Last week, Delhi’s cinephiles had much to celebrate with a tribute that showcased the early days of Indian cinema, with the recreation of the tent cinema tradition. Film scholar, curator and historian Amrit Gangar was the brain behind Gulsan Mahal Ceenima that organised this time capsule as part of the Delhi Film Festival.
He talks us through: “The Films Division’s Picture Palace / Tambu Cinema was called Gulsan Mahal Ceenima curated by me along with VS Kundu, Director General, Films Division. It had a seating capacity of about 30, in a specially erected tent within the ambience of the larger exhibition.
We placed a small ticket ghar (window) announcing tickets @ 8 annas to sit on durries and Rs 1 for functional benches. Each program was introduced by the Sutradhar as in the old days.” Gangar reels out few films shown at the Tambu Cinema that are worth a watch today.
Raja Harishchandra, Silent, 1913
Commonly acknowledged as India’s first genuine, indigenous feature film, it was released on May 3 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph. Adapting a story from the Markandeya Purana, it was shot in an improvised studio in Bombay’s Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s (better known as Dadasaheb Phalke’s) Films, in Dadar. The production company mainly consisted of Phalke’s family and friends.
Lanka Dahan, Silent, 1917
Often touted as India’s first big box-office hit, this mythological film was also made by Phalke. As compared with tableau-like Raja Harishchandra, Lanka Dahan makes the image more dynamic and fluid. Now Phalke could command additional finance and facilities to make his more ambitious films.
Shree Krishna Janma, Silent, 1918
This film had India’s first child actor Mandakini, Phalke’s six-year-old daughter, who plays the role of young Krishna. A magical scene is demon Kansa’s hallucination — a first for any Indian film. The Krishna and Sheshnag story is the film’s plot; Sheshnag’s vision of his severed head floating in a geyser of blood is considered exemplary. It’s part of Indian film lore that the blood in this trick shot was hand-tinted in red.
Kaliya Mardan, Silent, 1919
Kaliya Mardan has the first underwater scene in Indian cinema — the scene shows child Krishna (Mandakini) vanquishing Kaliya. With its characteristic blending of the real and the imaginary with distinct Indian ethos, Kaliya Mardan is the first definitive masterpiece of Indian cinema.
The Light of Asia aka Prem Sanyas, Silent, 1925
This was the first of the three Indo-German co-productions set up by the lead actor Himansu Rai, who founded the Bombay Talkies in 1934. Directed by Franz Osten, it opens with documentary shots of foreign tourists in Bombay, Delhi and Benaras. When they reach the Bodhi Temple complex in Gaya, a holy man tells them the story of Prince Gautama (Rai), who renounced his patrimony to become Lord Buddha.
Hunterwali ki Beti, Talkie, 1943
Produced by Wadia Movietone, earlier, in 1935 Fearless Nadia’s breakthrough film Hunterwali was released. The lady with a whip became synonymous with the stunt film genre. Mary Evans Wadia or Fearless Nadia emerged as one of the earliest female lead in Indian films.
Silent cinema in India
Get your copy of the National Award winner as the Best Book on Cinema 2013 by BD Garga, which includes a foreword by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow. Published by HarperCollins India, it traverses the origin and landmark innovations that Indian cinema underwent over 1,300 films from 1913 to 1931. A treasure-trove for film buffs, the book also contains movie paraphernalia like rare publicity brochures, stills, posters and rare memorabilia.