Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bollywood: seen and not heard

Last night I got the chance to attend a presentation and talk by film scholar Anupama Kapse on the subject of early Indian cinema. It was a rare -- perhaps once in a lifetime, even -- opportunity to see clips from some of the few extent -- or, sadly, as is most often the case, partially extent -- examples of movies from Bollywood's silent era.

First up were select sequences from a couple of director D.G. Phalke's early mythologicals, 1919's The Killing of Kaliya and 1918's The Birth of Krishna, both of which star Phalke's seven-year-old daughter Mandakini as the young Krishna. While what we were shown of The Killing of Kaliya struck me as being a bit pedestrian, depending on the mere presence of moving bodies on screen as enough of a source of spectacle for India's early cinema audiences, The Birth of Krishna was another story altogether. The clip shown from that film contained a dizzying array of ambitious optical effects, made all the more impressive by the fact that Phalke accomplished them without the aid of an optical printer. The young Krishna rises up out of the ocean on the back of a multi-headed serpent, a man's head levitates off of his shoulders, and the evil Kamsa (D.D. Dabke) imagines himself besieged by an army of spectral Krishnas. All in all, it was an eye-opening display of technical sophistication, testifying to the fact that mid-century pioneers of Bollywood special effects like Babubhai Mistry, while definitely advancing the art, were not pioneering to quite the degree that we originally might have thought.

Next came an extended sequence from the classic 1931 stunt film Diler Jigar, aka Gallant Hearts, featuring a very young Lalita Pawar as a sort of female version of Zorro -- far from the last of such characters to appear in a Bollywood film, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she wasn't the first. Diler Jigar exhibits all of the elements that those of us who've been eagerly devouring the later exploits of Dara Singh and his ilk have come to expect from the stunt genre, by which I refer to extended sword fights involving lots of sweaty, bare-chested men, a story concerning a person of noble birth who returns from exile to seek revenge against his usurpers, and the ubiquitous influence of Douglas Fairbanks. Kapse mentioned that most of Diler Jigar has been preserved, so hopefully there is a chance that we will someday get to see it in its near-entirety.

Also included in the evening was a selection from the 1929 British production A Throw of Dice, which was every bit as opulent as Memsaab described it in her recent review. Kapse then closed out the evening with clips from a couple of early sound films, including Achut Kanya, aka Untouchable Girl, another one from A Throw of Dice director Frantz Osten, this time produced by Bombay Talkies. Though only a statically shot song sequence, this clip was notable to me for the fact that stars Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar were not only singing in their own voices, but also doing so live through on-set microphones as the camera rolled, a far cry from what would become the norm within a few years. Finally, we were treated to an extended scene from V. Shantaram's 1939 Aadmi, a film that I am now dying to see in it's entirety. From what I saw, the movie has a wryly sophisticated, Preston Sturges kind of vibe, and leads Shanta Hublikar and Sahu Modak were utterly charming as they performed a song mercilessly lampooning Bollywood's obsession with love.

Far from the dry academic type, Kapse -- a former assistant professor of English at Delhi University who will soon be joining Queens College as an assistant professor of media studies -- spoke about the films with palpable enthusiasm and affection. And though she kept her comments brief, it was clear that she would have been happy to talk about the subject at much greater length. At the end of the presentation, she was asked just how many of these Indian silents were still in existence. While I braced myself for the worst, I still wasn't ready for the answer. "About thirteen", she said, continuing on to say that most of those were not complete.

Ah, we lovers of vintage world cinema are gluttons for punishment; Discovery and disappointment so often go hand in hand. You'd think that one might get used to it after a while, but, judging from the gasp that I let out upon hearing Kapse's words, I haven't gotten there yet.


Michael Barnum said...

I am so very envious of you Todd, what a wonderful opportunity. Even to see just clips would be fascinating.

Who knows, maybe some former Indian studio crew member has a basement full of old movie reels he has forgotten about, just waiting to be discovered!

peter said...

ah man, i've dreamed of seeing phalke's "birth of krishna"! how lucky!

memsaab said...

oh! *dies* completely fabulous an opportunity!

I just want to cry sometimes at the thought of all we've lost from Hindi cinema...but I guess it just makes what little remains that much more special.

Where did you get the screen caps?

prof. grewbeard said...


while reading this, for some reason Bajrangbali(1976)sprang to mind, have you seen it? i'd love to read your thoughts on that one!

Todd said...

I really hope I did a fair enough job describing these for those who weren't able to see them first hand. I definitely feel lucky for having had the chance to do so myself!

Memsaab: The screen caps from Gallant Hearts up top are from the website of 3rd i, the organization that sponsored the screening. The Killing of Kaliya screen cap is from the National Film Archive of India site, and the Aadmi still (which comes from the actual scene that we were shown) I found on this site.

Prof.: While I've seen a few mythologicals from the 60s and 70s, I've yet to see Bajrangbali. It sounds like it might be a good entry point into Dara Singh's Hanuman films.

memsaab said...

Bajrangbali is in my next Induna order, arriving soon :-D

Thanks for the links, Todd!

sunil said...

Hey, it is only pieces of silver nitrate! Many producers themselves e apparently melted the prints to get at the silver. :-p

Todd said...

Thanks, Sunil. That makes me feel much better.