Old Films: Habib Tanvir

This is an excerpt from HABIB TANVIR’s Memoirs, translated by MAHMOOD FAROOQUI, to be released this evening 7 pm at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi.

Memoirs by Habib Tanvir, translated by Mahmood Farooqui, Penguin Viking, Delhi, 2013; Rs. 599, pp. 400

First of all there was the bioscope. A woman wearing ghaghra and choli would roam around from mohalla to mohalla calling out to the children and gathering them at a chowk or in large courtyard, would take out a long stool from her arm pit and place it on the ground, would remove an octangular and muddy looking tin box from her head and place it on top which had a small mouth covered by a black cloth which the child would remove and peer inside. The women usually came from Rajasthan. The box would contain ten or fifteen cards of photographs, she would show them one after the other and also introduce them in a particular musical speech, ‘see the Rauza of Taj Bibi, see the Lal Qila of Dilli…etc.’ At one time only one child could see the pictures, which would be projected through a lens and lit up through a bulb inside the box which would make the photographs appear larger and more dramatic. When one child was through another would take his place. A large and restive crowd of children would be gathered around waiting their turn. Even the elders would be eager to see Hindustan through these pictures. She would charge two to three chhedams from everyone who took a peep. When the show was over, she would hawk her way to another mohalla.

This was a kind of one man cinema, then there was also self-made cinema, which should still be around but is not seen as often and then there was the kaleidoscope. This was in color and instead of photographs it contained designs. You needed a conical device which had a small mouth at one end where a lens was placed and children would look with one eye at the designs. Inside there were small pieces of bangles suspended between two mirrors and its reflection in the four directions produced an impression of five colored or six colored or seven colored flowers. If you moved the thing a bit the pattern would break and a new one would be formed. You could move and twist it and keep looking and there would be designs upon designs with hardly any of them ever repeated and you would be reminded of stained glass paintings. The basic principle is very simple and it is thus possible to make one yourself and I am sure it is still around and you would have seen it a hundred times but I doubt whether you would have seen a bioscope.

Once films came into vogue, we took to collecting small scraps of reels which lay strewn around the projector room and we would improvise a projector at home and project our own movies on the walls. As a child I have shown films in this manner in the more spacious rooms of some of our friends and have myself seen it umpteen times too. The crevices in the chhappars on the roof allow strips of sun light to fall on the floor, using a mirror it was possible to reflect these as larger circles on the wall. So all you needed was a cardboard box which you placed at a reasonable distance from a wall pass the film strip through it and the film was on! The strips usually contained at least twenty five to thirty pictures of any one scene. A slight movement could create a sense of changing positions of the actors in every frame so when you passed it through the box you could produce a broadly moving image. The skilled ones could project quite clear moving images. The strips did not contain stories but the movement of actors in the frame was enough to thrill us. There was one kid in our mohalla who was so good at it that I remember he used to charge an entrance fees for his shows and many of us paid him too! When I grew older I started to use this technique to other ends. Right behind our house there was a small lane and on the other side of it lived a group of shepherds. The wall opposite had a small window through which you could see the bathroom of the house. Once I peeped into the window from the terrace of our house and found a beautiful girl bathing. I would take a mirror and project patterns of light on her back, half wanting her to look up and see me and half terrified of the prospect. But she never wondered at the source of light on her naked body and never ever looked up which delighted and disappointed me in equal measure.

There is also the ancient art of scroll where an entire story is painted on a scroll, for instance the Pabuji’s phad in Rajasthan. The art of the scroll players is popular from Bengal right up to Spain. Although it is now dead in Spain it still remains popular in Bengal. The Artist sings the story out and moves the pictures about by rolling up and folding the scroll, thus s/he is both a painter as well as a storyteller and in a certain sense he also acts as the custodian of our past. I have heard Bangladeshi scroll singers recite the tragedy and the end of Mujibur Rehman in the same way. Before the era of cinema, other than folk theatre and puppetry circus provided the main means of public entertainment in India and this was a truly international medium. Circus companies would tour the whole country, travel to different cities in India and abroad. People from as far as China or Russia or Germany used to work in the circus. Since circuses contain a lot of spectacle, action and acrobatics does not depend on language these companies could also tour European countries. Given the logistics of moving a large number of animals, carts and people a company would usually stay put in a city for a few months. The companies spent thousands of rupees in doling out handsome salaries to artistes and staff. Circus was usually played in the Big Top, a huge circular tent which had a many tiered seating arrangement, sofa sets, chairs and then a gallery behind it, around a huge ring. Thousand of men, women and children would crowd the tent and it would continuously echo with claps.

When theatrical companies were first formed in India they adopted the same methods. They too would use the Big Top for their performances and tours, their artistes too were handsomely paid and with a large number of different plays in their repertoire they usually toured with all sorts of sets, stage equipments and a large orchestra. With great fanfare the theatrical companies toured the whole country and either earned humongous profits or went completely bankrupt. The difference was that they would have a huge stage and in front of it the spectators would sit on the floor in a semi circle and then beyond them would be a row of sofas and chairs on the two sides. I never saw any galleries. When Silent Films came into vogue they too relied on the Big Top, which took at least an entire day, sometimes more, to set up. As a child, with the help of a smart set of friends, I had found a way of watching circus without tickets and we did the same with film shows too. Unlike a circus tent, where it was possible to slip under and watch the show behind the gallery rows, the theatrical companies or cinema Big Tops usually had very closely erected pegs and it was not possible to slip under. But an enterprising friend found a way out, he would slash the tent with a razor blade and we would all slip under and enjoy the show without anyone catching us.

The films I saw in the Big Top were presented by two brothers Babulal and Chunnilal and the cinema was called Babulal Cinema. The brothers made so much money that later on Babulal Cinema shifted to a pucca building in Raipur although it was still the age of silence cinema. After the death of the elder brother Babulal the cinema was run by Chunnilal alone although it was still called Babulal Cinema and it is still running in Raipur on Bailey Road near Dal Holi, the courtesan street although even Chunnilal has passed away now. Chunnilal was a man of many talents. He was of slight build, fat, fair, bald and walked with a limp. A strand of gray hair could be seen on his head and he would be dressed in a borderless white dhoti, a pale white kurta, a yellow coat, grimy collars, a pista colored small embroidered cap, slippers and used a walking stick. He would sit outside the cinema and sell tickets himself while the Orchestra would play the band outside, exactly the same way as I had seen at the Kali Bari theatre, the difference was that Babulal’s band played the light, dramatic tunes of the Circus. Chuunilal had no concept of timings as far as his shows were concerned. Since he owned the theatre the shows ran on his whim, if the show listed for three began at six or the six o clock one began to nine or the nine pm pm one started at eleven or twelve it didn’t bother him. He would sit there until he could sell tickets for the show, people would buy the tickets and lounge around outside and would urge him with a mixture of humor and annoyance to move inside so that they too could go and take their seats but he would ignore them and keep counting the money and doling out tickets. Once he was done with ticket sales he would limp with his walking stick to the entrance and the crowd would mill around him and now the process of checking tickets and tearing the stubs would start. This too was done personally by Chunnilal, he would not let anyone else do this. Once he was through with checking their tickets the crowd would move inside while he still remained at the gate. Now it was the turn of people who did not have enough money for the tickets. Ticket sales have stopped by now, instead Chunnilal is negotiating with the crowd, now they are going at half the rate, Chunnilal accepts the money and shoves people in. There are still people milling around hopefully and lo the two anna ticket which was going for an anna has now been reduced to two paise a ticket. Inside people are clapping, cheering and shouting in chorus for Chunnilal, suddenly they go all quiet and then loud clapping again. Chunnilal is limping his way into the hall. Everyone knew that the film would not start until Chunnilal came in and Chunnilal would not come in until there is anyone left outside but the strong reception to his entry has another reason. They would not enjoy the film without Chunnilal, his real talent would be revealed now.

Chunnilal seats himself in the middle of the hall, turns towards the projector and says, ‘come on,’ and now the film takes off and so does Chunnilal. His commentary keeps pace with the film. The film can hardly protest because it is silent and there is nothing to check Chunnilal, he has no lack of words nor of voice, he speaks whatever comes to his mind and the audience enjoys itself as does Chunnilal. The commentary is very funny and also vulgar, ‘oye, what are you standing around for motherfucker, the villain will kill your heroine, bastard make the horse go faster, faster you idiot, sisterfucker how long will your beloved have to wait, oye how long will the villain wait you duffer! Look he has gagged her mouth, he will do as he pleases with her, is he going to wait around for your permission you idiot…there there, he has reached, the fight has started, there goes the villain, the hero has run away with the heroine on his horse, there he has reached beside a lake.’ Someone makes the reasonable objection, ‘but we are already watching all that Chunnilal,’ Chunnilal says ‘shut up’ in his booming voice. ‘Abe why are you sitting around wasting time, embrace her you wimp, if you cant do it then make way, I am coming to take your place…you idiot she is asking for something else, can’t you get it, what kind of a hero are you.’ The hall is rolling in laughter but Chunnilal goes about it with utter seriousness, not even a smile on his face, this is obviously serious work for him. The film’s hero, heroine and villain are absent from the scene and there is not stopping or restraining Chunnilal, he can say whatever he likes. He was free to comment on all the action that was visible on the screen and also comment on whatever was not there. It was difficult to say whether people came to watch the film or to listen to Chunnilal’s commentary on the film.

Once I had gone with my friend Sohanlal to watch ‘Toofan Mail’ at the Babulal Cinema. The hero, who was played by D Billimoria or E Billimoria or B Billimoria is fighting a throng of villains on top of a moving train, trying to make his way towards the engine. Madhuri, the heroine is tied up and is lying helpless on the tracks. Her mouth is gagged, she is desperately trying to wriggle free. Chunnilal is screaming ‘throw him off,’ and his joy and pitch is rising with the felling of every member of the villain’s gang, ‘there goes the bastard…yes yes that’s it…’ There is a band already playing but apparently that is not enough to create frenzy, Chunnilal must shout louder than the band to hype up the scene. Sohanlal was in a state. He had taken to heart the desperation of the hero and the heroine as well as Chunnilal’s excitement and taking the whole thing upon himself was sending me into a state as well. He was all stiff, bending low on the bench where we were sitting and was tightly gripping my thigh. I would remove his hand but in his heightened state the hand would soon revert to my thigh and would knead my flesh with great gusto. I heard him say something, I turned to look, his face was all read and contorted and straining to hear I realized that he was saying exactly the same thing as Chunnilal, without the barrage of abuses that the latter employed. All he could manage was ‘abe, abe…’ or when he was truly aroused, ‘bastard,’ ‘throw him…kick him…yes that’s it, that’s it…By then Billimoria has made his way to the engine, he is now crouching ahead of the front grill of the engine, his hands are spread out and when the train reaches there he swiftly and cleanly lifts Madhuri off the tracks. Chunnilal praises him, well done shabash and the entire hall busts out clapping.

This was the era of films like Rin Tin Tin and their sequels. These were about an Alsatian dog who acted as a spy. The way he ran and what a nose, he could smell out the clues for anything, he had such a fan following that when the news of his death was published in the newspapers everyone was as distraught as if they had lost a living human actor who had won our hearts with his histrionics. We had been similarly grief stricken when news appeared about Weissmuller going insane. He had played the role of Tarzan in innumerable films, Tarzan the Ape was the film of the series and he had become very popular with it. When he lost his mind he would scream and shout in the same way as he did in the films when he wanted to assemble the animals of the jungle to rescue his beloved Jane. When the series was revived later on it was not half as much fun, nor was the new Tarzan any match for Weissmuller.

Wadia Movietone had the lead in producing stunt films in our country. They were producing films like ‘Hunterwali Nadia,’ or ‘Nadia in Toofan Mail.’ Shantaram was also producing silent films with great special effects. I loved watching these films, Massaheb was also fond of films. Whenever a new film was released, Massaheb would buy two tickets and take me along, by then there was a new cinema hall in Raipur called Sapre Talkies. We would go to the Babulal cinema or to Sapre talkies. Then talkies came into vogue. In its early phase talkies relied on a style of speaking and it appeared as if the filmmakers, who had turned silent cinema into a complete art form, had forgotten the art of filmmaking. This happened all over the world. It took a long time for talkies to find their own voice and really cinema should now be called the art of talkies. The same thing happened with the advent of color. When color first came filmmakers appeared simply to be cluelessly playing with it, it took a long time before they acquired dexterity in using color. Look at Satyajit Ray. It was after he had used color in films like Kanchenjunga that he managed to achieve mastery with Shatranj ke Khilari where every frame appears like a painting. While it may be skillful in other aspects Kanchenjunga was quite weak in its usage of color. May be it had to do with lack of money. However, the Hollywood films used Technicolor quite well right from the beginning and their bold hues quickly gave way to more natural colours.

The first Indian talky Alam Ara was not released in Raipur until I was there. I saw films like ‘Nurani Moti.’ In it, much like the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, a djinn was trapped in a bottle and when he was released from it he appeared like a monster in a haze of smoke laughing loudly and says to his owner, ‘what do you wish for my Lord,’ and began to serve him. By then the Parsi theatrical companies had shut shop and most of its personnel were unemployed so the film companies began to draw them in. Thus shows which the audience as used to seeing on stage were now reproduced for them on the screen. The famous singers and actors of the stage, whom they heard only on HMV’s 78 rpm records but had never seen them, were now adorning the silver screen. The records themselves were interesting objects. Once the song finished the singer would blurt out their names, My name is Kalu Qawwal of Patiala, My name is Mukhtar Begum or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi. A horn was attached to the gramophone and the coice was amplified through it. There used to be a box of needles to play the records, you inserted the needle, played the record and then replaced the needle for a new record. Now you could actually see Master Nisar and Miss Kajjan on the screen in a film like Sheerin Farhad. Sheerin is singing and crying at Farhad’s grave.

‘Bicchre hue milenge phir qismat ne gar mila diya.’

As the song ended, there was a loud bang and you had a scene of paradise and you had the two lovers mixing with the houris and singing songs, exactly like it was played on the stage. Or Gauhar bai and Mukhtar Bai are singing a song in mid shot for twenty twenty five minutes. Perhaps Griffith (Charlie Griffith) had not discovered the art of close up yet or that films had not totally accepted them yet. Eisenstein’s achievements in film had not spread out wider yet. The same thing happened with Shantaram-with the advent of talkies he seemed to have forgotten the trolley shot which he had used extensively in silent films. Although the gap between them was very short and shortly after Shantaram had begun to redeploy his technical innovations with lenses and camera movement which had rightly won him the label of the Indian Hitchcock. I can’t forget this shot from one of his films, probably Amrit manthan or Dharmatma, where an eye expands to take the shape of the entire screen and a man with a dagger can be seen walking in the reflection in that iris. In the early days of talkies there were things and features which appeared acceptable then but now when I look back they appear strange. For example if a scene has begun in a long shot then the entire scene would be played out in long shot or if a song was being enacted in mid shot then the camera would mot move through the long while it took to finish the song. Even then people went to see films with great enthusiasm and were endlessly entertained no end.

Then the skills improved, some filmmakers went to Germany or Italy and came back with new techniques. In Calcutta the New Theatre film company and Prabhat Talkies in Pune became well known. While Maharashtra had Bedekar and Shantaram, Bengal had great filmmakers such as P C Baruah, B N Sirkar, Devki Bose and Nitin Bose and they produced some wonderful films. Manzil, Dhoop Chhaon, Bhagat Surdas, Chandidas, Ishara, Vidyapati, Street Singer and Crorepati from New Theatres and masterpieces such Duniya na Mane, Jwala, Amrit Manthan, Sant Tukaram, Amar Jyoti, Dharmatma, Maya Macchinder were produced by Prabhat Talkies. While western India had actors like Chandra Mohan, Shanta Apte, Durga Khote, Jagirdar, Mazhar Khan and Mubarak, Eastern India had actors like Baruah, Panjaj Mullick, Pahari Sanyal, Prithviraj, Kanan Bala, Jamna, K C De and Nawab. There was a film called Sita where Prithviraj had played the role of Ramchandra and Durga Khote had played Sita. This was produced by a company called East India Films before New Theatres had come into being. If you have seen that film you would remember the scene where the earth parts a number of times and Sita is showing running into her and the earth envelopes her in her arms.

Usually New Theatre films were released in Babulal Cinema whereas the Prabhat Talkie films were shown at Sapre Talkies. I was very fond of the trade marks of both companies. As soon as the commercials were shown as a slide show on the screen I would sit up with anticipation that the film is about to begin. And when after the display of the censor certificate the head of an elephant propped up and the elephant would raise up her trunk and welcome all with his roar, or when a slim and beautiful maiden, dressed in a Marathi Sari appeared with a bunch of lotuses in her hands and would bend backwards and blow on a bugle and her long plait of hair could be seen dangling right up to her toes I would be so excited that a shiver passed down my body and I would become completely attentive to the about to begin film. Even before you entered the hall at Sapre Talkies the loudspeaker would be playing Vande Mataram in the Marathi style. The song produced a strange sensation in our hearts, a sense of anticipation that we are now going to see a new masterpiece. And this was not so incorrect either because Prabhat was producing marvelous and thought provoking films at that time as was New Theatre. I remember Sehgal reclining on a tree, with one leg on the ground, dressed in a Kurta pajama sings the song ‘Balam aaye baso mero man men’-and what a memorable tree it was too, its strong stem bifurcating into two wings as it rose from the ground. Or Sehgal sprawled in a Victoria coach roaming around the streets of Calcutta and singing in his inimitable style the famous thumri of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan in kharaj piya bin nahi aavat chain. Sehgal, again, looking dapper in a suit and a solar hat, gun in hand singing by a river sukh ke din the ek sapan tha, dukh ke din beetat nahi and then he shoots at the birds in the river but he misses his mark and the sound startles a woman who was going to fill water from the river and she drops the pot, Sehgal then laughs and asks her how are you sister and the woman who is actually Paro’s friend is writing all this to her in a letter while the song is in flashback. Devdas, the film which had this song ran for weeks all over India. I saw it several times and I still remember its songs. When I went to Morris College I would sing its songs to amuse my friends and classmates. Afterwards I also saw the Dilip Kumar version but found it unwatchable. The older films were wonderful combinations of subtlety and simplicity. And then I heard about the latest version, starring the current super star Shahrukh Khan which cost crores of Rs I was very put off. Why do you need so much money to make a Devdas? Later in life whenever I got a chance to see the Sehgal version I made sure to catch it and I always enjoyed it as much as I had when I saw it the first time. I also saw Baruah in the Bengali version of the film but it was not very good. My feeling is that even in Calcutta the Hindi version was probably more popular than the Bengali one.

New Theatres and Prabhat both tried to stay true to their regional traditions and drew on its literature to make their films. While they both produced socially conscious films they differed in their treatment of themes. Where the films produced by Prabhat tended to be slightly didactic and propgandaic, the New theatre films relied on subtler notes to convey their message. In the film Manzil by Baruah when he throws a pebble in a tank creating a wave of ripples we automatically think of the turbulent state of his mind. The other difference lay in the fact that the Prabhat films were usually shot indoors which allowed us to glimpse the marvelous set making talent of Fatehlal and Damle whereas New Theatre films were mostly shot outdoors showing us the rivers and fields of Bengal. When I was young I was very influenced by New Theatre films. I would tell my friends that New Theatre’s class was evident in the fact that every new film had a different hero and a different director but the films were always of a high quality. If Sehgal was the hero in Devdas or ‘Bhagat Surdas’ or ‘Chandidas’ Pahari Sanyal played the hero in Vidyapati or in Dhoop Chhaon or Baruah in Manzil and Prithvi Raj in Ishara, and each one of these had a different director. I vividly remember one of its films Crorepati, I have rarely seen a comedy as good as this. Sehgal plays a College student in the film who is bald, which he was too in real life but it was only after watching this film that I realized that he had sported false hair in all his other films. Sehgal’s tall figure was not the most ideal for films but in this one the camera had exaggerated the effect of his height and thus made it ridiculous. I remember him strolling up and down in his room like a moron holding a letter from his beloved and singing the Ghazal, ‘Ae Dilruba kahan tak jaur o sitam sahenge,’ and when he becomes a millionaire after winning a lottery he is so stricken with joy that in a fit of laughter he throws up the notes in the air. I was very distraught when I learnt that its print had been destroyed. It is now impossible to watch the old Silent films of our country. Where will one get to see the breathtaking stunts of Master Bikre, the same legendary figure who lost his life when he fell into a ravine while trying to jump on horseback from one cliff to another. He was a very popular actor who had won our hearts with his stunts in innumerable films and that is why his death had shocked so many. There was a film called Deccan Queen, it was an entertainer pure and simple but was made with tremendous skill. It was perhaps for the first time that a female actor was playing a detective. I remember the scene in the eponymous train where she reads the newspapers while wearing black shades and the extremely well shot scenery of the western ghats and the picturesque Lonavala-Khandala hills. But how can one rue the destruction of the print of Deccan queen when so many classics from high quality production houses have been destroyed. In the west though they have succeeded in preserving a lot of their silent films and you can still enjoy some of those classics. Some of them had a background music track added to it, although it was not really necessary because there is a rhythm a soundscape to silent films. Charlie Chaplin’s silent productions such as The Gold Rush and the The Kid survive in good quality prints. Even in the talkies silence has an important role to play. From Bresson’s Balthazar to Ray’s Pather Panchali make excellent use of silence. It is as if the filmmaker has left those gaps to free the audience to savor the mood which has been produced by while watching the film. Sometimes the whirr of the camera which has been captured unintentionally creates its own tension. Turning old black and white films into color is a ridiculous idea, what they did with Mughal-e Azam for instance. Black and White filmmaking is a separate art, it demands a different lighting set up and you can see this in Ray’s trilogy or in Ghatak’s Subarnrekha. Some films were made entirely with a hand held camera and their very rawness tells us something about life, that is not all smooth and sweet but also harsh and rough. Ariane Mnouchkin’s film Marad Sade which is about the French revolution, this was first shown as a stage play where the actors had walked into the audience and begun to directly address them making the audience stand in for nineteenth century Frenchmen. While making the film Mnouchkin’s cameraman was following the actors around and captured the actors and audience by turns. Using this technique the film not only brought the audience closer to nineteenth century French masses but also increased their revolutionary fervor in their own time.

There are countless examples that prove that there are a thousand facets to the art of filmmaking and that the director is not constrained by any rules and can invent his own way to making a film exactly like how it is for the stage or painting or poetry and all the other arts. We should be able to show these films to our film students at the Pune Film Institute. It is important to know the tradition not because it is holy or deserves worship but because it is only the tradition and the canon that allows us to chart new paths even if it involves breaking up of the old. The artist is a iconoclast as well as a iconographer.

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