NFAI gets rare footage of Indian silent classic

Prized possession: Footage of the silent Bengali classic, which is based on a novel by R.C. Dutt.  

The Pune-based National Film Archive of India (NFAI) has secured footage of a 1930 Bengali film classic, Madhabi Kankan, based on a novel by eminent historian-writer R.C. Dutt from the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, France. The acquisition is a significant step towards the preservation of India’s silent film heritage.

The footage was an important acquisition as there were not too many prints or footage around from the 1,300-odd Indian films of the silent era other than Dadasaheb Phalke’s classics and some others, said film historian and writer Virchand Dharamsey, who has documented the Indian silent film era. The NFAI now has footages of 31 Indian silent films.

Madhabi Kankan, under its English title of Slave Girl of Agra, was directed by Jyotish Bannerjee and produced by the Kolkata-based Madan Theatres, the country’s most influential and biggest film producing studio in the first three decades of the 20th century.

NFAI gets rare footage of Indian silent classic

“This 14-minute footage from Madhabi Kankan is the second Indian silent film to be acquired and added to the NFAI’s vaults in recent times. In 2017, we had acquired footage of the landmark Bengali silent film, Bilwamangal (1919), also from the Cinematheque Francaise. This is indeed a rare and precious discovery,” said Prakash Magdum, director, NFAI.

“In the heyday of the Indian silent film era, there were three prominent studios. One was Dadasaheb Phalke’s Hindustan Cinema Films company, Dwarkadas Sampat’s Kohinoor film company and the third is Madan Theatres. Before the acquisition of Bilwamangal, we only had elements from Phalke’s films and those produced by Kohinoor. Now, with footage from the two films produced by Madan Theatres, it is like connecting the missing dots of Indian silent film history,” said Mr. Magdum. The archives had digitised the footage of Madhabi Kankan, he said.

Incidentally, the film was initially banned for unknown reasons in 1930, and was re-censored and released again in 1932.

The film, a period piece, centres on the ‘War of Succession’ in 17th century India as the four sons of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan battle it out for the throne of Delhi.

Madan Theatres, which specialised in the literary cinema genre, has left a mark on Indian cinematic heritage with its silent film versions of classic Indian literary works and stories from mythology including Bilwamangal (1919), credited as the first Bengali film; Nala Damayanti (1920) and Durgesh Nandini (1927), an adaptation of the novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

The studio decided to make a film of Madhabi Kankan (a bracelet of the Madhabi flower), one of Romesh Chander Dutt’s 19th century historical novels. Dutt, a civil servant, economic historian and translator, was a polymath whose passion for literature resulted in his writing four historical novels (all published in 1879) including Maharashtra Prabhat, a chronicle of the rise of Maratha power under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

Madan Theatres, founded by the pioneering film magnate Jamshedji Framji Madan, was the biggest studio at the time, not only producing but distributing as well, with more than 100 cinema houses spread across the country, said Mr. Magdum.

“Most of the productions turned out by Madan Theatres were technically accomplished given the involvement of Western technicians,” said Mr. Dharamsey.

Madhabi Kankan is an example of the cosmopolitan nature of Indian cinematic production of the time, with the film shot by two foreign technicians, Charles Creed and T. Marconi.

The 14-minute footage obtained by the NFAI has no intertitles (text inserted into the scene for context) and has shots featuring actors essaying the roles of Shah Jahan, Shah Shuja (the second son of Shah Jahan), and Jahan Ara, the oldest child of the Mughal Emperor who is played by actress Mumtaz Begum.

“The production of Madhabi Kankan appears to be opulent. There are some virtuoso shots. For instance, there is a long shot of 40 to 50 elephants, possibly a ceremonial procession or a post-battle scene. There are dance sequences and there is a wonderful shot of Shah Jahan reposing in Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal in the backdrop,” Mr. Magdum said.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 4:20:23 PM |

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