It was July 7, 1896. The people of Bombay woke up to a classified advertisement in the Times of India. Lumière Brothers (Auguste and Louis Lumière) were all set for a show of their Cinmatographe, a collection of snippets – Arrival of a Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving the Factory and Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels at the then famous Watson Hotel, Bombay and at Novelty Theatre, Bombay. Though the show was open to only a handful of the city’s elite it left them dumbfounded. There was only one word to express their experience – “Incredible!” “Picture moved like a living being!” ‘Cinema’ had finally reached the shores of our country.
Then, bioscope arrived at Calcutta, the capital of undivided Bengal. John Stevens and Father Laffaun of St Xavier’s College, two foreigners settled in Calcutta, did their bit in popularizing cinema. While Stevens began showing clippings as a double bill attraction during intervals between the scenes of plays at Star Theatre, the Jesuit Father propagated cinema culture among his students and others.
Meanwhile, a young man, Hiralal Sen arrived from Manikgunge (now in Bangladesh). He had a talent for photography. He was present at a show when a film troupe, en route to Paris, screened a short film, made by Stevens. It was tagged with the stage show of an opera, The Flower of Persia at the Star Theatre. Smitten by the bug of cinema, Sen borrowed a camera from Stevens and made his first film, “A Dancing Scene” depicting sequences of the opera. And it was the beginning of a new dawn.
Sen bought a Warwick Bioscope – an assemblage of a projector and a movie camera, developed by Walter Isaacs in 1897 from London. The following year saw Hiralal and his brother Motilal, floating the Royal Bioscope Company. A film show was organized by collecting and arranging some portions of Alibaba and Forty thieves, in the early part of 1904. Within next 15 years (1898-1913) Hiralal made many short films including documentaries and commercials. His camera recorded the many moods of the milieu from various angles such as the horse-driven tram trundling along the street, gathering at the bathing ghats, fight of gamefowls, the sacred shrine of Kalighat, etc. The maverick filmmaker also nurtured his creativity by making advertising film. He was one of those who pioneered ad-filmmaking in the country with C.K. Sen’s Jabakusum Hair Oil and Batto Krishna Paul’s Edward’s Tonic. Unfortunately, a towering inferno consumed Sen’s pioneering works in its leaping flames.
In the meantime an entrepreneur named Jamshed Framji Madan started bioscope shows in a tent at Maidan in 1902. He imported equipment from a Paris based company, Pathé Frères and began showing some of its productions. These shows were organized under the banner of Elphinstone Bioscope Company, (founded by Madan in 1907) at Elphinstone Picture Palace (now Chaplin Cinema)- the first permanent cinema hall in Calcutta. Madan Theatre and Palace of Varieties (Elite Cinema) were also his enterprises. He owned a slew of 37 theatres in the city including Electric Theatre (Regal Cinema), Grand Opera House (Globe Cinema) and Crown Cinema (Uttara Cinema). In 1919, Madan produced the first Bengali feature film (silent), Billwamangal. It was first screened at the Cornwallis Theatre (Sree Cinema). He was quick to sense the ‘fire’ of political discontent within the common man and along with Jyotish Sarkar’s coverage of the anti-partition demonstrations of 1905, he produced reels of ‘topicals’, shown as ‘added attraction’ to the main productions he made.
The journey of silent movies thus continued till 1927 when Talkie generated interest among people. Alam Arah, an Imperial Film Production, directed by A. M. Irani, with Master Vithal and Jubeda in the cast, arrived with a bang on March 14, 1931, as the first Talkie in India.
Though the trend of cinema going had caught on in Bombay, the playhouses of North Calcutta provided the sole entertainment to Kolkatans. At this juncture they caught sight of something that they had never seen before. Let’s relive the past.
In a laidback afternoon a phaeton leisurely moved along the street distributing some handbills among passers-by. A band followed, blowing bagpipes and brass-horns. A man, conspicuous by his colourful outfits, with a loud speaker held at his mouth went nineteen to the dozen, “Talkie! Talkie!! Talkie!!! The Eighth Wonder! Amazing! Pictures speak like we do! Come and see what you have never seen before…!” Sorojini, a young housewife of a traditional Bengali family in Calcutta of early thirties of the last century, busy in her household chores, cocked her ears to listen to what it was all about…
It was the publicity campaign for Jamai Sasthi, the first Bengali talkie – a Madan Theatre Limited production – directed by Amar Chowdhury. The film was released on April 11, 1931, at Crown Cinema. With the ‘tacit’ (silent) becoming ‘talkative’ (talkie), love for cinema only grew intense.