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Prabhat Studio: A Historian's View of Early Marathi Cinema

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Hrishikesh Arvikar in conversation with film historian Shashikant Kinikar.

Shashikant Kinikar: Right from my childhood, I was very fascinated with films. Because whatever films I came across I liked them. It was the period of Early 1950s. Because I liked films, I started gathering material on films. At that time, getting knowledge about films was through Radio Ceylon, sometimes Radio Pakistan. Sometimes commercial service of Radio Goa. Sometimes USA even. We used to switch on the radio at the proper time and listen to various songs. Then slowly, I got interested in collecting songs. When I looked around, I saw film booklets were available, in which songs were printed. So I started getting booklets. In those days, booklets were often sold on the footpath of a roadside. Sometimes just outside a cinema theatre. And luckily, I collected whichever booklets I could lay my hands on. Being a student, there was dearth of money. But somehow we managed to collect four anna, eight annas, one rupee. And we bargained with the seller. We would say, 'I'll give you one rupee, just give me five-six booklets.' In those days, they were being sold at four annas. It went on like that. I grew up in Kolhapur. In cities like Kolhapur, there was material available only on Marathi films. When I came to Pune, I came in contact with National Film Archive of India, where I could see old Indian films, as well as foreign films. And my vision towards films and approach towards films was broadened. I used to go to Bombay, where my relatives still stay. I used to go to Grant Road, where booklets, photographs were being sold. Sometimes film magazines also. Just recently, film historian Firoze Rangoonwala passed away. He was my mentor. He guided me to a dealer who sold booklets, posters and photos.

 

Hrishikesh Arvikar: This was in Bombay?

S.K.: This was in  Bombay. Whenever I went, I used to go to him (the dealer) or to Grant Road. I would never come back without getting any material. So this is how it started. Whatever was good and old I used to collect. This is how my collection started. At the same time, whenever any books came in the market, I bought them. Sometimes, I collected old books from footpaths in Mumbai. After going through the books, the films magazines and the material I had collected, I had interactions with various film personalities. Rangoonwalla used to direct me to film personalities and I used to interview them. Personalities like Ruby Myers, Sohrab Modi, Surendra, Vijay Bhatt, Madhu Master and many others. I used to interview them and gain knowledge. Sometimes, NFAI gave me letters to contact them (film personalities) and get interviews, get them recorded and deposit a copy of them to the Archive. When NFAI had no programme of oral interview, I had initiated it. I started getting knowledge through books and material. And then suddenly, I don't know, people started calling me a film historian. I wonder why. In NFAI , I met Dilip Sircar, son of the founder member of New Theatres Ltd. (a contemporary rival  film company of Prabhat). When I had an opportunity to go to Calcutta, I contacted him and he introduced me to R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Kanan Bala and even B.N. Sircar himself. I had very warm interactions with them. I met Nitin Bose in Mumbai. And so gathering material, keeping the interactions in mind and sometimes thinking about why something had happened or not happened led me to gain my knowledge. Because of this, some of the people from the press started asking me to write about my knowledge. For example, if so-and-so person expired, these people telephoned me and insisted that I write articles on them.

 

 

Part 2: The Pre- Prabhat era: Baburao Painter and his apprentices

 

S.K.: In all of this, I came across some good material, such as very rare booklets from Silent Cinema. I admire the efforts taken by Dada Damle (Anantrao Damle , Prabhat's partner V.G. Damle's son). They had gone through lot of trouble not only to locate Prabhat films but also to gather allied literature on Prabhat. So if I happened to get something that was not with them, I would buy it from the market and give it to them.  For instance, I got the Hindi booklet of the colour film Sairandhri from Mumbai and gave it to them. Not even a single booklet on the silent films made by Prabhat was available with them. I gave them whatever I could trace. I had contact with the Damle family for four generations. I feel like I am family member of the Damle’s. I did not feel awkward passing on what I found to them. I thought it was with my family. After Anantrao passed away, the bag of booklets he used to keep right outside his house ... well, I would not say they got stolen, but they were nowhere to be found. All the rare material that I had given was lost.

 

I am from Kolhapur. Baburao Painter's daughters were my classmates. When I was in Kolhapur I did not know anything about Baburao Painter, because at that time he had left filmmaking. He used to make statues and portraits. I did not know anything about his contribution. I did not even know that he had been in films. Later on when I gathered knowledge about films, I found out that he had done substantial work, far more than his contemporaries and early predecessors. And then I started gathering more information about Painter. I still think that whatever he did in those days, nobody else could have done. He was great! He has many things to his credit. Things that he had done for the first time (in Indian cinema).

 

I had interviewed Dhaiber at Damle's place (on Prabhat Road). And Shantaram at Rajkamal. They told me that Painter was an idealist. If he was determined to do something, then he would do it. For example, he had made his own indigenous camera. For making the indigenous camera, Damle and several others helped him. He used break open a simple toy which worked with a key, see the details and then rearrange it in such a way that it was as good as the original one. For the camera, he did the same thing. He bought it in Chorbazaar in Mumbai and opened it. And then saw where the wheels were, what their functions were and how one could make the wheels. And he drew a picture and slowly with many intricacies, like the distance between the wheels and the lens, one wheel and the other, he put together all the parts of the camera. He took on all these people (V. Shantaram, K Dhaiber, V.G. Damle, S Fattelal ) as assistants. They were not head employees as such and were not given a single paisa. These people just worked there (in Painter's Maharashtra Film Company).

 

But Painter was a tedious filmmaker. When he was to start making a film, he had to have the complete scenario in his hands. He used to predetermine even the camera movement. For example, why the camera should be placed in a particular spot and not elsewhere. All those minute details, he used to see to himself. In those days, there were no sound-proof studios. They had a big pandal and sometimes just a bracket made of steel bars on top of which there would be a white cloth. They used to move the cloth in such a way that the sunlight would fall right at the place where it was supposed to fall. He had direct sunlight fall on the artist and he shot that. He used artificial light for Sinhagad (1923). It was the first film where artificial lights were used.

 

H.A.: It was a night sequence where they used the artificial lights called arc lights.

S.K.: No. I don't think they were arc lights. Maybe they did. Because they only say artificial lights were being used. Whether arc lights were available is doubtful.

 

 

Part 3: Torney and other pioneers

 

S.K.: We had a lot of film pioneers. In Calcutta we had Hiralal Sen. In the south, there was one Mr. Mudaliar. In Calcutta, Madan Theatres was there. In Mumbai, we had Imperial Film Co. (by Ardeshir Irani who made the first talkie Alam Ara (1931) under the same banner). In Bangalore, we had Surya Film Co. during Silent days. But the first filmmaker in India, (I contend) was Dadasaheb Torney. His film was released in 1912. And almost after one year, Dadasaheb Phalke's film was released. Unfortunately, we do not have either of the films (Pundalik-Pundalik [1912], directed by Torney, and Raja Harishchandra [1913] directed by Phalke). The copy we have of Harishchandra is the remake of same film by Phalke in 1917. Even when NFAI released a DVD of silent films, they included Raja Harishchandra and they said that it was from 1913. They did not know about it (the remake).

 

Torney's enterprise was a unique one. Somehow he gathered information on how to make a film but faced a lot of troubles. A lot of labour went into making the film. But he made a film and it was released. No one in the present generation has seen the film. But I got an article written by Nanasaheb Sarpotdar (founder of Aryan film Co.) stating that he had seen the film and he admitted that it was a film. Today, many people say that it was stage talkie or it was photographed by a foreign cameraman or it was processed in London, which is why it is not considered a film. In one of Torney's article, he had written that he had included background shooting and even outdoor shooting. The second point brought up against it, considering it an Indian film, was that the photography was by a foreigner. In Bombay Talkies, a lot of films were shot by Josef Wirsching who was a German cameraman. Are all of them German films? The third point was that it was processed in London. Most of the technicolor films made in India such Aan, Gunga Jamuna, Mother India, Sangam and various others were processed in technicolor laboratories outside India. Are they Indian films or foreign films?

 

H.A.: Prabhat's Sairandhri was processed in Germany.

S.K.: Can we call all of these films foreign films? Then why was Torney singled out? Another point was that it was based on a drama. In those days, dramas went on from night till four or five in the morning. And this film had a duration of 20 minutes. Naturally, based on a drama one had to have a screenplay, editing. All these aspects come in films. Not otherwise. Then how does one claim that it was not a film! Anyway, it is matter of debate. I think people go on debating unnecessarily. Anyway, let us come back to Torney. After making the film, he was under a lot of debt. He was also working in Greaves Cotton Company. They transferred him to Karachi. His association with filmmaking was abruptly stopped. But he started a film distribution office with Baburao Pai, a newcomer in distribution at that point of time. It was the first film distribution office in India in 1914.

 

H.A.: Was it Famous distributors ?

S.K.: No, it was some other company. Then it was merged with Famous.He renamed it Famous. Baburao Pai started his career in Karachi along with Torney. Of course, Phalke made his film in 1913. Phalke started a film factory. One after the other he made films. Other studios also started making films. When Torney saw that there was a good chance of the film industry getting established in India, he resigned from his job and came to Bombay. There he made a film by the name of Prithvi Vallabh (in the mid-1920s) in which he introduced two or three new faces. Bhalji Pendharkar was one. And some others also. Even the heroine of Alam Ara (1931), Zubeida was introduced by Torney.

 

H.A.: This was in Royal Art Company, I think? Prithvi Vallabh ?

S.K.: Possible. And then, while he was in Bombay, he came to know that Baburao Painter had made a camera. He had a very strong desire to see the camera. So he went all the way to Kolhapur. And during their discussion Baburao Painter offered him a job. So he continued there (in Maharashtra Film Company founded by Painter). Painter was making films one after the other. Baburao Pendharkar was Maharashtra Film Company's manager. Baburao Pai was distributing all these films or exhibiting them. Then Baburao Pendharkar also started acting in films. Slowly, they got a lot more people. V.G. Damle and Sahebmama Fattelal also joined. Because of Baburao Pendharkar, his cousin, V. Shantaram joined. Narayanrao Sarpotdar was there. And lot of local people like Balasaheb Yadav Ranosaheb , Sushila Devi was there.

 

H.A.: In one sense, the pioneers of the early golden period of Marathi talkies were coming from M.F.C.

S.K.: Yes. Baburao Painter took all these people and trained them properly. And in whatever faculty they wanted to work, he gave them a free hand. That is why these people got in-depth knowledge, because of the freedom given to them. Sometimes, they wrote screenplays. Sometimes they did photography. Or sometimes they engaged in editing. But Baburao Painter never stopped anyone. This is how after learning filmmaking, Shantaram-Dhaiber could venture into making Netaji Palkar (late 1920s), the first film directed by both of them. Damle-Fattelal made Karna: The True Warrior (late 1920s). Both the films were hits. Unfortunately, Painter did not offer them another film. And not only that, he employed other people from outside and gave those people fat salaries. Because of all these things: Shantaram, Damle, Fattelal, Dhaiber became very nervous and they started thinking of forming another company. Damle-Fattelal wanted to start one company and Shantaram-Dhaiber wanted to start another and discussions were going on. Once Baburao Pendharkar suggested, 'Why are you making two companies? Why don't you come together and make one company? Your films will be stronger. They will have more depth.' They agreed. Only, finance was a problem. They got some money. And this is how Prabhat Film Company was formed on 1st June 1929 in Kolhapur. They made six silent films. After that the talkie era started. Initially some recordings of children were made and shown. Like Baithakachi Gaana (concert singing) as we call it in Marathi. Somebody is dancing, performing magic or a lecture. All these things were shown in theatres. But first feature film came in 1931. It was called Alam Ara.

 

You may not know this but Charlie Chaplin was resisting talkie cinema. He thought that talkies would be a trend but we would eventually go back to silent cinema. In the same way, Shantaram gave an interview where he said, 'Nowadays, new fads have come in the film industry. They are making talkie films. Like other fads this will also go away. And silent cinema will reemerge.' But later on he realised that talkies were there to stay. And he decided to make Ayodhyecha Raja (1932), a talkie. For which Torney provided the equipment. Torney provided talkie machinery to Ranjit Film Company and several others in Mumbai.

 

H.A.: So Torney seems like this interlocutor who was looking at the business side of things and the creative side as well.

S.K.: Phalke had a branch office in Pune near Sarasbaug. Adambaug as it was called then. After three or four years closed it down. Then Sarpotdar proposed that they work together. But he did not agree to it. So Sarpotdar proposed to buy the studio and he got it. He made quite a number of silent films. In one of the films, Lalita Pawar was introduced. Then there was one Mr. Agarwal in Pune.

 

H.A.: Agarwal Film Company, was it ?

S.K.: He also made two or three films.

 

H.A.: Gallant Hearts or Diler Jigar (1931).

S.K.: When the talkie era started, Torney approached Sarpotdar to make talkies. But Sarpotdar was fed up. Perhaps, he had sustained losses. He had no more interest in making films, we wanted to something else. Torney bought the studio and started Saraswati Cinetone there. The hero of their first film Shyamsundar (1932), the actor Shahu Modak was located by Sarpotdar. When they heard that Sarpotdar is not interested in making films. Bhalji Pendharkar was asked to direct the film Shyamsundar. It was his first talkie. And three people went to Ahmednagar, Torney, Pendharkar and … I don’t remember the third person who was there… but they went and met Shahu Modak’s father, Reverend Modak, who was a Christian. They said, 'We want to make a film on Lord Krishna and we want your son to act as Bal Krishna.' Mr. Modak said, 'I am Christian. How can you take my son to portray a Hindu God?' They replied, 'It does not matter. We shall do it.' So this is how Shahu Modak was selected. But he was originally selected by Nanasaheb Sarpotdar. The heroine, Shanta Apte, was also cast the same way. She used to stay in Pandharpur at that time. She was learning Hindustani classical music. Somebody approached her and she immediately agreed to work in the Hindi and Marathi version of Shyamsundar. I'll tell you one more interesting story. Both the Hindi and Marathi versions were released on the same day in Pune. Shri Krishna theatre was a part of a wada. There the Marathi version was released. Just across the street, opposite the wada, there was Globe Theatre. The Hindi version was released there. Torney felt that the Pune spectators would not go for the Hindi version, because they would prefer the Marathi version. So what could be done to attract the audience? Shanta Apte was asked to go to the theatre and sing songs from the film, so that people would come and see the film. This was a unique occasion where the heroine had to sing and ask the people to come watch the film. In 1933, Torney found that the Adambaug studio was inadequate for him to work in. So he build a concrete, soundproof studio in Pune. Much before the Prabhat Film Company was started.

 

Part 4: Prabhat: Construction and the Fall of the Studio

 

S.K.: In 1933, Prabhat was being constructed. Torney helped Damle in terms of how the studio should be built and in arranging the acoustics. Damle was like an engineer, although he was not a very literate person. Damle had gathered knowledge on the construction of the studio also. He had done (concealed) wiring. Similarly, the water connections were also underground. Nobody could tap the source of the water. Saraswati Cinetone was closed down after two or three films in 1941. Prabhat came to Pune in 1933-34 and closed down in 1954-55. It had a career of about 20 years. They made around 50 films. Hindi, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil versions were made. When Shantaram was there, he directed most of the films. Many of his films had a social theme. Amrimanthan (1934), the first film made in Pune gave a social message: do not commit animal sacrifice in the name of religion. This was made in 1934. Dharmatma (1935) also conveyed a social message.

 

H.A.: On untouchability?

S.K.: On untouchability. All human beings are equal. Nobody is untouchable. He had to face a lot of problems of censorship. The film was released as Dharmatma in Marathi and Mahatma in Hindi. Then, of course, he made Kunku (1937), Manoos (1939), Shejari (1941).

 

H.A. : But why Mahatma in Hindi and Dharmatma in Marathi ?

S.K.: In those days, there was British censorship. Some educationists were members of censor board. In many different places there were different censor boards. In Maharashtra, they objected to Mahatma, as they linked the word to Mahatma Gandhi. But outside Maharashtra, they never objected to Mahatma. So it was released as it is.

Prabhat gave opportunities for the other partners to direct films as well. Except Sitaram Kulkarni, who was not a creative or active partner. Dhaiber directed a film but it collapsed at the box office.

 

H.A.: Rajput Ramani (1935)?

S.K.: Rajput Ramani. He (Shantaram) insisted that Damle-Fattelal to do a film. In fact, Baburao Painter (their teacher) wished to make a film on Tukaram. In those days, they had begun rehearsals but soon, the M.F.C. shut down.

 

H.A.: You mean to say that Sant Tukaram was supposed to be made by M.F.C.? And that rehearsals for the film had started?

S.K.: The rehearsals had started. In between, owing to his differences with the other partners Baburao Painter left M.F.C. So the film was shelved. Damle-Fattelal knew that. They thought it was a good subject and that they should take it up.  Every day, in the evening, all Prabhat partners assembled at Damle's bungalow (right next to studio). There is cement table and chair there. They sat there and discussed what happened in the studio that day, what was going to happen, and other plans. Sahebmama Fattelal was inspired by Abhanga of Tukaram. Damle said that they should make the film. Shantaram said that saint films do not garner box office success. Damle-Fattelal took it up as a challenge. They said, 'We are going to make a film'. Shantaram said, 'Okay, do it.' The film got made. And we have seen how great it is. It was not a big-budget film. Perhaps, no outdoors scenes either. Whatever outdoors we see was shot in the studio itself. The film was made with a very low cost of production. And it was a great success. Shantaram was unfazed. He said, 'Okay, if they have made a film, I will also continue to make films.' He made other films, including Manoos and Shejari. Manoos was called Aadmi in Hindi and Shejari was named Padosi. Damle-Fattelal made Gopalkrishna, Sant Dnyneshwar, Sant Sakhu. Because of differences, Shantaram had to leave. This was a tremendous shock for Damle. Shantaram left in 1942, I suppose. In 1944, Damle expired after a prolonged illness. As long as they were there in Prabhat, the studio made really good films. You could see the impact of Marathi culture in those films. Which is why the spectators from Maharashtra strongly supported them. Dhaiber had left earlier because of some differences and Baburao (the earlier mentioned distributor) was taken as a partner. He was generally quiet and did not say anything in front of Shantaram. When Shantaram left, he took charge of film production. Fattelal remained in the periphery. Pai started making films in only Hindi. Earlier there were double versions. Most of them were double versions.

 

H.A.: Bilinguals?

S.K.: Hindi and Marathi. When Baburao Pai took charge of making films, he called people from Bombay. People like Jairaj, Rose, Paresh Bannerjee and many others like Sitara Devi. Unfortunately, these Hindi films did not find good patronage. After the demise of Damle, his son was consider as the legal heir. Both Fattelal and Damle's son Anantrao did not like the way productions were being made. Of course, they introduced stalwarts like music director Shyam Sundar, Hunsalal Bhagatram or artists like Guru Dutt, Dev Anand, Kamala Kotnis. But in any case, the films were not successful at the box office. So Prabhat went under. In a few years, Fattelal filed a petition to liquidate the company. And in 1955, the shutters of Prabhat were closed. Prabhat had introduced good artists right from the beginning. For example, Govindrao Tembe. He came to compose music for the film Ayodheycha Raja in 1932 but coincidentally he became the hero of the film. He was a learned man. He had authored several dramas. He had his own drama. Durga Khote was the heroine of this film. She came from a ‘respectable’ family. At the beginning of Indian cinema, there were tawaifs, court dancers, prostitutes. Some women said that they would rather be prostitutes than be in films. Baburao Painter offered good roles to women so that they would join cinema. Slowly, people began to realise that working in cinema is not that bad.

 

H.A.: The perception about the medium was changing.

S.K.: Surendra, Jairaj , Mama Warerkar entered films. While writing Surendra's name in the credits, the title designers highlighted the fact Surendra was B.A. L.L.B graduate. Sarojini Naidu's brother was also a film actor. Educated people had started coming into films. Prabhat and Torney introduced a lot of new talent. In fact, Torney used to introduce actors in Sarawati Cinetone and then Prabhat made them popular all over India.

 

H.A.: Like you said that Shahu Modak and Shanta Apte were in Shyamsundar.

S.K.: Not just them. Ratnamala, Shanta Hublikar. Many of these artist were introduced by Torney. I think, even Jayshri. Shantaram later married Jayshri. She had come to act in Saraswati Cinetone's film. About Bhalji Pendharkar, I can say that he started his career with Painter. There was a film Markandeya for which he wrote the screenplay. The shooting started. But all of a sudden the weightage quota of the film caught fire. And MFC was up in flames.

 

H.A.: This was 1922, I believe.

S.K.: I don’t remember the exact year. The camera was thrown in the water pond so that it could be saved. Some people tried to save the positives and negatives. But it was a shock to all of them. Painter said that the film was inauspicious for them and that they should drop this subject. So Pendharkar's first film itself was dropped. Then he got a break as an actor and a makeup man in Prithvi Vallabh (Torney's film). Eventually he made his own film company called Vande Mataram films. Then he made a film called Vande Mataram Ashram (1927).

 

H.A.: I wanted to ask you about Vande Mataram Ashram

S.K.: Bhalji and Baburao Pendharkar were to act in the lead of the film. It was shown to the censors on four occasions and all four occasions it got rejected. It was so brutally edited that what remained were only a few sections of the film. I don't know whether the film was released at all. Kesari (Tilak's newspaper) hardly ever wrote anything on cinema. But they had taken special pains to write about that film. It was not a film review. But it was something pertaining to Vande Mataram Ashram. Thereafter he (Pendharkar) made at least a couple of films for Saraswati Cinetone. He was a screenplay writer, dialogue writer, lyricist as well as director of films. He acted in very few films. In his career of 60 years he acted in two or three films. Thereafter he made a couple of films in Pune. He started the Arun Film Company which was renamed Famous Arun Company. I think he directed couple of films like Netaji Palkar, Sasurwas. In 1943, he went to Kolhapur. He started Kolhapur Cinetone in partnership with Baburao Pendharkar. He made a couple of films over there. He came to Pune and again, after a few films, went back to Kolhapur to start Prabhakar Pictures. He never left Kolhapur after that. Sometimes, he made bilinguals. Some only Hindi or Marathi. He had his own impact on films.

 

H.A.: He was very rooted in his religious identity.

S.K.: Yes. He loved his own country, his own language. He used to preach these sentiments in his films. He films used to start with the Maharashtra song 'Bahu asot sundar sampann ki mahan .. priya amucha ek Maharashtra desh ha..' (Let it be grand, beautiful, self sustaning and great .. this land of ours called Maharashtra). He made social and historical films. Once I asked Sohrab Modi, 'You make Historicals and Socials, like Bhalji. What is the difference between your works that you see?' He said, 'My films are gorgeous, his films are more authentic. Every word uttered in his film was authentic. Sometimes, my films are not.'  

Now coming back to Master Winayak. He was Shantaram's cousin. He was a teacher in Kolhapur. And at that time, Prabhat was located in Kolhapur. Shantaram asked him to join the studio. Winayak liked this idea. Pethkar, a later Prabhat director, was also a teacher in Kolhapur.

 

H.A.: Yeshwant Pethkar?

S.K.: Yes. Winayak left his teaching job and when he left he told his students, 'I was a teacher here. But now I will teach in the medium of cinema. The medium is different but my role will be that of a teacher.' And he followed that very religiously. I would say he was a revolutionary filmmaker. There was no vulgarity in his films. He was a daring individual. He showed Meenakshi Shirodkar (Shilpa and Namrata Shirodkar's grandmother) in a swimsuit. It was made way back in 1938. He had even kissing scenes in his films. In Lagna Pahave Karun I think. Most of his subjects were far ahead of their time. He spoke about planting trees and alcohol prohibition in 1938. Now, the government is trying to plant more trees since we live in concrete jungles. Today, film shots are banned by anyone. Such shots were there in Winayak's film even in that period. Yes. In Prem Veer, he represented politicians in such a way that we can relate to those representations even now. And luckily for us, in those days we had booklets which had complete dialogues of the film from which one could make out how detailed the work was. How intricately they worked!