnt drawing, photography, lithography and architecture. Some rare footage showing him at work also shed light on his immense talent, in a rather succinct way. He methodically provides cues to his actors by enacting scenes himself. Such deep involvement in the production process made his films very identifiable.
Baburao Painter was also an accomplished artiste, in more than one way, having been a 'painter' before. Self-taught, he slowly gained mastery over various aspects of filmmaking from screenplay to set design. He is also said to have been a stickler for extensive rehearsals, which meant that the performances in his films were exceptionally strong.
But unlike most of their peers in the West, these filmmakers did not have the steady financial backing of a studio system. They depended in turn on the inconsistent and erratic patronage of kings, courtiers and businessmen. When the old order changed, they could not cope and many pioneering directors and actors lost their footing in this transition.
But when the talkies arrived, so did fresh talent. Mythologicals no longer had the same resonance and the audiences were clamouring for modern romances. Change of course was inevitable but in the melee we forgot to preserve some history-making films. Of an estimated 1, 700 films made in the silent era of Indian cinema, barely ten survive today. Which is why the world has very little idea of the brilliance that lit up makeshift screens across India a century ago. That, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy in the history of Indian entertainment.
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