Bring Back the Light of Asia – The Great Indian Film Hunt
The images in the NFAI collection reveal a lost world of Indian cinema before independence from Britain, at the dawn of film production in the subcontinent when the actors and creators of a new art form came, not from the Hindu majority, but from minorities: Parsis, Anglo Indians, Mumbai’s Jewish community, Muslims, and a blonde Amazon and circus performer from Australia who married into one of Mumbai’s first families of film.
Join the #GreatIndianFilmHunt and help me recover these valuable missing parts of our cultural heritage.
As P K Nair observes of the 3 surviving and almost-complete silent Indian films, they weren’t found at home but in collections abroad. This is a global hunt and I’d like to reach out to the South Asian diaspora and all film lovers everywhere. The ‘Most Wanted‘ list has drawn attention to British film treasures that were considered lost but many of which have been rediscovered as a result of the BFI’s list being publicised around the world. The BFI has announced recently that another film on the list has been found: George Pearson’s rags to riches silent classic ‘Love, Life and Laughter‘ has been discovered in the collection of Dutch film institute, EYE. Could the same thing happen for V Shantaram’s 1929 silent original of ‘Gopal Krishna‘? Or the 1936 Tamil and Telegu film ‘Balayogini‘ which was the first film to address the plight of widows, and starred the “Tamil Shirley Temple” Baby Saroja? What about the 1934 film ‘Mazdoor‘ which was among the first Indian films to portray working class lives?
Will future audiences get to see the Fearless Nadia of 1935 kick bad guy’s asses for the very first time in a complete print of ‘Hunterwali‘ (aka “Woman with a Whip”)? The possibility that these films still exist somewhere, sitting in a film can with an enigmatic scrawled label, is too exciting to resist.
The films on Nair’s list cover traditional subjects and historical epics, to challenging depictions of social issues including the status of women in pre-independence India. They show that, far from marking a decline in morality and values, Bollywood has carried on century-old film-making traditions in India.
The images are witty, startlingly modern in some cases, the fragile remaining evidence of an era of glamour, technical and artistic experimentation which is the foundation of one of India’s most important cultural exports and historical records of the last one hundred years.
Every meeting with Shri P K Nair, ‘Celluloid Man‘ and the founder of the National Film Archive of India leaves one awestruck at the magnificence of the story of Indian cinema. It would be a lifetime’s work for anyone to grasp the breadth of Nair Saab’s knowledge of the biggest film industry in the world. Nair Saab’s archive is the foundation on which some of the most exciting research on Indian cinema has been able to flourish. From the Sixties to 1991, when he retired, Nair Saab traveled the country to find precious film material and forged invaluable relationships with members of the vast global film fraternity.
One such meeting in particular led Tim and I to Nair Saab’s 1984 article for the UNESCO Courier magazine on missing Indian film treasures, titled ‘It’s Never Too Late‘. We now bring to you 192 largely unseen, incredible stills, posters and songbooks from 24 such films. Sadly, these images and booklets are all that remain of these films. That we know of.
I am currently interning at the National Film Archive of India, founded in 1964 by Nair Saab with the aim of finding and preserving our cinema heritage, encouraging film research and bringing the joy of watching Indian and international cinema treasures to everyone.
If there’s anything that the internship has taught me so far, is that in a country as large and diverse as India, once films are made, they often set out on a journey of their own. Along the way, they assume various names in regional languages. New stories are created in the form of handmade posters at individual cinema theatres. Promotional songs in regional lyrics are added to the original and take on new forms. Though these ephemera adorn the films with beautiful layers of complexity and meanings, they pose significant challenges from the point of view of discovering the films. New names were added to film cans and the original names lie forgotten. Names were lost in translation. Producers lost interest in retrieving the original print once the money was made. Along the journey each film takes, the breadcrumb trail divides into many more and eventually, fades out. It’s how things get lost.
Many of the films in the archive were, literally, lost: railway lost property offices donate film cans left on trains to NFAI. Our national cinema archive owes some of its collection to the other industry which unifies a disparate country.
The way in which old film prints are misplaced and forgotten, combined with their fragile physical nature has resulted in the loss of a significant chunk of the earliest and some of the most pathbreaking years in the story of Indian cinema. Of the 1200 titles made in the silent era alone in India, only 10 titles survive at NFAI. None of them are complete. Nitrate prints were sometimes sold by producers for silver, or to extract dyes for bangles from colour prints. The last known surviving print of the first Indian talkie, ‘Alam Ara‘ suffered this fate.
But why search for these films? In a country which now makes more than a 1000 films a year, why is it important to keep looking?
For we believe this is Nair Saab’s true legacy. Not just the films themselves but the spirit of discovering the stories of the thousands of little known pioneers who built the Indian film industry; of those who hand-painted set backdrops and built their own cameras when they couldn’t afford one, of female performers who refused to let definitions of ‘respectability’ hold them back. Of Parsis, Baghdadi Jews, Muslims, Hindus and international technicians and performers who laid the foundations of what is now one of the most secular cultural institutions of the country.
This list includes silent films like Prabhat Film Company’s ‘Savkari Pash‘, believed to be the first neorealist film in India that depicted the plight of farmers and the 1921 ‘Bhakta Vidur‘, the first film to be banned by the censor for its portrayal of nationalist sentiments. ‘Mazdoor‘, written by Munshi Premchand was the first talkie to be banned for exalting worker’s rights in a mill. ‘Seeta‘ in 1934 was exhibited at the 2nd Venice International Film Festival, the first Indian film to have the honour of being entered into a foreign film competition.
In particular, the list features some of the most prolific female performers who belonged to the Baghdadi Jewish community in India. In a time where social constructs of ‘respectability’ expected women to stay in the audience, Sulochana nee Ruby Myers played 8 roles in the 1927 ‘Wildcat of Bombay‘, a cross-dressing Dr Marbuse. Pramila nee Esther Abraham – later, the first Miss India- starred in the 1942 ‘Ulti Ganga‘ which imagined a world where gender roles were reversed.
This list is full of such firsts and these films weave a story of the incredible social changes that were shaping pre-independence India.
As well as thanking Nair Saab for his time, knowledge and kindness in helping me assemble many of the pieces of the puzzle, I’d like to thank the wonderful staff at the NFAI for their help and encouragement with this project. Most of the NFAI employees, who have worked there for decades, do an incredible, constant job of updating and adding to the repository of our cinema heritage. This information has been verified to the best of our knowledge and we have tried to ensure that every bit of material has been correctly attributed.
One newly discovered image or song booklet can yield a missing piece. Uday Shankar’s 1948 masterpiece, ‘Kalpana‘ was discovered not too long ago and is now beautifully restored to its rightful place in world heritage. This could be the story of any of these missing films. We need your help to do it.
If you have any information about these films – posters, lobby cards, newspaper reviews and cuttings, songs released on vinyl – please contact me (Shruti Narayanswamy) on Twitter or email me (hunterwalikibeti [at] gmail [dot] com). The #GreatIndianFilmHunt is on!