Dhiren Ganguly – Indian Screen Comedy’s Grandpa.
In the seventies, if you were one of those regular commuters occupying a window seat in a tramcar trundling along Chowringhee, you would not have missed seeing an old but agile dhoti-clad gentleman with a flowing beard trying to board the tram on the run. He would successfully jump on. The vigour and vitality notwithstanding, there was no doubt that the man was pushing 80. And then someone would invariably whisper, “Look, that is D. G.”
Travelling in crowded trams, meeting people and attending functions demonstrated a remarkable energy that Dhiren Ganguly retained in his octogenarian days. It was the same energy that drove D.G. – as he was more familiarly known, to pioneer the growth of the Bengali cinema.
Dhirendra Nath Ganguly was born on 26 March1893 in Calcutta. He studied at the University of Calcutta, then attended Santiniketan to pursue art studies under the already famous founder, Rabindranath Tagore in whose spirit he found perfect expression.
And yet it might seem rather strange that even D.G. had no idea of where this zeal would take him while he was learning painting and acting from Tagore. The two inclinations left his orthodox family quite displeased. But the association with the arts was an inalienable one, if not still very secure.
He published his book of photographs, Bhavki Abhivyakti (1915, Hindi and Bengali) where he assumed a number of amazing male and female disguises and proved his mastery over the technique of makeup. In one particular photo, he appears not only as an orator on the platform but he is each of the four members of the audience listening to the orator. His skill in creating disguises brought him in close contact with the imperialist police and he taught CID officers the art of camouflage.
The make-up lessons at the police station were the first indications that he could handle a variety of interesting characters in an entirely different medium. His interest in drawing induced him to visualize film plots by means of sketches and brought him in contact with the Madans.
When he received the call from J.F.Madan, the theatre magnate, D.G. was principal of the Nizam College of Arts in Hyderabad on what was then a princely salary of Rs.1,300 a month. But his inclination was by now irrevocably towards the cinema. His independent bent of mind made working for the Madans unsatisfactory and he soon left to form the Indo-British Film Company.
He made his first silent film ‘Bilet Pherat’ (England Returned, 1921) – only two years after the first Bengali feature ‘Bilwamangal’. The film faced resistance from the exhibition sector controlled by the Madans. Little did anybody expect that his pioneering spirit would extend to setting up a theatre in south Calcutta to counteract the monopoly that the Madans exercised.
The film was a satire which attacked those who had returned from England with a veneer of Anglo-Indian culture as well as conservative Hindu society which hesitated to accommodate these hybrids. The company made another two films, Yashoda Nandan and Sadhu aur Shaitan (1922).
If Phalke brought mythologicals, Ganguly introduced comedy to the Indian screen. Treating subjects closer to the times than Phalke, it’s inscrutable why Ganguly never really became the dominant film personality he was destined to be.
D.G.’s enormous contribution lay in bringing a professionalism and respectability to practically every department of film making in Tollygunge. He discovered that the story was weak and promptly appealed to Tagore and Saratchandra to allow their work to be filmed. He found actors amateurish and awkward in the new medium and swiftly cast himself in man of the leading roles. And when he found that Bengali cinema needed directors of real professional calibre, his search yielded such subsequently illustrious figures as Debaki Bose and Pramathesh Barua.
‘Lady Teacher’ (’22), ‘Marriage Tonic’, ‘Stepmother’ and ‘Chintamani’ (’23) marked the second phase of his film career under the banner of Lotus Film Company established with the patronage and benevolence of the Nizam. He established a studio and two cinema houses in Hyderabad. Unfortunately British Imperialists were pursuing a vigorously communalist policy and they instigated the Moplah Disturbances of 1921 in order to disrupt the unity forged by Gandhi and the Ali brothers under the Khilafat banner (1919-1923).
In 1924, Ganguly accepted for distribution a Bombay film titled, Razia Begum, the story of a famous Muslim queen of the Delhi sultanate who had fallen under the spell of an Abyssinian paramour, Yaqut. The Nizam, who was as much interested as the British in not allowing his Hindu and Muslim subjects to unite against him stopped its exhibition and expelled Ganguly overnight.
He returned to Calcutta and after several years of effort, formed the British Dominion Films (1929) which released ‘Flames of Flesh (1930) based on the legend of the famed beauty, Rani Padmini of Chittor and shot at Amber Palace, but the company collapsed with the advent of sound.
Another remarkable achievement lay in putting a stop to film producers scouting the red light areas for histrionic talent. His life’s aim was to give screen acting the respectability of any other profession by casting educated girls from the middle class. He couldn’t have made a more dramatic start in this mission.
Talking to a friend, he suggested half-seriously that he allow his wife to act in a film that D.G. was contemplating. The friend’s smile vanished as he scornfully retorted, “Why don’t you make your wife a star?” If D.G. had any hesitation about reforms beginning at home, it disappeared that very moment. A star was born – his wife Premika Devi. She starred opposite Debaki Bose whom D.G. introduced in ‘Flames of Flesh’ (1930). Encouraged by his wife’s easy transition from housewife to actress, he brought his daughter Monika into what was still considered a disreputable profession and her Shirley Temple looks won her instant popularity.
PC Barua, who was then a small partner in his folded venture, ultimately engaged him for Barua Pictures but soon both of them were enticed by B N Sircar to New Theatres.
D.G.’s work with the New Theatres set-up was more significant in that he cast a more critical look at society. The advent of sound helped him to experiment more freely with slapstick and satire. He revealed a genuine flair for comedy in such films as ‘Excuse Me Sir’ and ‘Mastuto Bhai’ (’34). But he revealed an even greater flair for discovering most of the talent on which the reputation of New Theatres rests. His stint with the East India Company yielded such films as ‘Night Bird’, ‘Love Factory’ and ‘Blood and Beauty’.
None of his admirers has been able to offer a convincing reason for his fascination for English titles. There is an even less compelling explanation for the general lack of enthusiasm, even in film circles, over D.G.’s pioneering role.
As expected with governmental tardiness, the Padma Bhushan (1974) and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1975) came rather late in the day. It was more tragic to hear of him struggling for a livelihood.
The West Bengal Government had offered him a pension and rent free quarters in a Government housing estate but that too came only during his last difficult years.
D.G. was last seen by many of his admirers at a miniature theater in March 1978 year during a special screening of a short film entitled ‘D.G. – Movie Pioneer’, made by a young director, Kalpana Lajmi.
He was 85 and his eyes had left him with only a blurred vision of the world. But physical weakness had not robbed him of a heart-warming cheerfulness and a vivid memory as he filled in gaps in the documentary.
When Dhirendranath Ganguly died on November 18, 1978, he left behind 49 films and a forgotten legacy to his credit.