TOP 12 – Building The Empire (Part 1)
“AND SILENCE ON THE SET”: The Six Greatest Silent Era Studios; Keeping their memories alive.
1) Phalke Films – Hindustan Film Company, Nashik (1912- 37: Founder: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke)
Close to the demise of Phalke Films, five entrepreneurs approached Dadasaheb to start India’s first indigenous studio with corporate shareholding by merging the ailing Phalke Films with Hindustan Film Company. Pleased with idea where he could continue making films unhindered, he agreed.
Established in 1918 in Nasik, Maharashtra, Phalke made a few hits with them before the dream quickly soured, when the budget and schedule constraints of running a studio clashed with the creative urges of Phalke. He quit acrimoniously in 1919.
Unwilling to lose the goodwill of his name, Phalke was cajoled into rejoining as chief producer and technical advisor in 1921 and directed Sant Tukaram, one amongst the 43 films he directed under the banner.
With the arrival of the talkies, the company’s last film Setu Bandhan (1932) was post synchronized for sound but failed miserably. The studio downed its shutters in 1933 and after 20 years of pioneering work over a 100 films, Phalke who had catalyzed a market and put milestones for the benefit of others, embraced semi retirement.
Total Output: 93 Films.
Notable Films: Raja Harishchandra, Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) Lanka Dehan (1917), Shri Krishna Janam (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Setu Bandhan (1932).
2) Madan Theatres, Calcutta (1919-1937 – Founder: Jamshedji Framji Madan)
The first film conglomerate of silent Indian cinema had a humble beginning by showing Bioscope films in tents, eventually growing into a humongous corporation on the lines of Hollywood studios. In 1902, a Parsee businessman J F Madan made an outright purchase of two Bombay based theatrical companies, the Elphinstone and the Alfred including their entire repertoire of plays and their creative staff and moved to Calcutta.
Smelling a fragrant future, Madan moved from exhibiting in tents to create India’s First movie theater, Elphinstone in 1907. They entered into import, exhibition and distribution of Pathe films and tasted success in production with Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra (1917) and Bilwamangal (1919),the first Bengali feature film. By 1927, their distribution chain controlled 127 theaters (incl. Burma and Ceylon) and accounted for half of Undivided India’s box office receipts.
It was the first studio to have international joint productions with Italy and to buy the rights of Bankim Chandra and Tagore’s stories. Their Shirin Farhad narrowly missed being India’s first sound film beaten by Alam Ara by two weeks. The spoken word spelled its doom as well in late 1930’s.
It had on its rolls some of the best writers of that era: Aga Hashr Kashmiri, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Narayan Prasad Betaab.
Total Output: 86 Films.
Notable films: Bilwamangal (1919), Nala Damayanti (1921), Pati Bhakti (1922), Nur Jehan (1923), Shirin Farhad (1931), Indrasabha (1932 with 70 songs).
3) Maharashtra Film Company, Kolhapur. (1918-32 – Founder: Baburao Painter)
Baburao Painter drew backdrops for ‘natak mandalis’ when the filmic virus infected him. With an initial capital of Rs. 15,000 and a home-made camera, his friends persuaded Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur to donate some land and an electric generator to establish Maharashtra Film Company in 1918. Directing his own screenplays, he introduced a number of firsts: systematic shot division and story boards, publicity materials and attractive posters, artificial lighting and realistic, multi-dimensional sets and props instead of painted backgrounds.
Specializing in historical genre with a Maratha slant, Painter faced immense criticism when he forayed to make India’s first realistic, social film Savkari Pash dealing with the plight of farmers indebted to moneylenders.
Painter turned mentor and introduced V Shantaram (Netaji Palkar, 1927), Damle-Fatehlal (Maharathi Karna, 1928) and Bhalji Pendharkar (Rani Rupmati, 1931), the four who would forge Prabhat Studios later for a much greater pan Indian impact.
Believing that the ‘Talkies’ would destroy the visual culture so painfully evolved over the years; he preferred to shut down the studio in 1932.
Total Output – 28 Films.
Notable films: Sairandhari 1920, Sinhagad 1923, Kalyan Khazina 1924, Shahala Shah, Rana Hamir, Savkari Pash (all 1925)
4) Kohinoor Studios, Bombay (1918 – 1932. Founder: Dwarkadas N Sampat)
Famous for having a tiger as a pet, movie patriarch Dwarkadas Sampat was among the early pioneers who helped in great measure to make Indian films a commercially viable business proposition.
Joining hands as a financing partner with another pioneer in 1917, Dwarkadas helped S.N.Patankar to produce three pictures under his banner of Patankar Friends and Company – one of which was the unsuccessful serial in 32 reels – Ram Vanvas (1918).
When differences arose between the partners on the question of engaging ladies for female roles, the adventurous Sampat established a major open-air studio situated at the junction of Dadar Main Road and Naigaum Cross Road, Bombay in 1918.
Kohinoor became the training ground for many later luminaries; future stars Sulochana, Zubeida, Fatima and directors Homi Master, Chandulal Shah, Nandlal Jaswantlal, V.M.Vyas and Mohan Bhavnani. Sampat introduced “professionalism” into film making with dedicated departments and effectively elevated Bombay as the premier center of film production in India.
It scored a prodigious output of almost 10 films a year during the 1920’s, primarily due to the India’s highest paid screen writer of the time, Mohanlal Dave on its staff.
Entirely rebuilt after a fire destroyed it in 1923, the coming of sound finally sounded its death knell.
Total Output: 98 films.
Notable films: Bhakta Vidur (banned for a Gandhi lookalike protagonist), Sati Anusuya (first female nude shot in Indian cinema) (1921), Gul e Bakavali, Kala Naag (1924), Handsome Blackguard, Lanka ni Ladi (1925), Telephone Girl (1926), Bhaneli Bhamini (1927).
5) Sharda Film Company, Bombay (1925 – 32. Founders – Bhogilal Dave and Nanabhai Desai)
Bhogilal Dave was appointed the manager of Hindustan Film Company distribution office in Bombay. Attracted by the growing popularity of films, young and ambitious Bhogilal turned to the West, graduating in Cinematography from the New York Institute of Photography – the first in India.
He returned after two years and worked at Star Films with Ardeshir M.lrani and at Saraswati Films with Nanabhai Desai, photographing almost a dozen films, mostly mythologicals abounding in trick photography. In 1925 along with Nanabhai, he formed the famous Sharda Film Company.
Sharda’s first historical picture Bajirao Mastani (1925), directed by Bhalji Pendharkar, had a handsome lad working as an extra and had earlier acted as dancing girl for Kalyaan Khajina (1924). Spotting his fighting skills, Nanabhai was struck by an idea.
Taking a cue from the Thief of Baghdad, featuring Douglas Fairbanks, a worldwide hit, they planned a similar action-packed story. Giving the young lad the role of the hero, Master Vithal was advertised as ‘Indian Douglas’, catapulting him to stardom and making Sharda the cradle of the stunt film genre.
Dave’s superb trick photography combined with Arabian Nights inspired mise en scene and rapid editing, these action pictures were a tremendous success at the box-office.
With the advent of the talkies, Bhogilal once again went abroad to learn sound recording and purchase the required machinery. However on his return, due to his indifferent health, Sharda did not shine bright in the talkie era.
Total Output – 87 films.
Notable Films: Bajirao Mastani (1925), Suvarna Kamal (1926), Kala Pahaad (1927), Raj Tarang (1928), Mirza Sahibaan (1929), Bhadi Rajkumar (1932).
6) Krishna Film Company, Bombay (1924-34. Founder: Maneklal B Patel)
Maneklal’s first contact with films was through exhibition. As a partner in Ahmedabad’s Cinema-de-France, he wanted to gain first-hand knowledge of the growing popularity of Indian films. He joined hands with Dwarkadas Sampat as partner in newly-formed Kohinoor Film Company and studied every branch of the still nascent subject of film making.
After a blaze destroyed most of the negatives at Kohinoor, Maneklal parted company with Dwarkadas in 1923. The partnership dissolution deed stipulated that Maneklal would quit the company with whatever prints of Kohinoor pictures were saved from the fire. Getting damaged prints unfit for screening he came up with an answer and started the Shrikrishna Laboratories to make dupes of the print.
And to supply continuous material to the laboratory, he set up the Shrikrishna Film Company in 1924. Having learnt mass production he produced films in quick succession and directed his first mythological picture Krishnakumar (1925).
Fully aware that variety is the spice of show-business, Maneklal drew on stories by many different writers like C.M.Luhar, Satyendra Prasad, Girijashanker Joshi and also two stories of the renowned politician/writer K M Munshi, the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.
To ensure permanent outlet for his pictures in Bombay, Maneklal took over Dubhash Theatre in 1926 and named it the Krishna Cinema.
He even produced a serial Hatim Tai (1929) which ran to 35891 feet in length and played in four consecutive installments.
Maneklal entered the talkie arena in 1930 and produced 10 films till 1934, after which he suspended production.
Total output: 66 films.
Notable films: Hothal Padmini (1925), Khubsurat Bala (1926), At the Clang of Fetters (1927) Tarunina Tarang (1928), Sanmitra Ke Shaitan (1929), Jai Somnath (1929), Kono Wak/Whose Fault (1929).