The internationalism of P.K. Nair, the celluloid man

The ‘militantly eclectic’ film preservationist saved thousands of films, not just for India but for the whole world. As he explained in his one of his final interviews, his mission was to save everything, keep everything and screen everything. 

6 April 1933–4 March 2016.

Jump down to P.K. Nair’s 21 most wanted missing Indian films

☞ The departed: the filmmakers we lost in 2016

Shruti Narayanswamy , Tim Concannon
Updated:

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P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

The death in March 2016 of Paramesh Krishnan Nair (better known as P.K. Nair), the former director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), and subject of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s award-winning 2012 documentary Celluloid Man, was followed by an outpouring of emotion from friends and colleagues in the world of filmmaking and cinema preservation. Eulogies appeared in every form of Indian and international media.

Film director Shyam Benegal told the Hindu newspaper: “No one before him had shown any interest in preserving cinema. And it is more remarkable that he is single-handedly responsible for conserving India’s rich cinematic heritage. I only hope he has transmitted some of his passion to the younger generation.”

Filmmaker and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir told Scroll.in: “He was preserving the legacy of the country, not his own. He became the face of Indian cinema for the West, but did not use it for the advancement of his career.”

Three years ago, Nair discussed his thoughts about cinema with us, a conversation that we also recorded and broadcast with his permission. We find now that we’re in the unexpected, and in some ways unwelcome, situation of having recorded the last long interview with Nair, on films and on his legacy. We edited over five hours of conversation over several days down to a 25-minute sequence aired last year on London’s arts radio station Resonance FM.

We could easily have made an entire series of radio programmes from this material. While at 80 years old, Nair was sometimes slow in gathering his thoughts and in replying, what he had to say was expressed in dignified, precise paragraphs of intense and deeply humane insight – not only observations about cinema but about Indian history and culture, and about the human condition. Nair’s life’s work was always going to remain unfinished. It’s no surprise that on his passing, many things about his personal and professional relationships seem unresolved, and in some ways saddening.

In bearing witness to one small vignette in Nair’s life we must report the warmth and kindness with which the elderly gentleman invited two film fans and would-be scholars off the street and into his small apartment. With him, we watched the first part of Fritz Lang’s adventure serial The Spiders on a handheld digital projector (we happened to have the film on the hard drive, and he’d not seen it before). Nair watched Lang’s flickering ancestor to Indiana Jones projected on his living room wall for more than an hour, absolutely contented throughout.

The Nair whom we met and became friends with in his final years was often wickedly funny in his devastating putdowns. He described one Bollywood megastar for posterity as a ‘nonentity’, for example… she may not be too happy when we air that soundbite. He was also generous in sharing his knowledge with students and visitors.

In Celluloid Man, director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a film student in the mid-1970s, recalls Nair loaning him the precious NFAI print of Godard’s Breathless (1960). “He said, ‘Take the print and study.’” According to author and film scholar Suresh Chabria, NFAI director from 1992 to 1998: “For students of the film institute in the 1970s and 80s, he was a cult figure because he freely showed them films from the archive.”

Nair remained intellectually and politically engaged up until the last months of his life. On YouTube you can find some of the last video of him: sitting in a chair at home in the same spot where we spent many hours interviewing him. In this footage, Nair is talking intently with current student protesters about the controversial selection as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) of seasoned TV and film actor Gajendra Chauhan. Chauhan is a celebrity and sometime Hindi adult film actor noted for his role in the much-admired 80s TV version of Mahabharata and for being close to the ruling BJP. Again, the term ‘nonentity’ comes up: Nair could be very caustic.

In 2014, he talked to us about films depicting village life, which was the dominant theme in the immediate post-Independence era. Specifically, he shared with us what he recalled about the missing print of Gopal Krishna (Krishna the Cow Herd, 1937), one of the first Indian films to represent Hindu gods as having the same problems as mortals. In this regard, Gopal Krishna preempted Peter Brook’s 1988 National Theatre’s production of Mahabharata by five decades. During this part of the conversation, Nair said Indian cinema is “all about the cow”. The cow not only represents God in Indian cinema, but also the hopes and ambitions of the common man and woman in a village. Taken literally, a brand is an act of grievous bodily harm to a cow, inflicted to assert ownership of nature.

India’s many film industries, each with their own complex histories and traditions, produce thousands of films annually, in dozens of languages. Why limit the future appreciation of these film industries? Why make it a brand, and in so doing reduce the sum total of a vast nation’s cinematic heritage to an injury to God? Why stamp a deed of ownership on the thing that gives you milk, which nurtures future generations of filmgoers and filmmakers? Nair sustained the thing that keeps cinema alive – memory – but he allowed it to roam freely.

Nair’s astonishing achievement was to physically locate and preserve as much of India’s film heritage as could be managed from 1965 until his retirement as NFAI director in 1991. It would be understandable if the accepted version of his life became the story of one man’s heroic struggle to amass the canon of Indian film’s first century; an inventory of celluloid prints which establishes India’s brand positioning in world cinema as equivalent to that of Hollywood, Japan, Russia, China or the film industries of western Europe.

Starting as an assistant curator with the censor’s small collection of films that had won the Indian National Award, Nair went on to become NFAI’s director in 1982, preserving around 12,000 complete prints before his retirement. These included films by legendary directors Satyajit RayJohn AbrahamRaj KapoorGuru DuttRitwik GhatakMrinal Sen and V Shantaram.

Around 8,000 of the films in the collection that Nair secured are Indian but, significantly, another 4,000 – one third – are international films. These include work by BergmanKurosawaFelliniAndrzej WajdaMiklos JancsoKrzysztof Zanussi and Vittorio De Sica.

The collection now stands at around 15,000 films. Under Nair’s direction NFAI acquired about 460 films a year. It has continued to take on 120 films a year on average since then, in a country where there’s no legal requirement for movie producers to deposit copies of their work in the national archive.

The death of NFAI’s formative director has prompted a renewed effort by the present leadership to re-evaluate the archive’s holdings and the overall history of its intake. An interesting question for scholars to consider in the future is the proportion of foreign prints permanently preserved in India’s national archive since 1991, and how the curation and exhibition of NFAI’s collection of world cinema has influenced filmmakers and film appreciation in India since the 60s.

Since its inception – when the Lumire company’s cinematograph was demonstrated at Bombay’s elite Watson hotel in 1896 – Indian cinema has been strongly influenced by overseas filmmakers, besides the former colonial power, Britain. Phalke, who made India’s first films, studied cinematography in Germany.

Satyajit Ray scouted locations for Jean Renoir’s Indian-set The River (1951), and the two remained firm friends for the rest of their lives, with Renoir encouraging Ray to make the ‘Apu’ trilogy when it was only a vague outline. Throughout his career, Ray – in the minds of cinema viewers, or at least those outside India, the most Indian director there is – continued to make films which drew on outside influences. His two Feluda films, based on Ray’s own young adult fiction, are superior Sherlock Holmes fan fiction. Italian neorealist and French New Wave directors, especially Truffaut, are still treated with reverence by current Indian film students.

P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

Speaking to current and aspiring archivists the day after Nair’s death (at India’s second film preservation and restoration workshop, hosted by NFAI in Pune), Jurij Meden, the Slovenian film curator of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester New York, remarked on the way in which film critics and exhibitors create ‘hot territories’ to avoid the hard slog of having to evaluate world cinema in its totality. One year it’s Iran, and next it’s Mexico:

“We think that to remember is important… If we take a closer look at the world in which we live, we notice that the dominant, prevailing world system – in other words, capitalism – is something which very much thrives on the exact opposite of remembrance. Capitalism thrives on oblivion. It wants us to forget what we bought yesterday so we’ll buy the same thing again tomorrow. It wants us to forget that we saw a film yesterday because it will make us want to see the same film again tomorrow, and make us want to buy a ticket.”

At the national level, the idea of a canon of Indian classics (or, for that matter, of French, Russian, Canadian, Panamanian or Angolan masterpieces) has a similar long-term effect. By excluding the films of Norman Wisdom (of political significance in Soviet-era countries, and as far east as Pakistan), say, were we talking about British films, or in the case of Indian cinema, North Indian knock-offs of Spider-Man in Bhojpuri, or the Ramsay Brothers horror films, then future generations would be denied the opportunity to appreciate the influence on culture generally of low- and middlebrow art.

Indeed, for people raised with YouTube, high and low cultural distinctions seem irrelevant. The purging of Jimmy Savile from BBC history, for example, makes clips of him online suddenly of macabre but compelling cultural significance.

As Meden continued: “During the time of the Cold War… if a filmmaker from the East would defect and escape to the West, the West would immediately start hailing this film maker as a master. What happened to the masses of filmmakers who were left behind, who did not defect? The Western curators were simply too lazy to go to Eastern Europe, to Asia, and explore for themselves… But that was difficult because you had to know the language, you had to know the culture. So instead of going through all this hard work, they invented a new model for writing film history which is ‘hot territories’. So in the early 90s, Iran became a hot territory, then it moved onto Thailand, then Romania. We’re still in this era where we have hot territories. I think a year ago it was Catalonia. This is all so that we wouldn’t have to go through all the really hard work of exploring.”

P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man (2012)

In advertising, the manufacture of both desires and of diminished expectations are responses to the complexity inherent in marketing products to diverse audiences, made up of individuals with a myriad of unfathomable tastes, hangups, hopes and dreams. Why figure out what Stan, Sanjay, Susan or Sita want out of an evening at the pictures when they all want different things? Why not convince them that what they want to pay to see is Dirty GrandpaAkshay Kumar with a big moustache and an even bigger gun, or the latest from Adam Sandler? They’re all the same movie anyway.

The secret that distributors of lovingly curated Blu-ray issues of restored world cinema classics dare not admit is that there are Criterion or BFI versions of this contrived forgetfulness, also: of the manufacturing of desires, of the deliberate over-simplification of audiences’ expectations. BFI’s Flipside series is a noteworthy and commendable deviation from this marketing logic, showcasing niche films, the lost, the neglected or previously disregarded.

By this marketing logic, cinephiles can have any kind of Indian cinema they want so long as it’s Satyajit Ray and John Abraham. This is the opposite of what Nair aimed to do. Nair was closer in his philosophy of preservation and curation to Flipside, Langlois’s Cinématheque in Paris, to Brooklyn’s “goth bodega” Spectacle Theater, and to Britain’s Channel 4, which screened world cinema and film classics in the 80s and 90s.

As NFAI director, Nair also screened everything. At his wake, friends and colleagues vividly recalled Nair showing counterculture films such as Emile de Antonio’s searing analysis of the road to the Vietnam War In the Year of the Pig (1968), Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974) – another anti-war Vietnam film – and Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971). He was able to do this despite having a government job, because he had the only one he would ever want. “Nair’s only destination was NFAI,” a former colleague told us.

Uday Shankar Pani’s The Film Archive, a short documentary tour of the National Film Archive of India, which Nair founded in 1964 and ran until 1991

Uday Shankar Pani’s The Film Archive, a short documentary tour of the National Film Archive of India, which Nair founded in 1964 and ran until 1991

Surely, Nair would applaud a commitment by the Indian government and his NFAI to restore and make available for exhibition 1,000 landmark Indian films. But then he’d add – demand, in fact – that it should be the first step towards restoring and showcasing everything.

We asked him which films, in particular, he wished he’d saved for posterity. His initial answer was simple: “Everything.” Nair knew that it was impossible to know what future generations would consider significant, and therefore it was imperative to keep everything. He imbued in all of his colleagues and students this militant eclecticism as a fundamental principle.

One of Nair’s legacies is forming a core national archive celebrating the artistic achievements of these and other Indian cinema greats. In any career it would be a towering accomplishment, given the sheer volume of Indian film prints which have been turned into bangles, carelessly stored – in a tropical climate in which neglected celluloid in rusty cans turns, inevitably, into vinegar – or which were simply chucked away because people thought they were trash. This was surely the fate of India’s first musical and talkie, Ornament of the World (Alam Ara, 1931), unless – by a miracle – it has survived in some form, somewhere, most probably in a private collection.

~

Keeping more than 15,000 prints safe for future audiences is an incredible feat but it’s far from being the extent of Nair’s legacy to world culture. Nair’s life’s work was the study and preservation of world cinema, and to form an internationally relevant and contemporary collection which placed Indian films in their rightful place in that broad, global and constantly evolving context. The greatness of Nair’s brand and the brand of Indian cinema is that they aren’t brands at all. They’re far more complex than a logo and a corporate motto. Far from being a ‘heritage brand’, the NFAI collection Nair amassed is ancient, modern and looks forward, all at the same time.

NFAI’s collection doesn’t exist solely to allow future film scholars to retrospectively trace the antecedents of Satyajit Ray’s social realism in the Apu trilogy, or of dancing girls on giant drums, of supervillains ordering Dr Fu Manchu around, of Rishi Kapoor on a rotating discotheque floor, or of best friends singing on a motorcycle. In conversation after conversation with Nair’s friends, colleagues and peers, the theme which resounds is his restless, intense, precise, insatiable interest in cinema as an emerging and contemporary world art form.

Nair had a lot in common with video CD pirates on market stalls, and with the file-sharing community on BitTorrent and specialist sites such CinemaTik, Cinemageddon and Karagarga, stripping cinema of its inherent value as a commercial product and liberating it for its greater artistic, historical, political and social relevancies.

Stories abound from the 60s to the 90s of Nair’s ‘borrowing’ of film prints overnight to copy them for NFAI (a practice that, following Langlois’ example, wasn’t uncommon between archives and international festivals in the pre-digital era). Another part of Nair folklore is of the print of Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titus (Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, 1973) making its way one evening to the FTII campus for an unofficial late-night screening. As Nair’s NFAI colleagues sneaked into the illicit midnight show, sure enough, they found the director had snuck in too. He was as much of a cinema nut as the students.

A shot from The Film Archive

A shot from The Film Archive

Nair’s intention wasn’t simply to create a reliquary for the sacred objects of Indian cinema. Nair was focused on looking at all cinema – made everywhere in the world – in terms of the development of a new kind of human expression and art. NFAI’s collection also includes films from France, Italy, Central and South America, and former countries of the Soviet Union.

A remarkable 1974 FTII student film shot on 16mm was screened on the spur of the moment at NFAI to honour Nair on the day he died. The Film Archive, directed by Uday Shankar Pani, is a 10-minute black-and-white guide to the institution. Sitting at his desk, a dark-haired Nair, with a commanding gaze but relaxed manner, explains the role of the NFAI in preserving world film heritage. This point is emphasised soon after by a handheld sequence which moves through NFAI’s documents library. A huge still of Ingrid Bergman looms into view. Then, a moment later, the shot is of a poster. An African-American face looks out at us from a wall, above it the words “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger”, a quotation often misattributed to Muhammad Ali, here the title of David L. Weiss’s 1968 portrait of the Spring Mobilization against the Vietnam War.

The Film Archive is an important document in understanding Nair’s place in film history. It deserves a wider audience, and for FTII and NFAI to digitise and exhibit it, either online or as an extra on a future DVD issue of Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man.

~

Nair trained as a chemist, a background that later became instrumental in his role directing the physical preservation of films. According to his former NFAI colleague, academic Gayatri Chaterjee, in the early 60s Nair acquired most of his appreciation of film criticism and its leftwing politics from reading international film magazines while hanging out at FTII in Pune.

“When I arrived, quite late, by 1980 we were getting Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif, along with Film and Filming, Sight and Sound, Jump Cut, the trades. He knew of the Cannes film festival, Langlois, Cocteau, all those people.

“People say he wanted to be a Langlois. He fashioned himself exactly as he wanted to be. The film appreciation course, when I took the course, was six weeks. For one full week we had political cinema… From excessive attachment to aesthetic and philosophical questions, I really wrenched myself off and turned into an historian. I really became more of a social scientist. Nair was fully receptive.”

It’s striking how in the 80s – with no formal academic education or grounding in critical theory and the Marxist, Structuralist and Post Structuralist ideas which dominated cultural appraisal in European languages at the time – Nair was embracing the political and international contexts of film conservation and exhibition. Even more striking is the fact that he was then prepared to ditch much of the theory. His attitude to what was preserved and what was shown is startlingly contemporary, more like reality as presented on YouTube: a flat, nonlinear yet plastic version of history where all points on the map are of interest and are equally worthy of contemplation and discussion.

NFAI conservation in 1974, as seen in The Film Archive

NFAI conservation in 1974, as seen in The Film Archive

We recorded our 2014 conversation with Nair over several days at his home a short walk from the Film Archive he devoted his life to in Pune, along a noisy and congested cobbled pavement lined with effortlessly urbane cafes. This area is adjacent to NFAI, on the opposite side of the street from FTII on Prabhat Road, named after the groundbreaking film studio.

Baburao Painter’s The Indian Shylock (Savkari Pash, 1925), made for Prabhat when it was called the Maharashtra Film Company, is among the list of 21 missing films that Nair was unable to obtain during his career and which we discussed in our broadcast interview for Resonance FM. The film, starring Shantaram, was a commentary on the plight of India’s farmers. As Nair noted in the conversation, farmer suicides continue to be a sore on India’s conscience, despite Modi’s ongoing economic miracle.

Just as he was intellectually engaged with contemporary issues, Nair remained involved with film appreciation in India after his retirement in 1991. In 1996 he helped to form the International Film Festival of Kerala, based in his native city of Thiruvananthapuram.

One regret he expressed to us on the record was that, despite – or perhaps because of – his government position, he was unable to visit Pakistan or have any bilateral relationship with India’s neighbour. This is despite the fact that, in the period from 1913 to 1947, the two countries share the same cinema history. The first talkies appeared in Hindustani, the combination of Urdu and Hindi which was the common language before Independence. The fate of prints, posters, song booklets and everything from the film studio which was active in Lahore before Partition, for example, is unknown to Indian scholars.

The Film Archive (1974)

The Film Archive (1974)

Another overlooked aspect of silent cinema and early talkies reflected in Nair’s list of missing films is the role of women – especially from communities besides the Hindu majority – in making cinema respectable entertainment for the masses. Early Indian film studios including Prabhat, Wadia Movietone and Bombay Talkies, realised – as did their Hollywood peers – that the new entertainment industry’s diehard audience was destined to be a small army of flappers and telephone girls. The new film companies embarked on special screenings of ‘educational’ films about health, promoting them as suitable for women.

They also plucked eligible young girls from phone switchboards to star in their films – or in the case of Wadia’s in-house star Mary Evans, aka Fearless Nadia, from the Russian circus. Nair obtained an incomplete print of her breakthrough hit The Woman with the Whip (Hunterwali, 1935) made by the Parsi Wadia family that Mary married into. Sadly, only three of the ten reels have sound.

The Woman with the Whip (Hunterwali, 1935)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

By necessity, these women actors came – initially – from non-Hindu backgrounds. Evans was a Scot by way of Australia. Early screen icon Zubeida was Muslim. Ruby Myers became Sulochana (“one with beautiful eyes”). Esther Victoria Abraham, the first Miss India, became Pramila (the wife of Arjuna in Mahabharata). Both were from Mumbai’s Jewish community but were given Hindu names specifically chosen to signify their respectability. In conversation, Nair also highlighted David, a male character actor of the early talkies period. “If you look at the Jewish community in Indian films, it’s a great list,” he told us.

Sulochana is in three of the films on Nair’s list of 21 missing films – Anarkali (1928), Wrath (Khooda Ki Shaan, 1931), and Indira M.A. (1934). Following Ruby Myer’s testimony to the 1927 Cinematograph Enquiry it was noted in the British Parliament that she made more in one year than the Governor General of Bombay himself. Pramila is in two films on the list: Worshipper of Love (Prem Pujaari, 1935) and The Ganga Flows in Reverse (Ulti Ganga, 1942), which depicts a world where gender roles are reversed. The title refers to a common Indian phrase: “That’ll happen when the Ganga flows backwards”.

Nair’s appreciation of the internal complexity of Indian cinema in its origins is reflected in his list of 21 missing film treasures he was unable to locate, which he collated originally for Unesco in the 80s, comparable to the BFI’s Most Wanted list. It includes Alam Ara, the first Indian musical and talkie and the grail for Indian film historians, a Persian folktale about the doomed love between a Muslim Indian prince and a Romani court dancer. It took its inspiration from another musical about race and caste: Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat.

A fitting tribute to Nair would be for Indian film historians and their colleagues around the world to continue his work by adopting the list of 21 films as a call to action. Nair told us at the end of our interview: “Even if one or two reels turn up, it would be a great thing. I would put it as a revelation.”

 

P.K. Nair’s 21 most wanted missing Indian films

Nair oringinally put this list together for a 1984 Unesco article, which he then updated for Nick De Ocampo’s seminal Lost Films of Asia. You can find the original article reproduced with Nair’s permission, as well as more images and information about these currently lost classics, at MahalMovies.com/film-hunt.

 

1. Alam Ara (Jewel of the World aka Ornament of the World)

Director: Ardeshir M. Irani; studio: Imperial Films Company, 1931

Alam Ara (Jewel of the World aka Ornament of the World, 1931)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first Indian talkie and musical. Based on a Persian fairytale, it featured seven songs. Only some images survive. The one remaining print known to exist was sold for scrap by the producer’s son. This is considered the most important of all India’s lost films.

 

2. The England Returned (Bilet Ferat)

Director: N.C. Laharry; studio: Indo-British Film, 1921

The first Indian film to feature several intimate kissing scenes between the stars Dhirendranath Ganguli and Manmatha Pal, this satirises Indians attempting to copy British customs and manners.

 

3. Devotion of Vidura (Bhakta Vidur)

Director: Kanjibhai Rathod; studio: Kohinoor Film Company, 1921

The first Indian film to be banned by British censors. It was banned in Madras and Karachi for the portrayal of the character of Vidura as a Mahatma Gandhi-like figure.

 

4. The Indian Shylock (Saukari Pash)

Director: Baburao Painter; studio: Maharashtra Film Company, 1925

Considered to be the first neorealist film in Indian cinema and one of the finest Indian silent films, this was a commentary on the social injustice faced by farmers. It notably starred V Shantaram.

 

5. Sacrifice (Balidan)

Director: Naval Gandhi, 1927

An adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s play Visarjan. Using the metaphor of animal sacrifice, the film questioned the validity of traditions.

 

6. Anarkali

Director: R S Choudhury; studio: Imperial Films Company, 1928

Before K Asif’s much loved costume spectacular Mughal-E-Azam (1960) came Anarkali, the story of an ill-fated romance between a prince and a dancing girl. Anarkali was played by the legendary Sulochana.

 

7. Wrath (Khooda Ki Shaan)

Director: RS Choudhury; studio: Imperial Films Company, 1931

Another Sulochana vehicle, a social interest film revolving around the issues of caste.

 

8. Shyam Sundar

Director: Bhalji G Pendharkar; studio: Saraswati Cinetone, 1932

Shyam Sundar (1932)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first Marathi film to complete a ‘silver jubilee’ (a 25-week run). It was also the first Indian film to have a scene added to attract repeat audiences. Starring Shahu Modak and Shanta Apte, it was a mythological film drawing from the Vishnu Purana.

 

9. Sairandhari

Director: V Shantaram; studio: Prabhat Film Company, 1933

Sairandhari (1933)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first Indian film in colour. A costume spectacular, it was made in India and later sent to the UFA Studio in Germany for colour processing.

 

10. Educated Wife (Griha Laxmi)

Director: Sarvottam Badami; studio: Sagar, 1934

Considered to be a fine example of female-centric films of the period, depicting the goodness of the traditional values of an Indian wife.

 

11. Indira M.A.

Director: Nandlal Jaswantlal; studio: Imperial Films Company, 1934

Indira M.A. (1934)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

Sulochana, at the height of her fame, played an Oxford-educated woman trying to balance modern and traditional ideas of Indian womanhood.

 

12. The Mill (Mill Mazdoor)

Director: Mohan Bhavnani; studio: Ajanta Cinetone, 1934

The Mill (Mill Mazdoor, 1934)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first Indian talkie banned by British censors, who came under pressure from Indian mill owners. Based on a Munshi Premchand novel, it was a story on the rights of the working-class in which the mill owner’s daughter takes the side of striking workers. The film was banned for its mutinous undertones.

 

13. Seeta

Director: Devaki Bose; studio: East India Film Company, 1934

Seeta (1934)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first Indian talkie to be exhibited at an international film festival, the second-ever Venice International Film Festival. A Marathi-language film starring Durga Khote, Seeta was unique in depicting gods and goddesses as human.

 

14. Blood for Blood (Khoon Ka Khoon)

Director: Sohrab Modi; studio: Minerva Movietone, Stage Film, 1935

Blood for Blood (Khoon Ka Khoon, 1935)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The first talkie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was filmed in Hindi and Urdu and shot in the ‘play within a play’ format.

 

15. Worshipper of Love (Prem Pujaari)

Director: Rafiq Ghaznavi; studio: Jayant Studios, 1935

Starring Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham), the first Miss India, who like Sulochana (Ruby Myers) belonged to the Baghdadi Jew Community and played strong female protagonists onscreen.

 

16. Holy Crime (Chaaya)

Director: Vinayak; studio: Huns Pics, 1936

Holy Crime (Chaaya, 1936)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

Based on a short story by VS Khandekar, Chaaya stars renowned Marathi actors Master Vinayak and Leela Chitnis.

 

17. Child Widow (Balayogini)

Director: K. Subramanyam; studio: Madras United Artists Corporation, 1936

The first children’s film made in South India. Made in Tamil and Telugu, film historians consider it one of the most important social interest films ever made in South India. Child artist Baby Saroja was dubbed by the press as ‘India’s Shirley Temple’ and the film was praised for commenting on the plight of widows in India.

 

18. Gopal Krishna

Director: Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram; studio: Prabhat Film Company, 1937

The 1938 remakes of Gopal Krishna in Hindi and Marathi are available on VHS and DVD but the silent original still remains elusive. A mythological film that stressed the human aspects of the story rather than miracles, it starred Shanta Apte and Ram Marathe.

 

19. The Untouchable (Achhut)

Director: Chandulal Shah; studio: Ranjit Studios, 1940

The Untouchable (Acchut, 1940)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

The film consciously echoed Mahatma Gandhi’s message to eradicate ‘untouchability’. The characters overcome the caste barrier in the ending, extremely unconventional for films of that period.

 

20. Life (Zindagi)

Director: Promatesh Chandra Barua; studio: New Theatres Ltd, 1940

Life (Zindagi, 1940)

Credit: National Film Archive of India

An unmarried couple run away from the woman’s brutish husband to find salvation in service to society. One of the highest grossing films of 1940, it starred Kundan Lal Saigal, Pahadi Sanyal, Ashalata, Jamuna, Shyam Laha, Nemo, Sitara Devi, Bikram Kapoor and Ragni Rani.

 

21. The Ganga Flows in Reverse (Ulti Ganga)

Director: Keshavrao Dhaiber; studio: Minerva Movietone, 1942

The Ganga Flows in Reverse (Ulti Ganga, 1942)

Pramila starred in this film with strong feminist undertones, which imagined a world where traditional gender roles are reversed.

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