The ‘Epic’ Story of Indian cinema: Moving Beyond Hindi Films & Finding Aravindhan!

The ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ celebrations that are happening across the country is something that we at TCRC wholly welcome, notwithstanding the fact that a vast majority of them seem to interpret it as ‘100 years of Hindi cinema.’ Thankfully, there are voices out there calling for balance and recognition of the other film industries in the country as well. And among such calls, we found Salil Tripathi’s piece for Mint most refreshing.

He starts off by speaking about the influence of our epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, on our cinema:

Indian cinema has always been utterly reliant on the power of a narrative, and which narrative has greater richness than the Mahabharata? After all for Ved Vyas it is said, “Vyasochishtam jagat sarvam,” or whatever you find said in the universe, Vyas has said it before. It is that easy familiarity with the story—or what the critic Ashish Rajadhyaksha called the power of the epic, in his biography of Ritwik Ghatak—that makes Indian cinema so accessible to so many, in a country divided by everything—language, class, caste and faith—but united by the fascination for a good story.”

And then, he makes the argument that we’ve been parroting all along:

 I love Hindi films too, but you don’t honour a national phenomenon by glorifying only one-fifth of it.”

Salil’s roundup of noteworthy cinema from the South of the Vindhyas was particularly interesting:

Moving south, there is so much to admire in Kannada cinema: two of U.R. Ananthamurthy works stand out. Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha (1977) is about the outcasting of a pregnant widow. In Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s Samskara (1970), Girish Karnad’s Praneshacharya is a flawed progressive Brahmin who tries to do right, but succumbs to passion and is consumed by guilt. Karnad’s own Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978) was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.

Further south, in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (1981), the rat trap becomes the metaphor of the patriarchy of a closed society. His earlier film, Swayamvaram (1970), told the story of a young couple marrying against their parents’ wishes, moving to another town to start their life, and the inevitability of tragedy befalling them, and the determination of the young woman to cast her own lonely furrow. Another great film was G. Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), which showed the transformation of a village’s life, and its people’s relationships, with the arrival of electricity. And the sheer melody of K. Vishwanath’s Telugu classic Shankarabharanam (1979).”

It’s not everyday that one finds a mention of G Aravindhan in a feature-style story about Indian cinema. Hailing from Kottayam in Kerala, Aravindhan was a cartoonist who later became a filmmaker. His debut film “Uttarayanam” was released in 1974 and won the National Award for the Best Feature Film on the 25th Anniversary of India’s Independence. Said to be be one of his finest films, “Uttarayanam” was set against the Independence movement and spoke of the opportunism and hypocrisy that existed during the time. The film is considered to have a played a key role in shaping the parallel cinema movement in Kerala.

Given below is Shaji Karun’s documentary on Aravindhan. Shaji is a National Award-winning filmmaker who used to be Aravindhan’s cinematographer. Shaji’s debut film “Piravi” (1988) won the Caméra d’Or – Mention d’honneur at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and his 1994 film “Swaham” was the last competitive entry from India to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

25 Greatest Acting Performances in Indian Cinema: The Forbes List!

The Forbes India magazine recently put out a list of the 25 greatest acting performances in Indian cinema, 8 of which are performances in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil films.  Now, here at TCRC, we are always a little wary of lists such as these, fully aware that it’s incredibly hard to pick just 8 or 10 performances from over thousands of films made in the southern part of the country across the span of almost a century. But since this list is a part of their ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ set of features, we felt compelled to share this. Given below is an excerpt from the piece (click here to check out the entire list):

JV Somayajulu 
in Sankarabharanam (The Ornament of Shankara), 1980 
JV Somayajulu, an IAS officer in his 50s, plays a Carnatic musician, misunderstood for supporting the daughter of a prostitute, ignored by a society where classical music is in decline, and is being overtaken by pop music. It was a surprise hit. It opened to empty seats, gathered speed and, today, enjoys a cult status. Somayajulu played his part with such dignity and intensity that you can’t listen to any of its hugely popular songs without imagining him performing them as his sadhana.

JV Somayajulu in "Sankarabharanam" (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

JV Somayajulu in “Sankarabharanam” (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

“Sankarabharanam” turned out to be a cult film as far as Telugu cinema was concerned, after getting off to a slow start in the box office. Directed by K Vishwanath, the film is remembered for its music, scored by KV Mahadevan. The film was shot by cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra, who later made “Moondram Pirai” with Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (“Sadma” in Hindi). The director of “Sankarabharanam,” K Vishwanath, went on to narrate yet another story revolving around an art form (classical dance) in “Saagara Sangamam” (“Salangai Oli” in Tamil). The film featured Kamal Hassan and Jayaprada in career-defining roles and like “Sankarabharanam,” it is said to be a musical success, with tunes composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

Sir Richard Attenborough on working with Satyajit Ray in “Shatranj Ke Khilari”: Old DD Bangla interview

Today is master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s 92nd birthday and Google’s paid a lovely tribute through a doodle based on his film “Pather Panchali.” For those who missed it, here’s what the doodle is all about:

Google doodle on the occasion of Satyajit Ray’s 92nd birthday (2nd May 2013).

We at TCRC also chanced upon a YouTube video of an old show on DD Bangla where Sir Richard Attenborough, director of “Gandhi,” talks about the experience of working with Ray on “Shatranj Ke Khilari.” The film, released in 1977, was based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name and was narrated by  Amitabh Bachchan. The cast included actors such as Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Amjad Khan, Richard Attenborough, Victor Banerjee, Farooq Shaikh and Tom Alter. Do look out for Sir Attenborough’s views on cinema as an art form and Ray’s soundbites!

RARE: Raj Kapoor’s “Mera Naam Joker” sweetbox made for Russia!

In 1970, the world witnessed the release of Raj Kapoor’s maganum opus “Mera Naam Joker,” a 255-minute spectacle about a clown who makes the everyone laugh, but cries within. This Chaplinesque saga was made over a period of six years and had Raj Kapoor investing large amounts of his personal fortune in order to complete the movie. However, it was a disaster at the box-office, causing great monetary loss to Raj Kapoor. In the years that followed, however, the film garnered critical acclaim and is considered to be a milestone in Hindi cinema, today.

It was distributed under the RK Films banner and the star cast included Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Simi Garewal, Dharmendra, Padmini, Rajendra Kumar, and Dara Singh. The music was scored by the duo Shankar Jaikishan. The film also marked the debut of Rishi Kapoor and was shot on location in India and Russia.

The Russian Embassy in India, in its post on Bollywood in Russia, states (click here to read the entire post):

In Mera Naam Joker (My Name is Joker, 1970) Raj Kapoor presented the prowess of Russian circus and ballet. The protagonist, Raju, falls in love with the visiting trapeze artist Marina, played by Kseniya Ryabinkina. Raju and Marina get close despite the language barrier. The brief affair ends with heartbreak as Marina returns home with her troupe. Ryabinkina’s role was reprised in Chintuji (2009) a movie based on the life of Raj Kapoor’s son and actor Rishi Kapoor. Marina returns to India after 40 years and visits the site where their circus had performed. She meets Raju’s son, a part which Rishi Kapoor had debuted with.

Today, we at TCRC bring to you a sweetbox made by JB Mangharam & Co in Gwalior for the Russian release of “Mera Naam Joker.” Notice the markings in Hindi, English and Russia. Called the “Joker Assortment,” the box is a favourite of ours at the archive here!

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

“Elphinstone Elphinstone Everywhere”: The story of Elphinstone Theatre in Madras, the first with a balcony!

The Indian Express carried a PTI (Press Trust of India) story yesterday about tent cinemas returning to Delhi as a part of the ongoing “100 years of cinema” celebrations. We found a couple of paragraphs at the end of the story rather interesting (click here to read the entire piece):

In India, among the pioneers of tent cinema, the most important name is that of J F Madan, a Parsi businessman who started ‘Elphinstone Bioscope Company’ in early 20th century in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and would do tent shows in the Maidan there. He later started the cinema halls by the name of ‘Elphinstone Picture Palaces’.

His ‘Elphinstone’ was also one of the few Indian companies, among other European production houses, which filmed the historic 1911 Delhi Durbar attended by King George V and Queen Mary.

His legend has survived today in the form of various ‘Elphinstone’ theatres spread across India.”

Now, we were aware that a New Elphinstone Theatre was operational up till sometime in the 1970s, off Mount Road. So, we did some searching and it turns out that there was indeed an Elphinstone in Madras as well. Manish Raj, writing for the Times of India, mentions the cinema hall in his piece of theatres in Madras of the yore (click here to read his entire story):

New Elphinstone Theatre in 1916 was inaugurated by the governor general of Madras and it was one of the first theatres in India to raise funds for the World War I through its shows. It housed the most unusual indoor sport — a boxing ring where amateurs sparred. When the film bubble burst, it later became Elphinstone Soda fountain, which sold beverages.

Given that there was a New Elphinstone, we realised that an Old Elphinstone had to be a part of this history. Historian S Muthiah, in his lovely piece titled “Cinema at Round Tana”, fills the gaps:

A New Elphinstone meant there had to be an old Elphinstone – and there was one, rooted in almost the beginnings of cinema-screening in Madras. The Elphinstone was located across Round Tana from the New Elphinstone on the site of Misquith Building, just west of the old Hindu building at the junction of Ellis Road and Wallajah Road. (Wallace) Misquith & Co., established in 1842 built itself a magnificent brick-exposed Indo-Saracenic building to house on the ground floor its showroom for musical instruments and, on the first floor, music salons which could be rented by the hour for anyone wanting to play any instrument.In time, Misquith’s’ became Musee Musicals and moved further down Mount Road, but in its heyday it housed the Lyric, a hall of entertainment that a man named Cohen established on the first floor when he took over Misquith’s in 1907.

In 1913, the Lyric began screening films, calling itself the Empire Cinema, but a fire in March 1914 closed it down. Later that year, J F Madan of Calcutta, owner of India’s biggest cinema chain at the time, took over the Empire and renamed it with that of his flagship, the Elphinstone. In 1915, Madan bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the biggest and the first with a balcony in Madras.

Given that Dadasaheb Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra,” the first feature length Indian film was released at around the same time that Empire Cinema was started (1913), we at TCRC were thrilled to find the various strands of our cinematic history crisscrossing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a single image or photographs of the Elphinstone Theatre and this only served to remind us of the importance of archiving  images of our cinemas’ golden past. Interested in helping this sort of archival effort? Volunteer at TCRC!

India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour: “Kisan Kanya” (Hindi, 1937)

In our post about Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director, we had mentioned Ardeshir Irani as the father of Indian talkie films, as he was involved with the making of both “Alam Ara” (the first Indian talkie) and “Kalidas” (the first Tamil talkie), both of which were released in 1931. In fact, “Kalidas” was made on the sets of “Alam Ara” by Ardeshir Irani’s former assistant HM Reddy.

It turns out that Ardeshir Irani has been responsible for other landmarks as well in India’s cinematic history. His production company, Imperial Pictures, backed “Kisan Kanya”, India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour. The movie, directed by Moti B Gidvani, was coloured using the Cinecolor process that was acquired from an American film by the producers Imperial Pictures. Given below is a still from the film:

"Kisan" | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

“Kisan Kanya” | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

The ‘indigenously-made’ tag comes into play thanks to other experiments with colour by pioneer V Shantaram, who co-founded the Prabhat Film Company. In 1933, he produced a Marathi film titled “Sairandhri,” which had some scenes shot in colour. But in the case of “Sairandhri,” the film was printed and processed in Germany, thereby allowing “Kisan Kanya” to be remembered as the first indigenously-made feature film in Hindi. “Kisan Kanya” is said to have had a run time of 137 minutes and its cast is reported to include actors such as Padmadevi, Jillo, Ghulam Mohammed, Nissar, Syed Ahmed, and Gani.

The story of Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director

While pulling out playback singer Shamshad Begum’s version of Katiya Karoon, we at TCRC realised that she was one of the earliest female playback singers in the Hindi film industry. This set us off on a search for India’s first woman film director and led us to this interesting piece on Fatma Begum, written by Rohit Vats for IBN Live as a part of their “100 years of Indian cinema” series. Here’s an excerpt from that piece (click here to read the entire story):

Born in an Urdu speaking family, Fatma Begum was related to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III. She was the mother of Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, who were popular actors of the silent era. She started working in films in 1922 after getting trained in plays. Fatma worked with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai before founding her own production company Fatma Films which was later rechristened as Victoria-Fatma Films. ‘Bulbul-E-Paristan’ that released in 1926, became the first Indian film to be directed by a female director. However, acting remained on her wish list and she continued to act till late 1930s.”

Ardeshir Irani, who Fatma worked with as an actor, incidentally is the father of Indian talkie films, having made both “Alam Ara” (in Hindi) and “Kalidas” (in Tamil, with songs in Telugu).

We also tried to find an image of Fatma Begum on the web. While we did come across few images, we couldn’t confirm the veracity of any of them. The Whistling Woods (a film school in Mumbai) blog, for instance,  features this picture:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Cineplot Enyclopedia, on the other hand, features this image:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Clearly different people, don’t you think? It is interesting (and worrisome) to note that the internet doesn’t  have a single undisputed image of the first woman director in one of the world’s largest film industries. On days like these, we at TCRC find renewed vigour in our attempt to archive cinema-related artifacts. Have you found other such examples with respect to information about the early days of cinema? Do share them with us by writing to tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.

Shamshad Begum & The Original ‘Katiya Karoon’!

We at TCRC were deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Shamshad Begum, one of the earliest playback singers in the Hindi film industry. She was 94, only half a dozen years younger than Indian cinema itself (if we go by the release of “Raja Hairshchandra” as the beginning). Along the way, Shamshad Begum has given us some of the most evergreen melodies in Indian film music, including hits such as “Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar” and “Kajra Mohabbatwala” for composer OP Nayyar, and “Mera Piya  Gaye Rangoon” for music director C Ramanchandra.

Shamshad Begum. Photo Courtesy: Hindustan Times

A Padma Bhushan awardee, Shamshad (which means “graceful” in Persian) Begum recorded her first song, a Punjabi number, in the 1930s. And it is another Punjabi number that we at TCRC are bringing to you today, as a tribute to this doyenne. In the 1963-released, black-and-white Punjabi movie “Pind Di Kurhi” directed by Baldev R Jhingan, Shamshad Begum had sung a version of “Katiya Karoon,” the folk number which was recently adapted in Imitiaz Ali’s “Rockstar” starring Ranbir Kapoor. While the new “Katiya Karoon” was composed by AR Rahman, the original version delivered by Shamshad Begum was composed by Hansraj Behl and was picturized on actress Nishi. Watch and enjoy!

Dibakar Banerjee: Discovering “good” international cinema through a search for porn!

We at TCRC are always looking for fabulous written material on films and their makers, and it is during one such search that we found Jai Arjun Singh‘s absolutely delightful piece on Dibakar Banerjee, the director of films such as “Khosla Ka Ghosla,” “Oye Lucky Lucky Oye,” “Love, Sex Aur Dhokha” and “Shanghai.” All too often, we find directors giving interviews about their latest film and such interviews invariably end up including a couple of stock questions about the process of writing and making films. But Jai Arjun’s story for The Caravan magazine focuses entirely on Dibakar Banerjee – the man, his influences and his creative process. Discursive and detailed, the piece builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional picture of the filmmaker who has made some truly path-breaking yet commercially successful films. Sample this:

For the young Dibakar, “getting his hands dirty” meant being part of a street-smart lifestyle that was far removed from the cliché of the armchair intellectual. And that early life is inseparable from what he is today. Even “good” international cinema came into his personal orbit through what was an adolescent’s rite of passage: at age 17, he and four friends rented what they thought would be a porn film called Confessions of a Taxi Driver to watch in a darkened room in Jhandewalan—and ended up with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver instead. “We closed the drapes, waited for the obligatory hardcore moment but nothing happened—and by the end, here were five guys from a typical Karol Bagh setting, riveted by what they were seeing.”

Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD)  |  Hindi  |  2010

Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) | Hindi | 2010

Truth be told, this profile of Dibakar Banerjee is easily one of the best (and longest) pieces of writing about a filmmaker that we’ve come across in the recent past (click on the image above to read the full story). We at TCRC would like to doff our hats in salute to both filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee and writer Jai Arjun Singh.

The incredible story of PK Nair, India’s most respected film archivist, has now been documented!

On the 3rd of May later this year, an anniversary of epic proportions will occur. For it was on that day in 1913, one hundred years ago, that “Raja Harishchandra”, the silent film produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke which is widely accepted as the first Indian full-length feature film, was released. In effect, the day marks the existence of one hundred years of Indian cinema. And what a glorious century it has been!

Of the many ways in which this anniversary is likely to be commemorated, we at TCRC are particularly excited about the release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s National Award-winning documentary “Celluloid Man” on 3rd May 2013. The film showcases the life and work of legendary Indian archivist and founder of National Film Archive of India (NFAI), PK Nair.  Given below is an excerpt from the film:

The film is said to feature interviews with many leading film personalities including including Krzysztof Zanussi, Lester James Peries, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua, Jaya Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Sitara Devi, Santosh Sivan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Mrinal Sen, all of whom share their reflections on the influence of PK Nair on the films that they watched and loved. In the 2012 National Film Awards, “Celluloid Man” won accolades for Best Editing and Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction.

PK Nair, now 80 years old, has meanwhile spoken about how the prints of films such as “Raja Harishchandra,” “Alam Ara,” etc are not available at all and has lamented the loss of many important films made before the 1950s (click here to read that whole story).

We at TCRC salute PK Nair, or Nair Saab as he is known, for his commitment to archiving the early days of Indian cinema. May his tribe only grow.