Indian Cinema History

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The Early Years
While exhibition of films in Calcutta can be dated back to 1896, when one Professor Stevens screened the Lumiere programmes at Star Theatre, it was only in the first decade of the twentieth century that Bengal had its first indigenous film maker Hiralal Sen. Calcutta at the time had a strong tradition of professional theatre and theatre houses served as outlets for films. The earliest screenings were held in theatre houses where films appeared as a double bill attraction alongside the plays. Influential theatre owners, like for example Amarendra Nath Dutta of Classic Theatre encouraged the production of films by allowing Hiralal Sen to photograph his stage productions which were then advertised as superfine pictures from our
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Film historians are unanimous that only one silent film is extant, Jamai Babu (The Son-in-Law, made in 1931) three reels of which were dug up in a zamindar’s house in a village by film maker Mrinal Sen, when he was shooting Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine) in 1980. Another silent feature that finds prominent mention among historians is Dhirendranath Ganguly’s Bilet Pherat (England Returned, made in 1921), advertised as the first ‘Bengali’ film, where the majority of technicians and artists were Bengalis and the live band that accompanied the film was quintessential Bengali. On the evidence of Bilet Pherat, a pungent satire on conservative Bengali culture vis-à-vis the colonial elite, and Jamai Babu, which depicts the travails of a village bum in the metropolis of Calcutta, one is tempted to conclude that Bengali film makers were trying their hand at the genre of slapstick comedy. But a perusal of the films of the silent era of the 1920s reveals a variety of subjects, mythological and devotional films of course was the most favoured genre, closely followed by films based on the classics of the big three of Bengali literature, Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee and Bankimchandra Chatterjee. Tagore’s play Bisarjan was the foundation for Naval Gandhi’s much acclaimed 1928 feature Balidan, which was showcased by the Indian Cinematograph Committee to demonstrate that serious Indian cinema could match Western standards. Tagore, apart from being a Nobel Prize winner for Literature, a poet, a painter, a novelist and story writer, and a social reformer, was also involved with the art of cinema in its nascent stages. He is reputed to have written the inter titles of Modhu Bose’s 1928 film Giribala, and is also credited with directing the early Bengali talkie Natir Puja (made in 1932), based on his own dance

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