Early Decades of Indian Cinema and National Leaders

The intersection of cinema and the National Movement in the early decades of the 19th century is a fascinating chapter in modern Indian history. We ought to revisit the early 20th century to have a sense of the foundational dimensions of our films. What were the responses from some of the leading National Movement leaders to cinema?

The pioneers of cinema and their engagements with colonial rule influenced the cultural dimensions of Indian cinematic imagination. It is also noted that national leaders had debates and discussions in the public sphere, which contributed to film discourse.

Cinema has rapidly changed since 1947. The contours, concerns, discourses and directions that we have engaged with over the years were formed, shaped and unleashed between 1913 – when Dadasaheb Phalke unveiled the first Indian feature film Raja Harishchandra – and the 1930s, when our struggle for independence intensified.

By the time India won freedom, cinema had acquired the position of ‘the country’s most potent and versatile art form’, as underlined by Satyajit Ray in 1948. In January 1947, Baburao Patel, the legendary editor of Film India, candidly defined cinema as ‘art for the critics, entertainment for the filmgoers and business for the producers.’ If we mark 7 July 1896 as the date of cinema’s arrival in India, the achievements of Indian cinema under colonial rule during the 50 years before independence are remarkable.

For 15 years cinema became a great attraction after the first screenings at Watson’s. Imported reels were exhibited in halls, in homes and in tents round the country. But the most modern technical marvel of the West needed Phalke, a Sanskrit scholar trained in Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art and Baroda’s Kala Bhavan. In 1910, he watched Life of Christ and decided to make films depicting religious themes of the land. A grand journey had begun. Apart from Bombay, film production soon started in Kolhapur, Madras, Calcutta, and after a few years in Poona and Hyderabad.

This new fascinating medium overwhelmed the common masses. It found patronage in princely states, the nobility and wealthy businessmen.

The colonial masters were vigilant. They introduced the Indian Cinematograph Bill in September 1917, enacting it the following year. But it came into effect from 1 August 1920 when the boards of censors were set up in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta to assist Police Commissioners in censoring films.

Their anxieties are evident in a note written on 4 May 1914 by the then Director of Criminal Intelligence who opined that the ‘Government will have to control the class of shows because the public taste cannot be trusted.’ The British also wanted to expand the exhibition market for films made in Britain by limiting the import of American films which, to their judgment, degraded white women in the eyes of Indians.

Apart from mythological films, the silent era produced films based on popular stories of theatrical productions and adapted literary writings which focussed on social issues. The relation between cinema as an industry and the Government was more or less smooth. The one mega controversy was the ban on Bicharak (Sisir Bhaduri, 1928) based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore. The film was banned for its supposed low taste despite the fact that esteemed cultural elites like Tagore and Bhaduri (who was one of the most respected theatre directors of the era) were associated with the film.

Title card of ‘Natir Puja’, a film directed by Tagore

Tagore was perhaps the first iconic national personality who showed immense interest in cinema. He encouraged and helped new talents. He underlined the need to evolve cinema as an autonomous stream without depending much on literature and texts. He also embarked on some foreign collaborations that could not be completed for various factors.

Tagore directed a film called Natir Puja, based on his poem titled Pujarini in 1932. He recited his poem specially composed for the opening ceremony of Rupabani, a cinema hall in Calcutta, the same year. He attended the premiere show of Achhoot Kanya (Franz Osten, 1936) in March 1937, in Calcutta. He also gave a lecture at an international film conference in Canada in 1930. In 1926, he accepted a place at the grand council of the British Empire Film Institute in London, and, in an interview with one of its officers he underlined that it was seldom realised that the average Indian possessed a deep artistic consciousness, and that they would always respond to any elevated or spiritual film. Tagore lamented the fact that many of the films which were presumed to represent Indian Orientals actually misrepresented the life and manners of the East.

By 1930, the national movement entered into a phase of intense activity, and from 1931, Indian films started to speak in various languages. These developments changed every single aspect of Indian cinema. A strange but interesting relationship between the national leaders and the film industry emerged in this decade. The industry seriously aspired for a position in India’s cultural life. A press dedicated to cinema was already around since 1924.

In 1930, some newsreels featuring national leaders and their actions were banned; Daring Youth for displaying wheels and takli; a feature on Gandhi’s historic march; a film depicting the reception of Vithalbhai Patel in Bombay, immediately after his resignation from being the Legislative Assembly President; and a film on Jatin Das’s procession.

Despite all these problems, films featuring Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, and on Congress sessions were made; the first Tamil sound film Kalidasa (1931) had a song praising Gandhi.

In Calcutta, Chandidas (Devki Bose, 1932) heralded a profound devotional aesthetics and a ‘lyrical cinema’ tradition inspired from the Vaishnavite tradition. This tradition blended very well with the national movement and its ideals based on humanity, reforms and justice. This stream reached its zenith in Poona’s Prabhat Film Company productions like V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937), Padosi (1941), and VG Damle and Sheikh Fattelal’s Sant Tukaram (1936).

V Shantaram’s ‘Duniya Na Mane’, 1937

In 1937, the Congress swept the Madras Presidency general elections and ruled for two years till they resigned owing to Gandhi’s call for resignation. Many film and drama personalities had campaigned for the Congress. Censorship was almost removed and a series of patriotic films were made for those two years.

In Calcutta, B N Sircar of Calcutta’s New Theatres Ltd tried to get support of his close friend Subhash Chandra Bose for ‘indigenous cinema with a nationalist paradigm’; but Bose and other leaders did not focus on it. Their concerns were in politics.

Gandhi responded to a questionnaire sent by the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927. It stated that he had never been to a cinema. A Bombay daily asked for a message by him on the occasion of the 25th year of Indian cinema. His secretary replied that Gandhi had the least interest in cinema and a word of appreciation should be unexpected.

People associated with films kept engaging with leaders, emphasising their commitment to the greater goals of Indian culture, nationalism and the movement. Noted film journalist and film writer K A Abbas wrote Gandhi a letter in 1939 underling the importance of cinema and the changes that were taking place during those years.

In 1942, Film India published an interview of Rajaji on cinema. He was not happy with the superficial presentation of mythologies in cinema and also expressed his reservation on sensationalism and crudeness. He was more open, however, and hoped that the industry would learn from its experiences to come out with better and purposeful films. Rajaji said that he liked film journals that made fearless but constructive comments and opined that art criticism should be soft and encouraging. In his words: ‘The critic should remember that he is dealing with delicate texture.’

Sardar Patel was more candid on cinema. In an interview in 1942, he said that he believed in Gandhi’s opinion. But he also believed that films could be used for the National Movement and that there should be a policy related to entertainment that ought to be applied after independence. Around the same time, S Radhakrishnan added that we should retain our ancient ideals but that they must find parallels in the life of modern people. He asked the industry to focus on the everyday life of the people, their social and economic problems.

It must be mentioned here that there was a huge debate in the industry over the conditions of films and the future of cinema in India in the early decades after independence. There were concerns about its ills and its possible remedies. This phase is an important part of our cultural history we need to revisit.

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