From pages of the past
To go through the cinema pages of The Hindu during the first half of the 20th century is to discover that the newspaper focuses not only on the mainstream but also on parallel ventures. Hollywood gets its due but so do international film festivals, big or small, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
Charlie Chaplin ("City Lights")
`PESHAWAR IS divided into two parts the cantonment where Europeans live, surrounded by barbed wire and walls; and the city, a picturesque huddle of mud brick buildings, open fronted shops and narrow streets where people jostle their way through traffic jams of bullocks, goats, donkeys, bicycles and tongas ... No white man or woman enters the city which is often besieged by tribals pouring in through the Khyber Pass and shooting people on sight ... The Afridis, Masuds and Waziris are against any government, especially one which interferes with their right to shoot and be shot at.'
This summary is not from a tourist's diary, but from ``Our Cinema Page'', The Hindu (1932). The first person account is of a Hollywood crew on a train and van journey through 1,500 miles of Indian wildernesses and mountains, shooting `exteriors' for "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer". The blurb describes author Ernest Schoedsack as `film director adventurer explorer'. His western eye finds the subcontinent bizarre and exotic.
Nor is this a lone phenomenon. The ``Talkie Travelogue'' or ``Log of the `Trader Horn' Expedition'' serialises the safaris of a Western film crew in Africa. From a cannibal village near Lake Nabagaba (1933), Van Dyke files news of his technicians rescuing `native' women from drowning and getting no thanks for it. ``There is no equivalent to `thank you' in the Swahili language''.
He adds casually, ``I have word that a lion is bothering one of the bubonic plague villages, and I suppose one of us will have to journey over there and go hunting for it, as it is only courtesy to do so.''
Hollywood dominated the pages of The Hindu in the first half of the 20th century. From its ``Stars at Work'' we learn that on March 27, 1931, John Barrymore is on the sets of "Svengali", Douglas Fairbanks is shooting in the Jodhpur forests, Greta Garbo is playing Mata Hari, Norma Shearer is engaged in "Strangers May Kiss" and Gloria Swanson is completing "Following Her Destiny".
The paper's intrepid correspondent gets autographed portraits of the Hollywood stars. Shoedsack is delighted ``with the friends he made in India through the medium of The Hindu''; the cautious caption below a gorgeously sirenish Marlene Dietrich says that `according to our correspondent she is a regular reader of our Cinema Page'; a monocled George Arliss nods from Britain; Nancy Carroll blows a cheesy hi from Paramount Studios.
The focus is not exclusively on glitz. Serious essays induct readers into the process and technique of the new born art form.
Some have a single theme whether property management (1937) or publicity (1932), others a broader canvas. "Working details of production stages", straight from Hollywood no less, give `useful knowledge for Indian studios for filmisation', thrashing out every production detail. The unconscious link with the stage is evident in film stars being called screen players.
A 1932 report tells you how Sol Polito restored the ``footlights effect'' in the movies, even outdoors (with reflectors and sunlight), so that fans ``will still recognise their stage stars'', whose glamour had been diminished by back, side and top lights!
Visuals can be informative too. ``Miss Anita Page (`Easiest Way') learns the intricacies of the new type of bomb microphone now installed in every Hollywood studio'' (1932).
A photograph from the Fox studios shows Chinese cameraman James Wong standing on a high stool, surrounded at different levels by assistants and actors, all framed in Hitchcockian lighting (1933).
The photographs are a treat. Black and white are enough to light up gods on the Ocean of Milk ("Sati Kausalya", "Bhakta Prahlada"), a tender reunion at cremation ground (Prabhat's "Harischandra"), a court scene (Ranjit Movietone's "Divine Lady").
We find ourselves at the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights", Dominion Theatre (1931). The waiting cars stretch up to Tottenham Court Road, blocking all adjoining streets. People trudge through the rain and fight their way in. ``A battery of search lights beats upon the entrance, and the scene at the first night of the silent film was like a silent war film as the crowds broke through the police (sic) and the flashlights of the photographers intermittently lit up the scene.'' Chaplin appears on the balcony and is wildly cheered. He says that watching his own film `among my own people' in England is a great emotional experience leaving him dazed and nervous.
Sivaji Ganesan as Tenali Raman
Meet legendary director Ernst Lubitsch and actor Maurice Chevalier on the sets, arguing how `word' should be pronounced.
Such profiles or interviews are always timely, juxtaposed with previews or reviews of the film just released in the city theatres.
Yesteryear correspondents wrote for eager filmgoers who knew little about the new medium. There is plenty of information, but little criticism.
They treat Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Miss Shirley Temple, Mr Ronald Colman, Mr Ramon Novarro, Mr Ranjan, Mr Saigal, Miss Gohur and Miss Aswatthamma, with respect and empathy despite their public life and stardom.
In 1926 we hear of the Indian railway equipping a travelling cinema car with projection apparatus, screen and generating set, ``regularly touring all along the lines, giving open air shows to audiences varying from 1,000 to 10,000.''
Wellington cinema in Madras shows films promising `fire on shipboard, conflagration, providential storm extinguishing flames, a quarrel with a wild lion...'
Tantalising thrills are mandatory as at ``the eleven reel play of D. W. Griffiths which Messers Madans are exhibiting at the Elphinstone.'' An oxymoronic effusion proclaims that the romantic story of the East has a realistic interpretation through the magic art of the cinema in "The Thief of Baghdad".
Indian films vie for attention from the early years. At Hotel Watson, Bombay, Indians had seen in 1896 the first reels ever shot by the Lumiere Brothers. They made their own newsreels from 1901. First feature "Pundalik" (1912), the famous "Raja Harischandra" by Dadasaheb Phalke (1913), and "Keechakavatham" in Madras (1916) were all mythologicals, setting trends for the silent and talkie eras.
Socio-political concerns came soon enough. Newsreels on the Mahatma's marches for freedom were banned (1930) and people began to see connections to the Swadeshi movement even in a mytho-centric film like "Gopalkrishna."
Reformist films like "Acchut" (Gohar and Motilal), "Sumangali" (Nagaiah), the early films of V. Shantaram, as also those of K. Subrahmanyam, raised taboo subjects at a time when the nationalist tide rose to idealistic heights. The Hindu reviews them and interviews Shantaram in Madras, after the local premiere of his "Sant Dhyaneswar". He discloses that he wants to make an English film for the West (1940).
Gloria Swanson with Billy Wilder, the siren
A retrospective on South Indian films of 1939 concludes that audiences never tire of Ramas and Sitas, but reject `social themes'.
The analyst blames this on the poor quality of those films compared to western treatment of similar themes.
Besides, there are few good actors in the south, ``people are willing to overlook defects in Rama or Krishna but never in a social (sic) character.'' A little later we are told that `historical action' pictures are the best bet.
The Madras Provincial Film Council Conference (1938) insists on planned economy for the industry through the war years. Some of its conclusions are still strangely relevant. ``The government looks upon the industry as a source of revenue, the public as an entertainment service, and the trades people as a means of making money. Politicians have not realised the potential of the medium in national regeneration. Subhash Chandra Bose talked about exploiting films for propaganda abroad, so did Nehru, but the film industry did not find a place in the agenda in national industrial planning."
By the 1940s, Indian cinema reigns on The Hindu's arts page as it does in the city theatres. "Grapes of Wrath" comes to Roxy but it is "Bhakta Chetha" (Papanasam Sivan, Kothamangalam Subbu, S. R. Janaki) or "Uthama Puthran" (P. U. Chinnappa and T. S. Baliah) that people flock to see.
A Basil Rathbone ("Sherlock Holmes"), Boris Karloff ("The Man They Could Not Hang") or Tyrone Power ("Tower of London") play second fiddle to saucy Leila Chitnis and debonair Ashok Kumar ("Kangan"), Kananbala ("Vidyapati"), Sultana Banu ("Matwali Mira"), Lila Desai ("Dushman") Sarangapani, Aswatthama ("Santha Sakkubai"), Y. V. Rao, Shanta Apte ("Savithri") Mehtab ("Ek Hi Bhool"), K. B. Sundarambal ("Manimekhalai"), Bhanumathi ("Malati Madhavam").
A plaintive N. C. Vasanthakokilam ("Prem Kumari") arrests the eye, and memory moistens over a forgotten song by that spring bird who vanished too soon.
M. S. Subbulakshmi stars in "Sakuntalai" with G. N. Balasubramaniam and in "Meera" which made her a cult figure.
Tidbits? On the advice of Mr. Lalchand Mehra, and Miss Jeanette Rex (Hollywood correspondent of The Hindu), the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce considers setting up a branch of the Indian Motion Picture Congress in Hollywood.
Indians in Japan protest against "Gunga Din", a film based on Kipling's poem.
In India the Biblical film "The Moon Of Israel" offends Muslim sentiment (1927).
The International Institute of the Motion Pictures of Asia elects "Pukar" and "Admi" as the best Indian films of 1939.
In independent India, the Bengal Motion Picture Association cribs against the legal provision by which the Central Government may issue regulatory directions to exhibitors (1950). Film star T. R. Rajkumari welcomes the gathering as S. S. Vasan inaugurates Rajkumari theatre (1950) protesting against theatres being forced to give free publicity to Government industries in newsreels and documentaries.
Mr. Pulla Reddi declares that `our films haven't reached western standards because we don't differentiate between moral value and artistic value.'
British actor-producer Herbert Marshall comes to India (1952) to collaborate with the Gandhi Memorial Trust in profiling the Mahatma.
T. M. Ramachandran reports of India hitting the headlines at the Karlovy Vary International festival with Bimal Roy's "Devdas" (1956), adding, "Your correspondent also spoke congratulating the organisers.''
Roy created a sensation by performing the muharat (sic) ceremony of "Madhumati" in front of the Festival Theatre.
Dilip Kumar faced the camera, while Soviet actress Tatyana Konjuchova, switched on the camera. Polish actress Barbara Polonska acted as clapper-boy.
Sivaji Ganesan's ``bold, emphatic strokes'' (1960) make for blockbusters ("Manohara", "Pasamalar", "Padikkatha Medhai", "Pava Mannippu") and M. G. Ramachandran is on his way to becoming a cult figure.
Rajendra Kumar is the jubilee hero in Bombay and Sadhana is hailed as super star.
But R. K. Narayan tells us of a unique film festival in Madras (1952) where, at the open air Teynampet theatre, 4,000 people bought one- rupee tickets to see films branded as high brow.
``A full moon over one's head, stars seen through the branches of an overhanging tree, the tiny lamps of a night plane crossing the sky, a Japanese picture or a Czechoslovakian colour cartoon on the screen there lies perfect enchantment.''
Send this article to Friends by