Ironic as it may seem, I am not a collector either by instinct or inclination. And yet, over the years I have come to acquire a considerable and widely varied body of archival film memorabilia- photographs, song and synopsis booklets, posters, lobby cards, negatives from films, rare film books – Indian and International cinema and old film magazines. It all started in 1949 when the well-known journalist-filmmaker, K A. Abbas, suggested that I do a series of articles on the history of Indian film for his literary journal, Sargam. Abbas pointed out that it was a sadly neglected area and whatever had been written was largely hearsay and myth. The idea did not excite me initially, however I considered it a challenge worth undertaking.
K.A. Abbas was one of the pioneers of the neo-realist film movement in the country. Noted writer, Chidanand Dasgupta, recognised Abbas' film Dharti Ke Lal (1946) as a seminal title. Furthermore, his column in Blitz was renowned for its astute commentary.
I soon found that there were still many filmmakers alive whose enterprise and energy had contributed to make India a leading producer of entertainment films in the world. Many were veterans of the silent era who had seen cinema evolve from a simple curiosity to a dynamic art form. Eager to share with me their amazing experiences, they were equally generous with their film material.
Ardeshir Irani, the pioneer of the sound film in India was the first person I met. His Imperial film Company launched more film careers than any other in the country. He provided me with many silent and early talkie stills, including the working stills of Alam Ara showing Irani recording the first sound film on a small Tanar system. Some extremely valuable stills came from the silent era’s well-known filmmaker R.S.Chowdhury. Syed Fatehlal, one of the kindest of men, added to my collection some rare photographs from the silent and sound films of Prabhat. So did V.Shantaram who had initiated me into filmmaking. Others who were equally generous with their time and material included Baburao Painter the founder of the Maharashtra Film Company.
Another was Dwarkanath Narayan Sampat of Kohinoor Film Company, a colourful personality who had a tiger for a pet, and had produced an astonishing 98 films between 1920-29. Chandulal J.Shah, the ‘Sardar’ of the film industry, whose firm Ranjit Film Company produced every genre of film, keeping the country’s theatres well supplied. B.N.Sircar of New Theatres, Calcutta, had given India some of its most socially relevant films. Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema who had succeeded her husband Himansu Rai, kept the Bombay Talkies tradition of wholesome entertainment alive. J.B.H.Wadia, the producer of ‘Fearless Nadia’ films had once taught English literature and practiced law. Mehboob Khan, a semi literate boy from Gujarat achieved great fame with films like Aurat, Andaaz and Mother India. Sohrab Modi combined stage with screen to produce grand historical spectacles like Pukar, Sikander and Jhansi ki Rani. Ezra Mir, had honed his craft in Carl Laemmele’s Universal Studios in Hollywood. Mohan Bhavnani had in the mid-twenties served a period of apprenticeship at the famous UFA studios, Berlin. Back in India, he produced films as diverse as the Sanskrit classic Vasantsena, the socially relevant The Mill, and Tarzan-like films Zingaroo and Zambo Ka Beta. Though from different social and cultural backgrounds, these men all shared one common passion-Cinema. Among the artistes who contributed to my collection were Master Nissar of Madan Theatres Calcutta, Jairaj, Sulochana, Zebunissa, Nayampally, Dinshaw Billimoria and many others.
I faintly recollect watching two of Madan Theatres’ sound films- Laila Majnu and Shirin Farhad featuring Jahanara Kajjan and Master Nissar, both accomplished singers. Years later, I met Nissar who had by then fallen on hard times and lived in a tiny flat near Bombay Central. Nissar was a gentle soul who gave me a small pile of photographs from his films. I met several more stars including Sulochana (Ruby Meyers). Though past her prime, she was still beautiful. Over several meetings I had with her she would reminisce about the old times, film directors and fellow artistes. She too gave me some invaluable photographs. She also introduced me to Dinshaw Billimoria, her leading man in many films, and Jal Merchant with whom she had formed Ruby Pictures. Jairaj, whom I first met at Ranjit Studios, gave me some of his early silent film stills. I particularly value a working still with A.J.Patel at the camera and Nagendra Majumdar directing Triumph of Love. Through Jairaj, I met S.B.Nayampally, a mild mannered athletic man who specialized in ‘ape-man’ roles (Zarina, Zingaroo, Zambo Ka Beta). Nayampally had a photographic memory and an interesting collection that he graciously passed on to me.
1963 was the Golden Jubilee Year of Indian cinema and this event was to greatly enrich my experience and collection. I decided to commemorate the year by making a film using photographs and actual film excerpts, tracing Indian cinema’s evolution from the first film made in 1913, Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. The film, Glimpses of Indian Cinema was shown throughout the country, as was the exhibition of over 100 photographs that I had mounted. This exhibition opened at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. Each photograph was chosen for its visual quality as well as showing some significant moment in the film. Usually film stills are taken (actually staged) after a scene is over, resulting in a certain static quality, like a studio portrait. As Paul Rotha said, “Often beautiful in themselves- isolated from their surroundings- they always remain a fragment of a greater and sometimes more beautiful whole.” Stills of early silent films, often shot on location have that quality (Imperial’s Ram Rahim, Sinbad the Sailor, Wrath and B N sircar’s Chasher Meye). A fine example of indoor shoting is New Theatres’ Karwan-e-Hyat for its depth and detail, as Also Shantaram’s Aadmi and Padosi, and Bhavnani’s The Mill.
In 1964, the collection was exhibited at Kodak House and India House (Indian High commission) in London; Lincoln Centre, New York and the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. (I still retain many of the large silver gelatin fibre prints ( 18 x 24 in) from this traveling exhibition.) Thus began a process that acquired its own life and over the years my collection grew, as the Persian proverb goes 'Qatra qatra daiya shaved' (drop by drop it became a river).
It is sad to reflect that so much of our film heritage has been lost due to neglect. All that remains are some images, a reminder to preserve them. As Martin Scorsese, the celebrated American filmmaker observed, “film is history, with every foot of film lost, we lose a bit of our culture, to the world around us, to each other, and to ourselves".