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In Search of Magic in Reality

July 8, 2014 | By

This essay briefly examines sporadic efforts of non fiction film making in India in the years before India attained independence in 1947.

Siegfried Kracauier wrote in Basic Concepts, “Is it by sheer accident that the two tendencies, realistic and formative, manifested themselves side by side immediately after the rise of the medium? As if to encompass the whole range of cinematic endeavour at the outset, each went the limit in exhausting its own possibilities. Their prototypes were Lumiere, a strict realist, and Melies, who gave free rein to his artistic imagination. The films they made embody, so to speak, thesis and antithesis in a Hegelian sense. Lumiere’s lens did open on the world. Melies ignored the workings of Nature out of the artist’s delight in sheer fantasy.”

Thus Kracauier argued that cinema, in the first two years of its existence, demonstrated two strong abilities – the ability to keep a faithful record of the ebb and flow of life and at the same time, the ability to create magic. It is as if cinema became the two faced God Janus, engaging her spectators with illusion and reality.

In this centenary of Indian cinema, one hundred years after Raja Harishchandra was released in the movie theatres, let us turn our attention to a minor work of Dada Saheb Phalke – his recording of the growth of a pea plant using stop motion photography. This humble effort straddles the border between the real and the magical and demonstrates the movie camera’s ability to simultaneously record the reality (a natural phenomenon of the germination of the ubiquitous pea) and create magic (making visible a phenomenon that escapes our sensory perceptions). Later on Phalke exploited the camera’s ability to create magic in scenes like Sage Viswamitra’s exercise of his magical powers.

However, Phalke’s humble experiment with the pea plant, demonstrating the camera’s ability to bring out the magical in the humdrum of everyday life, did not strike out a bold trajectory in the history of Indian cinema. The Indian filmmaker did not seem to be very keen on turning his camera to life around him in search of the magical and the unexpected.

Hiralal Sen (1866 – 1917)

Hiralal Sen (1866 – 1917)

This essay will briefly examine sporadic efforts of non fiction film making in India in the years before India attained independence in 1947.

Growth of a Pea Plant, was by no means, India’s first fact film.  Sakharam Bhatwadekar, more fondly known as Sawe Dada, was spellbound by the latest ‘wonder of the world’ screened at the Watson Hotel in Bombay in July 1896 and bought himself a motion picture camera from London for 21 guineas. ‘Topicals’ like the wrestling match and training of monkeys became the first fact films of India. Sawe Dada also made the first newsreel of the public reception given to the mathematician Dr. R.P Paranjape, the first Indian to become a senior wrangler in Cambridge University. This event has considerable resonance for both the Indian and British communities. And it was a demonstration of the native Indian’s intellectual prowess. Sawe Dada is today recognized as the “Father of Indian Factual Film”.

In Kolkata, Hiralal Sen filmed extracts of popular Bengali theatre plays of the ‘classical theatre’. Dancing Scenes from the Flowers of Persia was one such scene.

While Sawe Dada in Bombay and Hiralal Sen in Kolkata were busy making short actualities on lives of Indians, The British were engaged in using the movie camera to demonstrate the might of the British Empire to the world. Lord Curzon not only encouraged the filming of the Delhi Durbar of 1902 – 03, he even identified camera positions. The missionary, Rev. J. Gregory Mantle covered this Durbar extensively for the Warwick Company. There were eight cameramen, some of them amateurs. Mantle not only filmed during the Durbar, but also before and after, first showing the preparations and then whatever paegents he could not show during the events. This film by Mantle, of 150 ft in 35 mm, is called The Gorgeous Pageant of Princes, dated 29 December, 1902. Films like this were a grand display of the might and glory of the British Empire and a show of loyalty by the Indian princes to the Crown.

The bioscope was brought to Calcutta by one Dr. Stevenson

The bioscope was brought to Calcutta by one Dr. Stevenson, where he screened his film Flower of Persia

From 1904 – 05 onwards, American and European films were imported into India. These included the Melies films from France, American slapstick comedies, as well as newsreels of national and international events like the funeral of Queen Victoria (1901), the Boer War in South Africa (1902) and the Russian Japanese War (1905). Picture palaces or permanent cinema halls started to appear in 1906 – 07, many of them with investments from major European and American entertainment companies like Pathe, Gamount, Vitagraph, Éclair, American Bioscope etc. The audience got used to watching films in darkened halls. And these films were a mix of fiction and fact films, imported films as well as indigenously made films. Local political and historical subjects filmed during this time, are a mine of knowledge for any research into Indian life during the colonial period.

Vijaya Mulay writes in her book Rajahs and Yogis: 

By 1911, cinema had made considerable advances. The 1911 Durbar of George the V and Queen Mary was shot by 30 cameramen. The producers realized that events of this kind had topical news value that would recede with the passage of time. Great efforts were made to develop the films locally and show them both in India and abroad. The Barker Company, for example, worked closely with the Exelcior Cinematograph Company of Bombay to develop films of the arrival of the royal couple and showed them within two days at the Exlcior in Bombay. It was claimed that 26,000 people saw the film in a week and the takings amounted to 100 pound sterlings every night, a vast sum in those days. The cash flow convinced producers of the news value of such events. Their popularity sowed the seeds of the newsreel genre, that flourished during the World War I years.

Thus, in the pre history of Indian cinema, the urge to record and showcase important events led to the growth of the cinema industry in many ways.

Lord Curzon personally supervised the shooting of the 1903 Delhi Durbar

Lord Curzon personally supervised the shooting of the 1903 Delhi Durbar

However, things changed soon after 1911. In 1912 came the first Indian fiction film Pundalik and in 1913 came Raja Harish Chandra. The runaway success of Raja Harish Chandra paved the way for more fiction films of the same genre. Phalke himself made Bhasmasur Mohini, Lanka Dahan, Krishna Janam and many other films. Owners of picture palaces made huge business by exhibiting these films. The fact films were relegated to the background, although Phalke himself had once more turned his attention to ‘actuality’, when he made How Films are Prepared, to document his experiences of in the making of Raja Harishchandra.

Although Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s newspaper Kesri hailed Raja Harishchandra as the first Swadeshi feature film and backed Phalke in every possible way by publishing reviews of the film and news about Phalke,  the nationalist leaders, by and large, did not warm up to the potential of cinema as a vehicle for propaganda and education. Biren Das Sharma writes in Indian Cinema: Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties, “ The Indian politicians’ understanding  of the film media was limited to its evil influences, its low and vulgar entertainment lapped up by the undeucated masses. They were not prepared to accept that cinema could do something for the public good, that it could educate them and instruct them in social values.” On more than one occasion Gandhi ji had declared that he had not seen a single film in his life. This urged K.A Abbas to write an open letter to Gandhiji in the journal Filmindia in July 1939. He pleaded, “In a recent statement you include cinema among evils like gambling, sutta, orse racing etc, which you leave alone ‘for fear of losing caste’. …..I have no doubt that a large number of conservative and orthodox persons in the country will be confirmed in their hostile attitude towards cinema after reading your statement.” Abbas went on to plead that cinema is an art form and can be very effectively used for educating the masses.

Had Abbas’s words fallen on more sympathetic ears, we would perhaps have been fortunate to have a respectable output of non fiction films from the indigenous film industry. The magnates of the film idustry were keen to be a part of the nationalist movement and the slightest encouragement from the nationalist leaders might have resulted in some non fiction at least as a byproduct of the industry.

Delhi Durbar of King George V

Delhi Durbar of King George V shot with 30 cameras

Ironically, the British were fully aware of the power of cinema over the minds of its audience. They had not only started using cinema vigorously for the cause of the Empire, but they were prompt to enforce the Cinematograph Act of 1918, that prevented the exhibition of films that dealt with themes of liberty. A lot of independent efforts at documenting  significant events were ruthlessly suppressed under this Act. A documentation of a football match between Mohun Bagan and an all white football team was one such film. The censor officer of Bengal province saw this film as a projection of the ‘colonized’ overpowering the ‘colonizer’. The deep political underpinnings of an apparently innocent film like this, completely escaped the notice of our politicians. However, not all independent efforts fell under the axe of Cinematograph Act of 1918. A film called “Funeral Procession of Jatin Das”, who had given his life in hunger strike, managed to find an outlet and created a deep impact in the minds of the viewers.

Among independent efforts at documenting events of nationalist interest, one must mention the initiative of Aurora Studio of Kolkata. In 1916, they purchased one ‘Williamson’ and one ‘Prefect’ camera from Hiralal Sen. With those two cameras Debi Ghosh started photographic experiment and Aurora began to produce ‘Aurora Tukitaki’ (a soft-news magazine programme) and recorded some scenes from plays. The founder of Aurora Bioscope, Anadi Nath Bose, had partnered with cameraman Debi Ghosh and established Aurora Cinema Company. They were itinerant exhibitors, going to villages with projectors and screening short films, mainly comedy and magical films along with their own production Aurora Tukitaki. Aurora continued to produce these one or two reeler non fictions even after they graduated to producing silent films and later distribute the films of New Theatres. Because Aurora was in the exhibition and distribution business from the beginning of its inception, they had no difficulty in organizing public screenings of their short topicals. Aurora’s contribution in giving a taste of non fiction films to the Bengali audience has not yet been fully assessed by film historians.

The British administration, on its own part, consciously wanted to counter the growing nationalist sentiment in India by projecting the ‘bright side’ of imperialism. This took a final shape when the government formed the Information Films of India in 1942, exclusively for propaganda purposes, with the help of Paul Zils, a German filmmaker who had been close to Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and was in India at that time as a prisoner of war.

Indian News Parade 89

Between September 1943 and April 26 1946, Govt. of India produced 126 issues of Indian News Parade 89 copies were released each week with 43 in Hindi, 26 in English, 9 in Tamil, 7 in Bengali and 4 in Telugu.

After India’s independence, Information Films of India metamorphosed into Films Division of India. For better or for worse, for more than three decades, Films Division remained the defining idea of Indian documentaries.

The story of Indian documentary is an ongoing story. One must confess that the typical Films Division documentary with its Voice of God narration created a one dimensional image of documentaries in the Indian moviegoer’s mind, particularly because of the compulsory screening of documentaries in Indian movie theatres before the main film began. In the first two decades of its existence Films Division documentaries mainly showcased the cultural and geographical diversity of India. The films were made with 35 mm cameras and had little synchronous sound effects. But from the mid 60s, things suddenly started changing. Filmmakers came down to the streets with the camera and started recording testimonials of the common man. The process had been started off by Jean Bhownagary, a filmmaker specially commissioned by Indira Gandhi, the then Information & Broadcasting Minister, to ‘clear the cobwebs’ on the corridors of Films Division. Filmmakers like K.S. Chari, S. Sukhdev and S.N.S Shastri imbibed the spirit of the new cinema and gifted to the Indian public films like Face to Face,  I am Twenty,  An Indian Day, made in the cinema verite style. These films did not follow a pre determined script. They were made at the editing table. Later on S. Sukhdev made his seminal film Nine Months to Freedom.

Nine Months to Freedom

A still from Nine Months to Freedom directed by S. Sukhdev and produced by Films Division in 197

Two factors were responsible for breaking the hegemony of Films Division in the eighties. First, a group of talented youngsters passed out from FTII, who refused to be absorbed by the Bombay film industry. They had an activist streak in them and were determined to use the camera as their tool of protest. Anand Patwardhan’s Hamara Shahar and Ranjan Palit’s Voices of Baliappal set of the trail of independent documentaries in India. They made these films with their own resources or with support from friends and family. The second factor that broke the hegemony of Films Division, was the discontinuance of compulsory screening of FD documentaries in movie theatres following a court case filed by the association of exhibitors.

It goes to the credit of Films Division that they reinvented themselves by starting the Bombay International Film Festival in 1990. This festival was focussed on documentaries and short films and for the first time Indian viewers were exposed to exceptional documentaries made in different parts of the world. For the first time they realized the power of documentaries as a creative expression.  However, funding for a creative documentary was an insurmountable problem for the aspiring Indian docu filmmaker.

Suddenly one window opened in 1988. The Jan Vrijman Fund was initiated in Netherlands to provide funding for creative documentaries in third world countries. Balaka Ghosh’s Vehicle with the Soul of a Man, Supriyo Sen’s Way Back Home have been possible through the support given by Jan Vrijman Fund. While Vehicle is shot in 16 mm, Way Back Home has been shot with a digital camera, much of it clandestinely. Ranjan Palit, the cinematographer of Way Back home, has been significantly responsible for getting the digital medium accepted in official circles – in Doordarshan and in the National Festival.

Digital technology has radically altered the way documentaries are conceived and shaped. On one hand, it has given intimate access to the filmmaker in the subject’s life, allowing him to follow his subject for months or years; on the other hand,  the filmmaker armed with a digital camera tends to shoot anything that moves and he ends up with hundreds of hours of rush. Even after discarding 80% of the rush, he ends up making his film longer than necessary. Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade is 180 minutes long.

Digital technology has also given momentum to independent filmmaking in India. At the turn of the millennium, an organization called Public Service Broadcasting Trust was founded to fund independent documentary filmmakers. Their first commissioning cycle started in 2001 and till date they have produced more than 500 films. The films are aired on Doordarshan, Lok Sabha Television and occasionally to NDTV and BBC.

Exhibition platform continues to be a nagging problem in for the documentary filmmaker in India. No Indian channel besides DD and NDTV Profit has time slots reserved for documentaries. An attempt to screen documentaries commercially at Kolkata’s Nandan II ended in a failure. So Indian filmmakers are increasingly turning to foreign channels and foreign funding. Since 2004, Kolkata has been hosting a pitching forum called Docedge, where filmmakers pitch their ideas to commissioning editors of international public service channels like Arte, YLE, SVT. Ranjan Palit’s Forever Young and Q’s Love in India and Sourav  Sarangi’s Bhangon are among the films that have resulted from the Docedge pitching.

The Indian documentarian has come of age, but the Indian audience is still waiting for a Bert Hanstra or a Dziga Vertov to catapult Indian documentary to the realm of timeless art. Perhaps only then can the vicious cycle of public apathy for documentaries and the lack of exhibition platform be broken.

* Dhruba Gupta & Biren Das Sharma, INDIAN CINEMA: Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties, Celluloid Chapter, 1993
* Vijaya Mulay, From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond, Seagull Books, 2009
* Sanjit Narwekar, Films Division and the Indian Documentary, Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India
* Eric Barnow, Documentary, Oxford University Press

(All pictures used in this article have been contributed by the author herself)

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
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