Savkari Pash – 1925
Recalling a forgotten film made in two versions, both silent and talkie, which were considered outstanding in presenting the tragic side of rural existence and attaining a high degree of realism.
It is the now completely lost film “Savkari Pash” of pioneer director Baburao Painter, first made in the silent era (1925) under his own banner Maharashtra Film Company and later remade by him in 1936 as a Marathi talkie for Shalini Cinetone, which was also situated in Kolhapur like the first company.
In an era dominated by mythological/historical films, Baburao wagered everything to make what can be described as India’s first social film. Based on the celebrated novel by Narayan Hari Apte and given the poverty infused rural atmosphere, Painter cast according to character and had actors playing the roles in tattered clothes and without makeup, another first. However, the extreme attention to detail and the technical finesse was of gold class standard.
“Savkari Pash”, which literally means the moneylender’s clutches, was the earliest film to draw attention to the plight of the illiterate and helpless peasant, hopelessly indebted to the shrewd moneylender, who takes full advantage of the situation to deprive the poor farmer of all his belongings, including his precious land. The silent version had “Indian Shylock” as its English name, which correctly described the villain of the piece. The young farmer was played by V. Shantaram, who was then cutting his teeth as a technical apprentice with Maharashtra Film Company under Painter’s tutelage.
The silent film had the regional slant of a Marathi film, as the story was located in a small village of Maharashtra with all its typical characters and traditions. That is why, perhaps, Painter did not think it fit to re-make the film in Hindi. It would have lost its realism, just as some of today’s new film makers prefer to make certain subjects only in regional tongues. This is an indirect tribute to Painter’s sense of realism in that period, apart from his efforts to make the film on real village locales and in a stark, grim style.
The film’s purpose was to bring into focus the Indian farmer’s illiteracy which drove him to become a pawn in the hands of the sharks, who manipulated the account books to fleece and ruin him. When the farmer’s young son (representing the new generation) fights against it, the moneylender uses all his powers to get him beaten and jailed. The land is annexed, the few possessions are auctioned and the old farmer, reduced to a labourer’s level, breathes his last, before he can see his son again.
The tragedy must have had its desired effect in bringing some awakening somewhere. Later on, laws were passed to protect the farmers from these cruel methods and provision made for easier credit facilities. Many of the later Indian films were inspired by Savkari Pash. In a way, Mehboob’s ‘Aurat’ and its re-make ‘Mother India’, Bimal Roy’s ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and some others dripping with realism seem to owe their plots to the same thematic idea which was given its first poignant treatment by Baburao Painter.
As J B H Wadia of Wadia Movietone recalled, “I faintly remember the silent Savkari Pash…But it was only when I saw the talkie version that I realized what a great creative artist he (Baburao) was. I go into a trance when I recollect the long shot of a dreary hut photographed in low-key, highlighted only by the howl of a dog.”