In this essay, film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha discusses major moments in the study of early Indian cinema, a history that is punctuated by fires both on the screen and off the screen. He grounds his essay in close readings of important scenes from silent cinema.
Fire and the Cinema
Like many film histories, India’s silent cinema inevitably intersects with stories of fire. When silent-cinema pioneer Dhundiraj Govind Phalke remade his debut film Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra, 1913), four years later, in 1917, it is widely assumed to have been because a fire had destroyed the original.
A century later, in 2013, when Phalke’s film was officially declared the moment when the “Indian” cinema was born, it would become a touchy question whether the crown jewel of the National Film Archive of India’s (NFAI) collection was indeed the 1913 original—or, in fact, a remake by its author and thus a copy or a kind of fake, albeit by its original maker. Missing in that controversy was, however, a second development: a more recent fire, on January 8, 2002, which may have destroyed around 1,700 nitrate prints, including the original print of whichever Raja Harishchandra was held in the NFAI.
Much of the popular news coverage of the 2002 fire claims that “all” of India’s silent cinema had been destroyed. This wasn’t, of course, untrue, and yet to most Indian film historians, it appeared to be a curious claim. We have grown up with the firm belief that almost nothing beyond the much-vaunted Phalke had survived of Indian silent cinema, and so there could not have been much to lose. The NFAI itself covertly furthered this belief, belittling the damage and claiming that everything had been transferred to acetate, that nothing of value had been lost. This was surely a dubious claim, and not just for the obvious reason that a copy can never compensate for the loss of an original. Long before the 2002 fire, Phalke’s films had been duplicated by the NFAI with the sound gate closed, which meant that around 20 percent of the left side of the screen was lost in the transfer. This problem was never solved and the 2002 fire now meant that it never would be. Further, in 1965, Satish Bahadur, venerable professor of film appreciation at the Film and Television Institute of India, had cannibalized all of Phalke’s short films into a single compilation, which he titled D. G. Phalke: The First Indian Filmmaker, using English and French intertitles, apparently for International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) conference he attended. None of the fragments Bahadur used, including clips such as How Films Are Made (1917), which shows Phalke editing, shooting, and instructing his actors, today exist other than in his compilation.
How Films Are Made/How They Live On
Phalke knew that he was making history with his first film, as he showed on February 13, 1928, when he uttered the famous words, “Yes, I began the Indian film industry in India in the year 1912” in response to a comment from the colonial government–appointed Indian Cinematograph Committee, “I suppose you began the film industry in this country.”
As we link the more overt process of “making history” with the silent cinema’s more covert, crustacean-like resilience— in refusing to die, in crawling out of disaster both natural and man-made—it is tempting to include another fire in the saga: the famous fire of the sage Vishwamitra, in Raja Harishchandra, which is almost a premonition of how Phalke’s cinema would survive in the decades to come. When the king, out on a hunt in all his regal glory, clashes with the spiritual universe of the sage Vishwamitra, who has trapped the “three powers” in a fire, it is hard not to see the “powers” of the cinema itself as trapped in the fire. Premonitions, or fantasy flash-forwards were, one adds in parenthesis, well-known to Phalke (see the famous scene of the evil Kamsa in his Shri Krishna Janma, 1918).
When, as historians, we try to reconnect the Indian cinema’s own history with the larger history of the twentieth century, which it necessarily captures, we inevitably face the difficulty of having to square cultural survivals on film with the quixotic saga of the actual survival of film. When in 1994 the 14th Giornate del Cinema Muto (aka Pordenone Silent Film Festival) showcased India, many historians were surprised to see what the NFAI had come up with. At least twenty-five silent films apparently existed, either fully or in fragments. Only eight of these were Phalke’s. They were a mere drop in an ocean (India made upwards of 1,300 silent films between 1913 and 1931) but they were surely something! But what did these bits and pieces add up to in the end?
It is in light of the sordid saga of the thrice-destroyed that we turn yet again, in the early twenty-first century, to the ravaged films. We do so now with some additional resources—and also the knowledge that these films are now in the public domain. They are available for research, using new digital platforms—such as the independent, noncommecial site Indiancine.ma—that provide for detailed viewing and annotation possibilities. With this we ask, certainly not for the first time, where we stand with regard to Indian silent–cinematic history.
Baburao Painter’s Own Survival
Resources like these allow us to address the several “non-Phalke” silents that have come into public view with, and shortly after, the 14th Giornate—especially and above all the two films of Baburao Painter (1890–1954) that were reconstructed by the FTII’s former cinematography professor K. P. R. Nair. Painter began his career a few years after Phalke, and so might not have been able to make the claim of having “started” anything. But as one of the leading painters of stage backdrops in western India, and later producer and director at the Maharashtra Film Company, he was almost certainly the bigger name of the two—and would have been a much more substantial presence but for the historical accident that none of his films had apparently survived.
Until now. Until, that is, the NFAI assembled in-house, under the supervision of the great K.P.R. Nair, Painter’s 1927 film Muraliwala. How Nair did it is, in and of itself, quite a story: it appears to have been with the lowest tech imaginable, literally a physical cleaning and frame-by-frame duplication—importantly, with the sound gate open, so that we have the complete frame—even as the original print fragmented in Nair’s hands, already lost, long before the 2002 fire.
In one way, Muraliwala is, of course, straightforwardly mythological, and indeed the resemblance to Phalke (the Kaliya sequence being almost a direct nod to Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan made nearly a decade earlier though not nearly as spectacular as its predecessor) permits Painter to be easily absorbed into the nationalist stream. But let’s pause for a moment. Painter has a social context that is certainly not Phalke’s: he is not Brahmin but comes instead from the low-caste carpenter community; he is, in the end a “technician.” Phalke had neither students nor disciples. Painter had both. His own work straddled technological skill and an aspiration toward artistic authorship, the mold for almost everything produced by what would later become one of India’s best-known film studios, the venerable Prabhat Film Company.
Painter’s leading student, future director and actor V. Shantaram, who made his debut in Muraliwala, would later embody his teacher’s legacy, in all its contradictions in terms of caste and otherwise, in a way that I lack space here to explore. Suffice it to say that the tension between fantasy (which, here, means special effects, dissolves, and trick scenes, which in turn bring in a lower-class artisanal skill and, of course, thrills for a “cheaper” class of audience) and realism (the gesture toward thematic interpretation, the literary legacy, and eventually nationalist purpose) would only grow as Maharashtra Company shaded into Prabhat.
Might we now read, as we read Painter’s curious rebirth in digital platforms a century later, some of this self-doubt, this doubt as it stands between the mesmerizing pyrotechnics of the little Krishna and the more adult responsibilities of conjugal relations—the tension between fantasy and realism—in Shantaram’s extraordinary performance as Raman in Muraliwala? What does a man do, we may ask within the full-blown subjective realism that such a performance permits, when his wife is so obsessed with a child? What does it mean when the child tells her that she must learn to look at him with the eye of wisdom?
Let us analyze the sequence. The children have just completed yet another of their endless pranks. A cut. Raman and Radha are together, sharing for the first time genuine conjugal happiness. But then the demon resurfaces; as the nightmare continues, Raman dissolves yet again into the child Krishna. The problem has not been solved. What happens thereafter we don’t know (though we can surely guess), for after some fairly intimate exchanges with the child, Radha falls into a dead faint. Raman reappears, and he and Krishna have a confrontation. Krishna waves an accusing finger at Raman before stalking off. Raman, now helplessly standing before the unconscious Radha, keeps fantasizing that Krishna is standing there, when suddenly there is a flash of lightning and thunder; Raman is blinded and falls down, as Krishna is seen descending down what seems to be a gigantic crevice.
Krishna is now in the throes of his epic and terminal battle with the snake-demon, from which he emerges vanquished—also having, presumably killed the demon, surely the very demon plaguing Radha’s life?
However we understand this extraordinary staging of the ethical dilemmas that precede the epic battle, it is surely unprecedented in Indian cinema. In fact, I know of little that has followed Muraliwala that so remarkably explores the ethics of the love story between Radha and Krishna. Certainly there is very much more than an incipient realism at work here: there is, precisely, the aspiration of a cinematic form to work out of its formal location—fantasy—and to arrive at a properly realist text. Is there (and I leave the question open in this brief blog-note) any possible historical connection we may now make in terms of how this film came to be, and then came to be before us, with the dilemmas of modernity that ravaged its protagonists at the time it had been conceived and made? Whatever the answer, the question at least directs us toward the sorts of dilemmas that await India’s silent-film historians once we have gotten our heads around all those fires, the lightning, and the thunder.
For a complete list of Indian silent films on Indiancine.ma, go here.