The Cinema of Prabhat Studio: An Overview

in Overview
Published on: 25 July 2016

Hrishikesh Arvikar

Hrishikesh is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at School of Arts and Aesthetics , Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is also a translator, screenwriter, filmmaker. He is currently scripting a Marathi feature film.

India was a site of contested claims by regions attempting to stake their claim in the making of a nation. However, between nationalism and nationalisation, there is a window to the cultural world, more specifically in the lives of Indian cinema, which tells the story of the making, negotiating, reallocating and imagining of various spaces of the nation. Concomitantly, these spaces display inherent tensions and resistances to the form of the nation. In the wake of cultural nationalism, what could have been the possibilities of home and the world in the light of this region–nation binary? After the rapid developments of cinema in the early stages, filmmakers quickly realised the potential of the medium and made efforts to systematise production mechanisms. The story of Prabhat Studio (1929–53) is one such story from the late colonial period in western India, complicated by its geographical location in the Bombay Presidency, which was emerging as the financial capital of British India.


Two faces of the Pre-Prabhat story: Dadasaheb Phalke and Baburao Painter

Before entering the world of the Studio, let us take a brief look at two indicative biographies of Dadasaheb Phalke and Baburao Painter, both of whose technological, material, ideological efforts in developing the early aesthetics of Indian Silent Cinema laid the foundations for a studio like Prabhat to emerge in Bombay Presidency. In the work of these two pioneering figures, one can see progression in the aesthetic continuities as well as departures, together with infrastructural development in Prabhat. Bombay was a bustling, jostling city of culturally complex and cosmopolitan energies, legal and extra-legal trades, infrastructural and industrial possibilities, colonial inflections, latent feudalism, mandatory English education, and resistance to any religious orthodoxy.


Closely tied to the Bombay cosmos, the Marathi-speaking cultural sphere after mastering the print, theatre and other cultural practices turned to the moving image medium as it began to take shape, first through Phalke in 1913 (though there were others too such as Dadasaheb Torney and H.S. Bhatvadekar, also known as Save Dada), and then through Baburao Painter in 1917 in Kolhapur at the cornerstone of the Marathi public imaginary. Both Phalke and Painter set up film companies which signalled the beginnings of the conception of the region-nation in their very names, viz., Phalke's Hindustan Film Company (HFC) and Painter's Maharashtra Film Company (MFC). They came from different aesthetic, ideological and economic backgrounds. Phalke was a Brahmin (upper caste), an innovator, designer, playwright and theatre director, educated in the Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University, Baroda and the J.J. School of Art, Bombay, while Painter (from a lower caste) was an artisan, a painter and sculptor, by profession, as were earlier generations of his family, who were called ‘Mestris'. This was the title for craftsmen and painters who built several institutional spaces in the late 19th century. The industrially inclined Phalke, unlike the artisanal Painter, relied on mercantile capital from Kolhapur, Pune, Bombay and Nasik where he had studio offices. Painter resided under the courtly patronage of Shahu Maharaja in the ever-changing agro-industrial town of Kolhapur.


In terms of genre, Phalke mostly made mythologicals, while Painter tried his hand at historicals and is credited for his early silent social Savkari Pash ('Indian Shylock', 1926) as well. Phalke wanted to put ‘trees, nature, and people', and see the ‘lives of Indian gods and goddesses' unfold like the 'darsan' in Hindu ritual, allegorically conveying the messages of the cultural nationalism movement (Rajadhyaksha 1987). However, he did not make socials. Indian film scholars have emphasised that Phalke's extant films show visuals which are consistently flat. Painter, on the other hand, tried to use the same trickery and gimmickry (e.g. superimposed imagery) as his counterpart but also started using depth as the cinematographic art matured in its aesthetic explorations. Several others had begun to explore this dimension of depth, but the opening of depth is crucial in terms of the arrangement of visual elements (e.g. props, staging, character placement, etc.) in Painter.


Even when Phalke's remarkable narrative achievements took the mythological route, to speak of the Swadeshi movement as a mix of collective struggle, strife and fantasy, it was the fact that his planarity in the imagery primarily focused on an organicist dimension of naturalism, as one sees in his Guru Raja Ravi Varma's portraits and nature paintings among other influences. Painter explored various styles but relied on the suspension of disbelief in the narrative construction and used illusionism to mount his artificially created worlds in films. He demanded relief from the background for the human figure, so that it stands out in his images, as opposed to the flat imagery where the subject merges with the background in Phalke or stands out only in frontal shots (Painter 1990). Painter worked for at least six months on a film. Phalke, on the other hand, produced almost 10 films a year, according to the interviews in the Indian Cinematograph Committee Report, conducted in 1927–28. In a brief anecdote, Chandrakant Mandare, actor and painter, notes that when both of them worked for the Rajah under different companies (Shalini and Chatrapati Cinetone) around 1935, Phalke had elaborate set constructions, pulleys and handles to represent the Himalaya in his last successful film, Gangavataran. Painter who used a similar scene merely painted a backdrop of the Himalayas, and created a small cliff-like structure in a modest studio set-up and shot the scene (Mandare 1999). One can deduce that the visual conception of a film was closely linked to the deployment of the infrastructure available.


Another difference one can note is that Phalke did not have any great line of successors, whereas Painter trained some of the most iconic names of the film industry, like V. Shantaram, K. Dhaiber, V.G. Damle, S. Fattelal, Nanasaheb Sarpotdar, Baburao Pendharkar, Bhalji Pendharkar and Dadasaheb Torney, in his apprenticeship model at the MFC studio. These personnel played key roles in the working of the Marathi film world till the 1950s. Prabhat too realised its conception of a studio, its aesthetics, and its ideological inclinations by building on Phalke and Painter’s work.  



Evolution of Infrastructure: Industry within People and Places

The infrastructure of the film studios continued to evolve. Newer technology, improved cameras, better film exhibition, and regulated film timings emerged. A major breakthrough was the invention of the talkie cinema with the arrival of The Jazz Singer (1927–28) in America, and Alam Ara (1931) in India. Major studios like Imperial, Royal Art, Ranjeet, Sagar, Surya and New Theatres Ltd. emerged on the brink of the talkie era.


Prabhat was born out of Painter's erratic ways of managing productions. In a letter written by Damle, an apprentice at MFC Studio,  to Baburao Painter, he brings up several issues of ‘labour, aesthetic development, financial backing to question Painter's disregard for these matters' (Dhaiber 1968:18). In this 10-page letter, Damle spoke extensively of ownership, the division of labour and partnership. He mentions that the business should have been treated like a ‘family business' (Dhaiber 1968:24). As animosity grew, several groups parted from MFC to start their own studios. MFC was dissolved around the early 1930s after having made 17 odd films. Two such groups, Damle-Fattelal and Shantaram-Dhaiber, came together when Baburao Pendharkar (erstwhile manager of MFC and later actor in Prabhat) urged them to start a studio together. Sitaram Kulkarni from Sarafa (a mercantile area in Kolhapur) invested the capital and Prabhat (Dawn) Studios was inaugurated on June 1, 1929.


This section briefly outlines the backgrounds of the four partners of Prabhat. V. Shantaram was trained under music director Govindrao Tembe in a theatre company, before which he was a door keeper at a movie hall. He joined MFC and learnt all the production procedures in the studio. He was later a partner in Prabhat and directed most of the films made in the early phase of the studio. He quit the studio in 1942 and started Rajakamal Kalamandir venturing into nationalist-developmentalist films and choreographed musicals. Keshavrao Dhaiber’s autobiography articulates his complicated feudal background. At a young age, Dhaiber was sold off by his mother to the queen of Kolhapur. Having lived among riches, he was once again out on the street when the queen passed away. He was trained as a cameraman at MFC and was the first one to quit Prabhat Studios after his affair with actress Nalini Tarkhud. He started his own studio, but after financial losses moved to Bombay where he struggled to survive. Fattelal and Damle came from artisanal families in Kolhapur. Fattelal’s father was an overseer in colonial constructions, and Damle was a sculptor who could barely read or write except the old Modi script. Both therefore, focused on the technical aspects of cinema. Damle and Fattelal directed their first film Baji Prabhu in the late 1920s at the MFC, while Dhaiber and Shantaram made Karna. These four people from artisanal and humble socio-economic backgrounds operated like a collective in the first phase. They trained their family members in the craft of filmmaking in the second phase, but by the third phase, factions formed among the main partners that led to the demise of the idea of collectivity they had called Prabhat.


After having made a few silent action films, mythologicals, historicals and children’s film, Prabhat started seeing the infrastructural limits of their studio, which had been given to them thanks to Dhaiber’s familial connection with Tanibai Kagalkar, a Kolhapur court singer. They moved from a bungalow to a space near a marshland. Soon, the technical problem of light and hand-cranked cameras was solved by an intermediate glass-iron structure, an improvement from the earlier arrangement of a temporary pandal covered by a white cloth to admit more light.


Even as they made the bold move to shoot a Talkie, Shantaram still believed that sound-based cinema was just a fad that would go away and people could still return to silent cinema, a form which had matured over the first two decades of cinema in India. Following the path of another filmmaker from the region, Dadasaheb Torney, whose mythological Shyamsundar (1932) garnered huge commercial success, making it one of the first films to complete 25 weeks in cinema halls, Prabhat also made a bilingual, Ayodhyecha Raja/Ayodhya ka Raja (1932). The film was based on the legend of Raja Harishchandra and subtly touched upon the question of untouchability by evoking caste fluidity as the Kshatriya king is turned into a slave and then is returned to his original form and appreciated for abiding by the truth even in the harshest of situations. What seems remarkable about this film is the play with depth, since the mythological in theatre provided a horizontally aligned universe (because of the proscenium arch), the film played with the ramifications of caste mobility by foregrounding and backgrounding a host of characters like a beggar, apsaras, Indra, rishis, saints, kings, princes and Narada, the ever-present interlocutor of the three worlds (Heaven, Earth and Hell) of Hindu mythology, moving efficiently through all of them commentating on the status of good and evil, penance and greed, deceit and truth. However, the camera did not move much; the Early Prabhat aesthetic primarily relied on grandeur, music and theatricality. Prabhat’s narratives maintained a close proximity to theatre, as most of the personnel who worked in these Early Talkie films like Govindrao Tembe and Master Winayak came from Kolhapur Sangeet Natak.


Through its mythologicals, historicals and costume films like Agnikankan (1932), Maya Machhindra (1933) and Chandrasena (1935), Prabhat constructed a spatial imaginary and questioned forms of governance where usually a pradhan (prime minister) or senapati (army chief) takes over the kingdom, the young prince or princess has to defend the collectivity, start an uprising and defeat canny evil in its different forms, such as the drive for power in Agnikankan, greedy and egotistical natures situated in terms of gender binaries in Maya Machchindra, and addictions like alcoholism in Chandrasena. This film was special since it was perhaps the only trilingual (Hindi, Marathi and Tamil) film attempted by the studio. However, before Chandrasena, the studio had decided to make Sairandhri (1933) in colour, a film which was a remake of K.P. Khadilkar's play Keechak Wadh, which was charged with sedition. After shooting the film, it was taken to Germany and much to Shantaram's dismay the film could not reach the aesthetic standards that Prabhat was setting up for itself. Dejected by the racist treatment meted out to him in Germany, Shantaram came to Prabhat, which for multiple reasons like proximity to Bombay, feudal interference in Kolhapur and infrastructural requirements, had moved to Pune.


Damle and Pawar (an architect) were overseeing the construction of the studio sprawling over 11 acres, with a hilltop and verdant surroundings ideal for an outdoor shoot, creating an adequate landscape for the realisation of imaginary kingdoms in costume and mythological films, while the indoors were intricately lit by drawing on artificial ponds, lakes and the creation of jungle-like locations in the massive studio (currently called ‘Studio No.1' in the Film and Television Institute of India premises). Damle had managed to create underground concealed wiring, air-conditioned edit set-ups, closely aligned workspaces (for instance the music directors accommodation was close to the music rooms, and actors were accommodated in makeup rooms) for better functioning of the studio. It was a clever mix, drawing from the naturalism in Phalke of having a hilltop near the studio, and Painter's artificiality, to arrive at a control in their aesthetics of a closed studio space. Thus, the studio had a human-built functionality, and its controlled environment reoriented the Phalke dream of placing ‘nature’ around it. These films, as mentioned earlier, had imagined kingdoms and collectives overthrowing the tyrant, harsh critique of slavery, and the emergence of lands of promise and hope. It required a scalar imagination and address which was realised in the Pune studio of Prabhat. However, the texture of address had changed, since the artificial control of the studio space led to a move away from the theatricality (primarily seen in the Sangeet Natak style of acting) of the moving image usually seen in Early Cinema from Kolhapur. For Prabhat, the moving image in its correlation with sound became the focus, rather than theatricality.


It was here in the Pune studio in 1934–35 that Prabhat realised Amrit Manthan, which was a strong critique of ritualistic orthodoxy in Hinduism, even as it moved away from its earlier binary depictions of good and evil. The camera moved a lot and stopwatches came out to time shots so that they could be matched to the shot length since the playback technique had not yet been invented. Amrit Manthan remains a landmark film in Indian film history because of its use of a range of aesthetics like German expressionism (which Shantaram encountered in his stay in Germany for Sairandhri’s coloring process), the telephoto lens, the Sangeet Natak tradition of Marathi theatre, all at the same time. In an analysis of this film, Priya Jaikumar deviates from Miriam Hansen's thesis of ‘vernacular modernism' to ‘modular modernism' which uses tropes of varying aesthetic and stylistic devices to create ‘modernist myths' (Jaikumar 2006). In the film, both sides—good and evil—use the myth of Amrit Manthan and reinterpret it for their own goals. Thus, for the first time in Prabhat, a film presented a complex form of villainy, entirely convinced of the rightness of its ritualistic actions, while the other side, presenting a humanist position against brutality of sacrifice, was equally determined.


In the sense of the region–nation binary, this film shows the forging of collective action against inhuman practices like human and animal sacrifice, drawing from contemporary world discourses such as rationalism and humanism, thereby creating a trajectory of regional, sub-regional, trans-regional, regional-national, region-international and transnational.  This was possible as the studio had actors who sang with a Carnatic touch (from Master Winayak to Suresh Babu Mane), and musicologists-turned-music-directors like Bhole, who fused Hindustani music with the piano. The concept of region in Prabhat’s cinema expanded and contracted according to its aesthetic needs. This conception of regional as a relational, heterogeneous, open-ended and unbounded entity, even when social and cultural borders are firmly in place, can be seen in the effectuality of Amrit Manthan, which carved out its own space in the imagination of a nation fighting the internal disharmonious practices of orthodoxy. Meanwhile, their competitors too were making some prominent films; the New Theatres had by then made Chandidas (1932), the first talkie saint film, and the famous Mukti (1935) by P.C. Barua; Southern Pioneers made Marthand Varma (1931) and then there were the racy fast-paced films of modern, urban life and the Arabian night fantasy genre being made in Bombay (Wadia Movietone catalogue of Sulochana, Zubeida, Zillo, Jal Merchant, Billimoria among others).



New Trajectories in the Golden Era

Prabhat now ventured into its second phase dominated by the entry of newer personnel who altered its message-oriented nature with newer kinds of performance, music and action sequences. The personnel, as both Ingle and Niazi argue in their allied articles, were from respectable classes and brought a literary value to the films.


One of the first saint films, Dharmatma (1935), was written by the esoteric K. Narayan Kale. He plucked some major themes from Saint Eknath's abhangas (devotional poems) and transposed them into his life, subtly drawing parallels from Gandhi philosophy's of humanism, morality (seva) and truth-telling to create a ripple effect from one abhanga to the other, one thought to the other. Kale paid so much attention to the pronunciations and inflections of dialogue that the shooting had to be halted several times and often actors became even more confused than they were before the start of the sequence.


Eknath was played by Bal Gandharva, who was Maharashtra's most popular female impersonator performer (stri bhumika, originally known as Stri Party) in theatrical productions. The trouble was that Gandharva wanted to continue playing female roles on screen as well. Shantaram made him understand that it was not possible anymore. Gandharva was in huge debt owing to financial losses his company had suffered, partly because of his extravagances and partly because cinema was increasingly becoming more popular than theatre. A Gandharva-Prabhat co-production was Prabhat's attempt to save Gandharva's career. The film failed miserably as the audiences did not accept their favourite theatre heroine of Sangeet Saubhadra as a moustachioed saint. Commercial failure aside, Anupama Kapse calls this film a Gandhian ‘text of muteness' (Kapse 2009). She signals the really difficult task of seeing an awkward performer forced to play a man who shoulders the burden of Gandhian (re)silence on caste issues.


In a remarkable sequence, textured by the play of light and shadow, the film slowly melts the saint's identity to unveil a leader who is questioned by Brahminical orthodoxy in the form of sanatanis, while a curtain separates them from the Bahujanas. The logical argumentation in favour of humanism and Eknath's recitation of abhangas get him off the severe charge of touching the untouchable as the symbolic separator of the curtain drops. Both Amrimanthan and Dharmatma are a call to look within one's community, and this is taken further in the landmark communitarian film Sant Tukaram (1936), as well as the philosophically charged Sant Dnyaneshwar (1940). The double bind in the Saint films was that the saints would encounter a series of obstacles to prove their worth, and were spared social exclusion by their performing miracles, only to eventually be proven to transcend the world of the masses. Thus, from untouchable lowly men they became untouchable godly men in the cultic imagination. Sant Tukaram broke all records and ran for an entire year at the Plaza Cinemas in Bombay, while Sant Dnyaneshwar was released at the Carnegie Theatre in New York.   


A need for diversification was felt since the Studio was gaining national significance. Sant Tukaram was directed by the duo Damle-Fattelal after Dhaiber's miserable failure in the Rajput historical, Rajput Ramani (1935). Every partner's family member was trained in the technical fields of cinematography, editing, sound design and art direction to create a second league of personnel. After Shantaram's anti-slavery film Amarjyoti (1936), its writer K. Narayan Kale was given a chance to direct Wahan ('Beyond the Horizon', 1937), while Damle-Fattelal planned the anti-colonial mythological on Lord Krishna titled Gopal Krishna (1938). Kale's film about slavery, as the allied article by Pai argues, showed a romantic utopia which was only possible in an imagined land transcending the rigid conceptions of race, caste and gender hierarchies, where identities were located in subjectivities rather than feudal-tribal and coloniser-colonised relationships. Kale's film has no easy answers; rather it asked hard questions of the subjects about the ethics of their own actions in the light of the corruption of religious authority and the blatant opportunism of businessmen.


In his autobiographical social film, Mera Ladka (1938), Kale pushes the protagonist not towards a Gandhian spiritualist soul searching but to a quest to become a universal man as Tagore had imagined in his writings on Asian universalism (Bose 2013). He pushes the individualist ‘I' to the philosophical question of ‘self', propelling outwards in the world of disparities. The protagonist quits the pandherpeshi (petty bourgeois familial domesticity) to enter the real social world to translate his thought into action, as he cites Emerson, Marx, Gandhi and Tagore all in the same breath.


On the other hand, Shantaram was planning his social Kunku/Duniya Na Mane (1937), which brought in a fiery woman in a small town who is forced to marry an older man. Departing from the real incident from Sangli narrated in Narayan Hari Apte’s novel Na Patnari Gosht, she refuses to consummate the marriage, which leads to tension within the household. Immaculately lit with doses of German expressionist lighting at high points in the film, the film looks through the drawn curtains of middle-class households, which normally skirted issues of gender and patriarchy. Instead of resorting to cardboard sets, which were mobile and could be broken down for purposes of shooting, Shantaram used real brick and mortar to evoke the ‘real' sounds of a household and their inflection in real-life settings. By the end of the film, the ageing man realises his mistake and goes into complete delirium, and his young wife also starts to lose her mind after he blesses her and leaves. What stays with us are the everyday sounds of tinkering in the film, which drive the entire narrative. The shaking hands of the old man while he slurps chai, an occasional passerby asking him to ‘Watch where he goes!’, the screechy call of the arrival of the man who shines utensils (kalihiwala, a metaphor for superficial, external cleansing) and a barber who colours hair, the resonating sounds of an empty vessel falling, the call of the koel, and even the rattling of the door as the young woman refuses to give in, all mean that Kunku remains a master soundscape of locked-up minds and entangled hearts.


Focusing more on the cosmopolitan life of Bombay Presidency in Manoos/Aadmi (1939), Shantaram sharpened his own regional accent by making claims for the region's idea of realism and authenticity as a right in the game of nation-building. He focuses on star-crossed lovers—a constable and a sex worker, who fall in love but are kept apart by social opprobrium. Cheekily hinting at classically inclined film texts like P.C. Barua’s Devdas (1935), and questioning the romanticism of Bombay Talkies Studios' Achoot Kanya (1936), there is a scene where the lovers arrive at the scene of a film shoot in the constable's village. The lovers portrayed in the film-within-the-film have a naïve form of love, not the kind the protagonist have for each other. Shantaram was poking at the producer-director Himanshu Rai, by casting Vasant Tengdi as the incessantly smoking director, a look-alike of Rai, the owner of Bombay Talkies. To further the region–nation articulation, we see Kesar, the sex worker singing to her customers—a Gujarati, a Parsi, a Muslim, a Punjabi, a Tamilian and a Bengali. She sings one paragraph for each one of them in their own language. At the end of the song ‘Ab kis liye kal ki baat’, her happy customers gather around her dancing in the centre of the frame, asking why we should think of tomorrow as the present is slipping away from our hands. Every ‘region' wanted a piece of her, which she gave with a smile on her face and tears trickling from her ossified eyes.


Two trajectories which were seemingly oppositional came together in Kale and Shantaram's work in this phase. Kale was a Fabian socialist who spoke of collectivity, people and the societal oppression of the subaltern in an Internationalist sense, while Shantaram attempted to weave narratives of the lives of cosmopolitan individuals pulled by moral pressures in different directions. The Interwar period, as Raza, Roy and Zachariah argue, brought these moral and political polarities together. It was in a nutshell an envisioning of the societies that people could create before the modern nation-state was crystallised in South Asia (Raza, Roy and Zachariah 2015). Thus, in the Prabhat films of this phase (1936–41) we see a whole range of polyvalent concerns. In Damle-Fattelal we see local identity often gathering towards a ‘national’ collective consciousness aligned against colonial rule; in Kale, the restless characters are desperate not only for political freedom but psychological freedom as well; in Shantaram’s films, young and old, individuals and little communities, seek to communicate with the existing tyrannical order. Eventually, all these characters deny the authority of the order and move towards their own meanings of freedom.


After this film, Prabhat wanted to expand further, and so they started getting Bombay-based actors to work with those contracted to work in-house. Mazhar Khan and Anees Khatoon were called for the Hindi version of the bilingual Shejari/Padosi (1941). This film tried to highlight communal harmony in the times of communal riots, which were increasing by the day in Bombay Presidency. The Hindu and Muslim protagonists play chess every day. The Hindu chants Tulsidas' Ramcharit Manas (and a Marathi version) and the Muslim silently does his namaz as they live merrily together. Ira Bhaskar, in her analysis of the Prabhat films, notes that apart from anti-colonial resistance, the project was also to establish little imagined communities (Bhaskar 2009). Thus, Milanpur becomes a symbolic story of any Hindu and Muslim, where typological characteristics make them representative of harmony amidst violent developments such as linguistic nationalism, assertion of community identity, and the territorial boundaries of the nation. The Hindu thakur loses his job at the dam, thanks to the perilous designs of Pisal (the local political fixer) and Onkar (a capitalist in the making). By locating the villainy in Pisal's ritualism and Onkar's opportunism, Prabhat films start sending alarm signals to the ‘nation-to-be' and the agents of moral corrosion and the majoritarian divisive politics which would plague the nation and create the pangs of Partition.


Prabhat's way of shooting bilinguals brings to fore the problem at the heart of conceiving a film on paper and its realisation on screen. First they would write the script keeping a Marathi ethos and setting. Then they got Pandit Narottam Vyas, Munshi Aziz, Pandit Anuj, Pandit Sudarshan among others to write the Hindi version for the same. They shot the film with these writers guiding the actors on pronunciation. First the Marathi sequence was shot and then the props, costume, make-up were slightly altered unless there were different actors for the Hindi and Marathi versions of the film. Usually, the main cast remained the same. After the Hindi scene was shot, to maintain the actors' motivation, they would shoot the next Hindi scene first and then the Marathi scene.


The lag in the conception and simultaneity in the execution of a production of the film apart from its life or after-life in the public imaginary makes the nature of bilinguals create tension within the region–nation binary. Here, while looking at the question of conceiving in different languages in filmmaking practices, we can discern that one being the mother tongue and the other an attempt to reach out to a wider audience beyond one's linguistically bounded cultural territory, one runs the risk of untranslatability. This untranslatability is perhaps the only cultural translation possible. As the visual language is culturally specific in its coding, and the spoken word itself cannot be understood by everyone, the untranslatability of the content is visually shot, edited and musically arranged to arrive at a formal coherence between the two films. A question still remains: are these two different films or are they the same? Rajadhyaksha and Willemen note a problem for film history when it came to the cataloguing of multilingual films: 'It becomes extremely difficult to distinguish multilinguals in this original sense from dubbed versions, remakes, reissues or, in some cases, the same film listed with different titles, presented as separate versions in different languages (1999:13).'   


More importantly, when a studio and its films become representative of the region-nation, the very untranslatability of the region into nation and the other way around is precisely the hindrance leading to a tension between ideas of cultural nationalism, regional accent, varying politics of individual filmmakers and the emblem of the studio. The following examples demonstrate the attempts to translate ideological positions into coherent and uniform visual and aural expressions. Shejari takes up ‘Shrimanchi Ayodhyanagari’ in the Marathi version and ‘Avadhpuri’ in Hindi which are similar in tune, lyrics and arrangement, but Ramshastri’s song about ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ and the image of the protector of law rooted in the Peshwa context and reign does not literally translate the thought of ‘Maharashtra Dharma’, as ‘Sansar’ (world) is the word used, instead of ‘Hindustan or Bharat’.



Factions and Fictions: From the Shantaram Pond to the Wisdom Tree

Section 20 of the partnership agreement amongst the active, creative partners—Shantaram, Dhaiber, Fattelal and Damle—ensured that no partnership could be passed on through lineage. All the progeny had to earn their chance to make a film after serving as apprentices, and when the partners thought it fit to allow them to make a film. Another clause which became a problem was the fact that no partner was allowed to have any relationship with any actress working under contract for the studio. To keep the unity of the collective intact, Baburao Pendharkar had put in a clause that all the partners would serve Prabhat all their lives and any profit gained from outside sources would be pooled into Prabhat productions or equally shared. All three clauses were broken because of reasons which were personal, collective, political and social, and ultimately affected the regional accent that Prabhat had maintained for 12 years since its inception. 


In the third phase, Prabhat productions started looking like any other Bombay production. The Studio mostly made social films apart from one historical Ramshastri (1944) and two female saint films, Sant Sakhu (1941) and Sant Janabai (1949). A cursory look at the film posters of the 1940s shows the protagonists looking towards new horizons, and unemployed youth and city women caught in the bounds of domesticity. Prabhat faced impositions from varying quarters like the British mandate to make films with Indian content showing alignment with pro-British positions in world politics, to crushing taxes in the case of Lakharani (1945), and film stock rationing, since Germany and Japan had the best film stocks in the world. On the local level, other Marathi production houses were producing ideological arguments against one another. For instance, Master Winayak questioned parochial forms of nationalism with exclusivist tendencies in Brandichi Batli (1938) and Brahmachari (1936), and Bhalji Pendharkar, who catered to the celebratory rhetoric of Hinduism gaining importance. Internally, inside the studio, Shantaram's intimacy with the Marathi actress Jayshri was questioned. In turn, he fired Damle's relative Raja Nene and two others. They were immediately reinstated. An expansion plan was proposed by one Seth Walchandseth on the same site as Prabhat Studios. Prabhat partners opposed this plan and Shantaram was given an offer to work for the Information Films India (later to be called the Films Division in Independent India). Legally he was bound to share the profits with the partners. All these events led to Shantaram leaving the studio. Damle was bedridden with a heart condition. There was no one to fill the administrative anchor position. The entry of newer personnel from Bombay at this point led to the eventual downfall of the studio.


Nai Kahani (1941) by D.D. Kashyap shows three men: a simple village man, a mentally unstable singer locked up in an obscure temple and a college graduate, who try to woo a city-bred well educated girl. The story was written by K.A. Abbas, and tried to draw a connection between the ever-changing cityscape and the sombre village life. Chand (1945), another film by Kashyap, is a love story between a street singer from Lahore and a well-known stock investor's daughter after his arrival in Bombay. The film takes off from the urban working classes running away from Bombay to their hometown since it was rumoured that the Japanese were going to launch an air attack on Bombay. Chance encounters, miscommunication, the lost-and-found genre had by then become a staple for Hindi formulaic films. A similar situation was found in the case of ironically titled films, Seedha Rasta and Apradhi (both in 1948), which brought the suffering woman's weeping melodramas into Prabhat. Even as the third league of Prabhat failed to deliver in Daha Wajta/Dus Baje (1941) and Aage Badho (1947), caught between the national question and failure in depicting romantic love, films like Hum Ek Hain (1947) made during the peak of the Independence struggle urged the need to protect the rights of various communities on egalitarian grounds.


The three films which have some trace of the earlier Prabhat had their feet solidly rooted in Marathi culture. Sant Sakhu and Sant Janabai, which dealt with the bodily and affective dimension of a devotee's yearning for her God. Both women imagine Vithhal/Krishna in a young, masculine form. God takes their place in a household when their everyday mundane chores become abrasive to their Bhakti. Ramshastri took four years to make, saw four directors fight for creative space, and required such grand sets that three were made with smaller production values (Chand, Nai Kahani, Das Baje). When the lead actor and one of the directors, Gajanan Jagirdar, saw the film in Lahore, there was no credit given to any one director. This was at the juncture of the development of a rift between the partners. Fattelal, the only Muslim partner, was along with Damle going to direct Ramshastri and had playfully accepted Shantaram's challenge since Shantaram was going to make Omar Khayyam, which was never made. It is ironic that the making of a film which spoke of justice through the Peshwa court’s judge striving to give justice to all including the British and even a slave woman, had resulted in an unequal and chaotic division of labour in the studio, which led Shantaram to leave the studio.


Rikhab Das Jain’s book on the economy of the Indian film industry notes the tension between the recognition of filmmaking as a cultural institution and as an industry in the hands of private players (Jain 1961). All through the 1930s and 40s, the words ‘private concern’ led to formations of little groups in cinematic practices. By the end of the 1950s, the question of the nationalisation of cinema came about in the Report of Film Enquiry Committee (1951) formed by the Indian nation-state. The committee resisted nationalisation since they thought it would curb the individual artistic expression of the maker. Jain used the concept of localisation of the industry as it was not possible for every production company to establish a studio, other than a port-based location (viz. Bombay, Madras and Calcutta) which had an extremely high cost of living for the labour in the film industry.


Interestingly, after Prabhat was liquidated as it could not keep up with the changing scenario of the industry, it was sold to Kelkar perfume makers. His attempts to rent out the studio were in vain. Finally, he sold the studio to the Indian state for building the national film school called the Film Institute of India (later rechristened Film and Television Institute of India). While other studios of the time perished, Prabhat led its afterlife through the FTII. The students of FTII have made films (Prabhat Nagari Vol. 1, Prabhat Pheri and Maneesha 1941) on the spectral memory of the Prabhat personnel whispering slowly in their ears, as if assisting them with minor tweaks in their own student productions.


Prabhat had a host of personnel working with new technological machinery, learning and cultivating their craft as a collective at the beginning, then as family business, and finally succumbing to the requirements of the Bombay industry. Even then, the films show continuous struggle and collaboration where the concerns were polyvalent as the personnel worked around the questions of a cultural nationalist framework. From the industrial to the artisanal, from the individual to the collective, from the micro to the macro—today, the Prabhat studio space has transformed into the national film school. A resilience can be seen when FTII students strive to maintain a space of creative freedom, traditional methods of pedagogy in learning cinema and the imbibed spirit of the Prabhat-FTII space, where dissenting voices still echo, rework and retell a given imagery. In Prabhat Nagari vol. 1, a Prabhat worker visits the studio in the present day and says, 'This rain will erase all our memories, the sounds of the past will linger on.'       



Bhaskar, Ira. 1998. ‘Allegory, Nationalism and Cultural Change in Indian Cinema: Sant Tukaram’, Literature and Theology 12.1:50–69.


———. 2009. ‘Shejari/ Padosi’ in The Cinema of India. ed. Lalitha Gopalan, pp. 36–45. London: Wallflower Press.


Bose, Sugata. 2013. 'Rabindranath Tagore and Asian Universalism'. Online at…;(viewed on July 20, 2016).


Dhaiber, Keshavrao. 1968. Eka Zindagichi Patkatha. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.


Jaikumar, Priya. 2006. Cinema at the End of the Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Jain, Rikhab Dass. 1961. The Economic Aspects of the Film Industry in India. Delhi: Atma Ram and Sons.


Kapse, Anupama. 2009. 'The Moving Image: Melodrama and Early Cinema 1913–39'. Unpublished PhD. Thesis, University of California, Berkeley.


Mandare, Chandrakant. 1999. Gaatha Marathi Chitrapat Srushtichi. Pune: Indrayani Sahitya Prakashan.


Painter, Baburao. 1990. Kalamaharishi: Baburao Painter. Mumbai: Jagatik Marathi Parishad.


Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. 1987. ‘The Phalke Era: The Conflict of Traditional Form and Modern Technology’, Journal of Arts and Ideas 14.15:47–78.


Rajadhyaksha, Ashish, and Paul Willemein. 1999. Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Raza, Ali, Franziska Roy and Benjamin Zachariah, eds. 2015. The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds, and World Views, 1917–39. London and New York: Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd.