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Prabhat Studio: Regional Filmmaking and Respectability

Prabhat was a studio encapsulating regional and national cinematic imaginaries, characterized by the intersection of creative exuberance with industrial/technological advancement in pre-independence India. Its name has metaphoric significance, as it ushered in a new prabhat (dawn) in the film industry of western India that in turn symbolized an expression of modernity in the Marathi socio-cultural milieu. 

 

This article develops an evaluative account of Prabhat Studios, elaborating on two interdependent cultural aspects. The first is the notion of respectability that is refracted from the kind of films produced by Prabhat as well as the social perception of the studio, observed through various publicity materials. The second is the self-referential culture that Prabhat engendered underpinning the linguistic and territorial forms of Marathi, and thus regional cinema in Maharashtra. Before delving into these issues, however, let us recount the historical narrative of Prabhat Studios.[1]

 

Prabhat was incorporated in 1929, in Kolhapur, by V. Shantaram, V.G. Damle, S. Fatehlal, K. Dhaiber and S. Kulkarni, when the first four broke away from Baburao Painter’s Maharashtra Film Company (M.F.C.). The studio began operating from Kolhapur initially, producing silent films, much in the vein of the M.F.C. In 1931, Prabhat produced the first Marathi talkie Ayodhyecha Raja (The King of Ayodhya), which re-presented the mythological story of Harishchandra, with which Phalke had initiated the trajectory of Indian cinema. Perceiving the need for better infrastructure, the studio moved to Pune in 1933.

 

From this site on the outskirts of Pune, Prabhat produced some of the most celebrated early sound films in India. The practice of bilingual filmmaking, in Marathi and Hindi, gained Prabhat regional as well as national recognition. Some of the most important films produced between 1934 and 1942 were Kunku, Sant Tukaram, Sairandhri, Amrit Manthan, Dharmatma, Manoos, Sant Dynaeshwar and Ramshashtri. These came after Prabhat had distinguished itself by producing six silent films, namely: Gopal Krushna, Khuni Khanjar, Rani Saheb, Udayhaal, Chandrasena and Julum, in Kolhapur.

 

While Prabhat began as a studio, it soon transformed into a company that produced films. It had inherited the MFC’s artisanal mode of combining the best creative minds and channeling their artistic skills into producing various genres of films. By the time it shifted to Pune this artisanal mode had evolved and the names of Damle as art director, Fatehlal as cinematographer, and Keshavrao Dhaiber as the scriptwriter, distinguished both the distribution of work as well as the structural setup of the different departments of in studio mode of production.

 

However, ever since the first Marathi talkie, Shantaram’s name assumed importance not just as an actor-director, but also as the most accomplished filmmaker of the five founding members. A cursory look at the filmography given by Bapu Vatve points to Shantaram’s dominance as a filmmaker and the division of creative labour within the studio (Vatve 2001:335–343). This also led to Prabhat becoming synonymous with the dawn of the film industry, with Shantaram’s oeuvre as a master filmmaker who could deploy devotional spectacles, social melodramas, and fantastical histories, with a deep understanding of the various units of filmmaking. After Shantaram left Prabhat to start Rajkamal-Kalamandir, Prabhat’s prospects began declining, and it finally closed down in 1953. The death of Damle in 1945 was what set in motion this plummet, as differences arose among the managing partners, and the Bombay High Court ordered the liquidation of the company in 1952.

 

The most fruitful period of Prabhat coincides with the pre-independence moment where nationalism, freedom from colonial rule and imagining a modern social order dominated public discourses about India. In the cultural realm, these were visible in the tremendous output of the print industry, where local newspapers and magazines were dominated by discussions of political and social questions. It was also observed in the expansion of exhibition spaces, in places like Bombay and Calcutta, where the educated class adopted the cinema as an embodiment of modern temperament. For the film industry, the discourses of nationalism had circumscribed an internal push to reimagine narratives of specifically Indian origin, thus instituting what Ashish Rajadhyaksha has titled as the cultural contests of traditional content with modern technology (Rajadhyaksha 1993).

 

With Prabhat this is inflected with its drive to be the best studio, employing the latest technologies, hiring skilled personnel and talented artists. Its two decades of film production therefore encapsulates three critical moments of film history: one, the coming of sound; two, negotiations of transitioning from Presidency social spaces to urban middle class public culture; and three, the entrenchment of a predominantly linguistic regional address. The later two moments are especially significant as they antedate the formation of a regional Marathi cinema before the political demarcation of Maharashtra in 1960.

 

Sound was not just for incorporating an aural aspect to scenario-driven narratives; it proved to evoke a perceptual dimension that could address both local as well as national audiences. While the silent era had perfected the transmission of dramatic action through inter-titles and the vigorousness of gestures in flat, frontal scenarios, with films like Ayodhecha Raja, sound instituted the dramatic aspect by borrowing from the immensely popular Sangeet Natak (literally a musical play, and also a genre of Marathi theatre and music). It thus inaugurated a new dimension for visual and aural pleasures, where visual perceptual depth was complemented by talking-singing figures of actors on the screen.

 

The moment of sound thus opened new possibilities for companies like Prabhat to firstly forge interactivity with Marathi audiences. Secondly, it could imagine specifically regionalized narratives in the cinematic realm. We can therefore observe that Ayodhecha Raja, made by Phalke as Raja Harishchandra, was re-presented in sound. Similarly, MFC’s Sinhagad, based on the legendary story of Tanaji (one of Shivaji’s brave soldiers) was made only in Marathi. For the studio personnel, the making of talkie films proved to be the juncture where the earlier artisanal tendencies got reordered with people like Damle and Fatehlal becoming expert technicians of the cinema.

 

In the documentary, It’s Prabhat, Shyam Benegal is shown talking about the remarkable technical feat that the studio achieved in producing talkie films (Vaidya 2004). One needs to understand that this early sound cinema bordered on experiments of trial and error, with the perfection of marrying visual and aural tracks mastered much later by the end of the 1930s. Bapu Vate has described how Damle’s inherent skill with mechanical devices helped in recording live sound as filming progressed. He also mentions the manner in which Damle was able to identify snafus with the projector when a preview screening of Ayodecha Raja was arranged (Vatve 2001:51-52). In the context of the standard narrative of cinematic modernity, Prabhat’s early talkie films, and its later masterly productions such as Sant Tukaram and Amritmanthan, posit an unfolding of film history through several slippages and contradictions. These can be abstracted as the fashioning of a Marathi public sphere in Presidency towns and its social consequences that emerge as a horizontal spread of a regional Marathi cinema. More interestingly, however, is the question of respectability, where Prabhat figures prominently in the historical narratives of studio era Marathi cinema.

 

Three towns are central to the proposition of evolving social spaces: Kolhapur, Pune and Bombay.[2] Kolhapur was a princely state where what remained of Maratha rule had its seat. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj had emerged as a singular princely pioneer of social reform in the early 20th century when he supported the building of hostels, grants for higher education, and most significantly promoting arts and culture in Kolhapur. The M.F.C. had benefitted from this lineage, and later Prabhat got its first land through the intervention of Tanibai Kagalkar (the court singer who was related to Keshavrao Dhaiber). Bypassing the actual patronage for cultural production, what emerges is the institutionalization of the artisanal class within the frames of modern technology of cinema. This caste consideration suggests that by the time Prabhat was formed, social hierarchies had begun to acquire a fluidity, where creative talent could be passed on to the next generation outside the restrictions of kinship and occupations.

 

Pune presents a capitalist superimposition on the earlier segregated but functionally interwoven geographies of a presidential town. As the city had evolved centrifugally its older Peshwa sites remained (and still remain) the epicentre against which caste and colonial identities evolved. In the post-Tilak age of the 1930s-1940s, Pune had become the site of learning and the print capital for Marathi publishing. A growing centre of cloth trade, Pune emerged as the site where lower classes had started to lay demands on the traditional Brahmanical sites for access to learning and higher education. The Pune municipality was established in 1916, subsequently driving its expansion as a prominent urban centre. The most significant capitalist turn however was the railway interconnection with Bombay when the Deccan Queen was started in 1928-29. Already well connected by road with Solapur and to the south with Satara and Kolhapur, its urbanization was announced by the rail link to Bombay. By 1933, therefore, when Prabhat had moved to Pune, the city had transitioned from being a political city of Maratha power to an urbanizing town of cultural significance.

 

Cinema and its development in Bombay has been mapped by Kaushik Bhaumik in a seminal study. His insights into the making of the Bombay film culture throw light on crucial industrial aspects, most significantly on the social spaces that the film industry facilitated. More importantly, Bhaumik’s elaboration of Bombay’s cinema between 1928-1935 situates the constant negotiations with regional centres of filmmaking including Poona in the Presidency areas (Bhaumik 2001:109-124). Here, he contends that the expansion of Bombay’s cinema comprised the building of exhibition sites in small-town locations, and the inter-exchange of personnel from regional centres like Lahore, Calcutta and Poona into the Bombay industry. Significantly, Bhaumik has highlighted the role of film magazines and print culture as a determiner of the negotiations between regional and the Bombay film industry. Underlying this historical spread of film culture is the indication that besides considerations of film genres of early sound cinema, the formation of a regional film industry placed demands on the predominantly Hindustani Bombay cinema. These attempted to seek an accommodative industrial evolution where the Bombay cinema benefitted from the influx of skilled personnel while regional film industries attempted to generate vernacularized public address, thus entrenching their identity from the perspective of linguistic affiliation. It is intriguing, therefore, to see how Prabhat’s films permeated a regionalist cultural address through various performative forms, musical genres, styles, and its own artisanal thrust of projecting grand visual spectacles.

 

A clue to Prabhat’s regional rootedness is the strategy of bilingual filmmaking. Prabhat though was not the only one with such a practice: New Theaters in Calcutta was the other such major studio. The distinguishing aspect of Prabhat’s bilingual filmmaking was the projection of regional Marathi content to a national, Hindustani speaking audience. This can be distinctly demarcated in two phases, the first is the early talkie phase till about 1935 when Amritmanthan was made, and the second phase begins with Sant Tukaram. In the first instance, the regional is revealed through the frames of narrative cinema that Prabhat drew from. This, as mentioned earlier, aggregated themes and narratives from the earlier phase of M.F.C., but also emerged from the insistence on constructing visual spectacles from the artistic endeavors of set-design and building a pro-filmic space. More importantly in the aural realm, language became a primary concern, as Prabhat’s focus was on gaining a national audience.

 

We thus see that the first three talkie films of Prabhat were produced both in Hindi and Marathi. Bapu Vatve has described the conditions that led to the conception of Maya Machindra (Vatve 2001:61-66). It was Govindrao Tembe who thought of this story. He had performed the Hindi version of a tale from the Puranas called ‘Siddha Sansar’. The play however was never published and thus posed difficulty in preparing a script. However, one of Prabhat’s organ players Rajarambapu Purohit had this play memorized down to its dialogues, and he wrote it for Tembe to make the script. For the Hindi version of this film, Narmadaprasad wrote the dialogues. The intersection of orality, theatrical performances, Sangeet Natak, a mythic tale and the studio setup, is what gave Maya Machindra and other films of this period a characteristic regional identity. It further highlights that when the film was conceived it had to be written in Marathi (Hindustani was used to replace dialogues). Tembe’s own oeuvre as a seasoned performer of Sangeet Natak intersected with several styles, gharanas and repertoires as pointed by Keshav Bhole (Bhole 1994). Furthermore, the visual image had to be imaginatively reordered to suit the spectacle of the sets. More importantly however, it is the spoken word, its register of standard Marathi—carried forward from the stage and literary writing—that underscored the Marathi regional content of Prabhat’s early talkies.

 

In the second phase beginning somewhere by 1935-36, we observe the regional content aggregating into a formal consistency. This is most evident in the saint films, namely Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar. The regional content of these films distinguishes Prabhat’s saintly endeavors from its fantasies and socials. Specifically, we find a unique cultural negotiation of projecting biographical narratives of the saints through the underlying devotional philosophy. These films thus imagined a cultural world outside the dominant Brahmanic, scriptural impositions on the devotional realm, consequently opening up the questions of caste hierarchies, the centrality of folk performative forms like bhajans and kirtans, and more significantly, the re-inscription of Eknath or Tukaram’s spoken (later written) hymns, commonly referred to as abhanga.

 

With Sant Tukaram, and Dnyaneshwar another level of cultural interrogation generates subtle undertones of gender, caste and performativity in Prabhat. Vishnupant Pagnis had become part of Prabhat in 1935 along with Bal Gandharva. Pagnis caricatured female parts in the theatre as well as the M.F.C. When Damle and Fatehlal decided to make Sant Tukaram, they chose Pagnis to play Tukaram, perhaps to highlight the genteel side of the screen projection of this popular saint. The form that Tukaram evinced is accessed via the iconicity of the visuals and the aspects of linguistic performances that the film utilizes. Geeta Kapur’s original reading of Sant Tukaram as a revival of the mythic for social change in the context of India’s struggles for independence situates the iconic in a decidedly nationalist paradigm (Kapur 1987).

 

However, the iconic in the film is more than just frontality of the figures, or its address to the cinematic devotee and through it to the devotee-citizen of the real world. Tukaram’s iconicity is closely related to three factors: i) his historical, and popular mnemonic presence in the Marathi social realm, ii) the performances of his abhangas, manifesting the secular trajectory of the Bhakti philosophy, and iii) the language of Bhakti, that evokes a devotional register that is uniquely vernacular. Transposing these in the cinematic realm, however, is where films like Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar assert the Marathi cultural everydayness, which is neither exclusively territorial nor governed by the exigencies of statist policies. Observing this in Prabhat’s saint films, Ravi Vasudevan compares their specific regional aspect with those of Bombay Talkies. ‘The overall result was a strong regional identity in the world conjured up by the studio, one rather different from the abstractions of Bombay Talkies, a studio which took recourse to a simplified Hindustani to appeal to the broadest market and whose fictional worlds often appear uprooted from reference to any specific regional habitat' (Vasudevan 2005:240).

 

In the chequered histories of the Indian studio era, Prabhat’s case stands out, and perhaps presages, the constant cultural flows between nationalist aspirations and regionalist affiliations. Through the glorious recollections by numerous personnel working for Prabhat, including the noted writer P.L. Deshpande, the studio emerges as a marvel of modern technology where excellent craftsmen could imagine a cinema that the Marathi people accepted as a respectable art form (Deshpande 2001). The notion of respectability has been put forward by Madhuja Mukherjee in her historical analysis of New Theaters. She locates the shifts in narrative processes and the necessity of incorporating a literary lineage into Bengali cinema of the studio era to dispel social perceptions of its being amoral (Mukherjee 2009). With Prabhat the notion of respectability is visible in various extra-textual aspects. Before elaborating on these, however, the significance of Prabhat’s social films requires some detailing.

 

If the saint genre demonstrated the ‘creative fabrication’ (Prasad 2011) of a regional devotional form, then films like Kunku/Duniya Na Mane, Manoos/Aadmi, and Shejari/Padosi underscore the studio’s engagement with themes of social realism. Here too the cinematic is inflected through the prism of vernacular linguistic and literary forms, specifically with writers like Narayan Hari Apte working in the studio. Apte had written the script for Kunku and later Manoos. Kunku’s significance as a social film corresponds with its historical resonance with the Child Marriage Act, popularly known as the Sharada Act of 1929. The play from which the act got this moniker is Sangeet Sharda, which depicts the marriage of a venerable widower with a girl child with the intention of having a heir. The play was a Marathi Sangeet Natak written by Govind Deval. Kunku begins with a sequence of this play being enacted by small children of the neighbourhood where Neera (Shanta Apte) resides. As anticipated in this childish performance, Neera is sneakily married off to an aged lawyer by her maternal uncle. When she learns of who her husband is Neera resists with anger and resentment. Kunku transcended the regional rootedness of Apte’s story to address a national social problem. A similar trajectory is observed in Manoos, where the lead female is a prostitute named Kesar (Shanta Hublikar) who is rescued by a police constable Ganpat (Shahu Modak).

 

Both the films address the issue of restoring the female into socially acceptable normative structures, in the process projecting a critique of the very social norms that have constructed the identity of these women. Prabhat’s social films were thus deeply sensitive towards portraying a growing progressive modernity of the Marathi public, and thus contributory to the debates around social reform on the national stage.

 

It was this peculiar diversity of cultural sources, interacting and interchanging at points of contact in the studio, where stage performers subdued an overt frontal address to the requirements of narrative cinema’s spatial situations, or musicians incorporated various strands of aural performatives to generate film-music, that earned Prabhat a social respectability. But the journey towards this had already begun from within the studio. As emphasized by Vatve, the terms of incorporation of the studio strictly forbade any kind of personal relationships with female co-stars and co-workers (Vatve 2001:23-27). Respectability thus was literally ‘incorporated’ into the manner in which Prabhat erected its filmmaking practice. Vatve’s recollection of how Durga Khote was contracted to play the role of Taramati in Ayodecha Raja is instructive here (Vatve 2001:48). According to him Khote, then married to Vishwanath Khote, had played a minor role as the wife of an alcoholic in the film Farebi Jaal. However, this had not gone down well with the respectable middle class Marathi family of Khote, and thus she was asked not to act in the cinema. With Prabhat, the fears of playing a scandalous role were dispelled as she was being sought for the lead character of Taramati in a mythological story.

 

As the talkie became the status quo of the industry, an invisible star system emerged, where female actors were projected into the public imagination with an implicit sexuality. The three issues of the magazine Prabhat Monthly, edited by Baburao Patel, carry this veiled projection in the captions that he gives to the pictures of Shanta Apte and Durga Khote. Although Patel introduces the magazine as a service which the ‘friends of Prabhat’ had asked for as they wanted to know ‘details of Shanta Apte—her hobbies and activities’ (Patel 1936a:4). However, as pointed out by Neepa Majumdar, this star system was relayed through the professional lives of the actors, eschewing reference to the personal and private selves of the stars (Majumdar 2009). It indicates therefore that the emergent female stars of the talkie era were more or less protected from public scrutiny behind the social veil of respectability.

 

A number of people who worked with Prabhat have mnemonized the decade of 1934-1944 as a manifestation of a culturally fluid artistic industry signifying social respectability. One of the most influential accounts is that of P.L. Deshpande, where he has elaborated on the culture of respectability that Prabhat studios exuded. He says: ‘the people of Prabhat conformed to the then contemporary notions of social respectability, and their films too were demonstrative of it’ (Deshpande 2001:5, my translation).

 

The notion of respectability that Prabhat encapsulated diverges from the New Theatres' strategies of harnessing literary sources. Prabhat’s social image was closely associated with carving out a unique space in the volatile realm of film production. Its journey from Kolhapur to Pune was contingent on exhibiting artistic excellence (most visible in the films), but it also needed to correspond with the world outside its cinematic imaginations. The second issue of Prabhat Monthly presents an indication of this. Patel gives a colourful account of various dignitaries visiting the studio including the neighbouring queens of Akkalkot and Sawantwadi (Patel 1936b:6). Similarly, an iconic picture is that of the visit of the Lord and Lady Brabourne to the studios. Apart from the overt attempts to publicize the studio’s reputation, what is observed in these publicity materials is a movement towards confirming a favourable public opinion about the studio and its personnel.

 

Another overt address towards affirming this respectability is observed in the Prabhat Fellowship Scheme. This scheme, announced in the first issue of Prabhat Monthly, advertised the opportunity for selected Fellows to visit the studio, watching the premiere of a Prabhat film for free, and an added advantage of being treated with respect by Prabhat exhibitors (Patel 1936a).

 

It is evident therefore that Prabhat aimed to be an institution of social repute, one where avoiding gossip, suppressing sexual objectification of female actors, and observing middle class social norms superseded concerns of leveraging the popularity of its screen personnel for economic gain. This notion of respectability was driven towards projecting a public image of the studio that valued artistic excellence over sensational romantic liaisons. Such an insistence thus aligned the studio with the social spaces from which Prabhat had emerged fostering a sustained bonding with the Marathi social sphere. It also effectively secluded the inner workings of Prabhat from public scrutiny.

 

It emerges therefore that as much as Prabhat invested in enabling a niche mode of studio production, its social stature had to correspond with the grandeur of its sets, the technical mastery of its filmmakers, and a respectable context of a workplace, where exceptional artists could feel at home. Prabhat’s respectability though also opens up the possibility of scrutinizing its journey in Kolhapur and Pune as referencing the emergent Marathi middle class preserve that was distinctly different from Bombay’s cosmopolitan world of filmmaking. This also indicates the formative period of a regional film industry, where cinema and society engendered one another in a self-referential prism of cultural production.

 

Finally, it is essential to assert that Prabhat’s respectability was closely tied to its regional roots, and therefore could be resurrected—in the form of anecdotal histories, documentaries and retrospectives celebrating its cinematic achievements—as an inherent part of Maharashtra’s cultural history. The site of the studio that now makes up the campus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has this illustrious legacy of the studio era of Marathi cinema, that encapsulates a cultural past mummified in the films of Prabhat and the lives of its personnel.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Arvikar, Hrishikesh. 2015. 'The Cinema of Prabhat: Histories, Aesthetics and Politics'. M.Phil Dissertation. Department of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

 

Bhaumik, Kaushik. 2001. The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry, 1913–1936.  D. Phil Dissertation, Oxford University: Oxford.   

 

Bhole, Keshav. 1994. Majhe Sangeet ani Digdurshan. Bombay: Mouj Prakashan.

 

Deshpande, Purushottam Laxman. 2001[1979]. Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri. In Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri, ed. B. Vatve. Pune: M/s A V Damle.

 

Kapur, Geeta. 1987. 'Mythic Material in Indian Cinema', Journal of Arts and Ideas 14.15:79–107.

 

Majumdar, Neepa. 2009. Wanted cultured ladies only!: Female stardom and cinema in India, 1930s-1950s. University of Illinois Press.

 

Mukherjee, Madhuja. 2009. New Theatres Ltd: The Emblem of Art, the Picture of Success. National Film Archive of India, Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

 

Patel, Baburao. 1936a. 'Just Another Link', Prabhat Monthly 1.1.

 

———. 1936b. 'The New Temple of Art'. Prabhat Monthly 1.2.

 

Prasad, Madhava M. 2011. 'Genre mixing as creative fabrication', BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 2.1:69–81.

 

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. 1993. 'The Phalke Era: Conflict of Traditional Form and Modern Technology', in Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India, eds. P. Sudhir, Tejaswini Niranjana, Vivek Dhareshwar,  pp. 47–82. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

 

Vaidya, Madhavi. (Director). 2004. It's Prabhat. In M.s. A.V. Damle (Producer) Pune: M/s A  V Damle.

 

Vasudevan, Ravi. 2005. 'Devotional Transformation: Miracles, Mechanical Artifice, and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema', Postscripts:The Journal of Sacred Texts & Contemporary Worlds 1.2/1.3:237–57.

 

Vatve, Bapu. 2001. Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri. Pune: Anant V Damle, Prabhatnagar.

           

 

 

 


Notes

 

[1] This article derives from some important sources. The primary sources are the films of Prabhat made available by M/s A V Damle. Secondary sources include the biographical account of Prabhat written by Bapu Vatve titled Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri (second edition); and other biographies referenced at appropriate places. It also draws on the history of Prabhat Studios researched by Hrishikesh Arvikar in his M. Phil dissertation, The Cinema of Prabhat: Histories, Aesthetics and Politics (2015). 

[2] See Arvikar 2015 on an elaboration on the changing dimensions of the social spaces of Pune.