Of the 1,350 silent-era films produced in India, only 30 were known to have survived. But on March 4, National Film Archive of India (NFAI) announced that they had acquired rare footage of ‘Madhabi Kankan’ aka ‘Slave Girl of Agra’, a silent-era film directed by Kolkata’s Jyotish Banerjee of ‘Manmoyee Girls’ School’ fame. While the discovery takes the number of surviving silent-era films to 31, it is also a significant find, given that it is the first among the films made by Banerjee under the banner of Madan Theatres Limited of Kolkata that has been recovered.
Banerjee had joined as a typist at the Madan Theatres and later went on to become the studio’s main film-maker in the silent era. He adapted several novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and plays by Girish Ghosh and Rabindra Mohan Moitra. An example of the Bengali literary film genre, his ‘Madhabi Kankan’ was an adaptation of Romesh Chunder Dutt’s historical novel starring Mumtaz Begum, Lalita Devi, Nawab, Bhanu Bannerjee, Leelavati, Jainarayan Mukherjee and Farida Begum. The novel explores the story of tripartite love. It is written against a historical background. Narendra and Hemnalini love each other. But she is married to Shrish Chandra while Narendra joins the Mughal army. Jelekha, a Tartar slave girl in the Mughal harem, falls in love with Narendra and pursues him. The Filmland Magazine of 1933 makes note of the film and writes: “If not for any other merits, this picture certainly claims a high place for its superb locations”.
This is Banerjee’s first silent era film to have survived. According to film historian Virchand Dharamsey, “This film was initially banned, re-censored and released in 1932. There could have been political and/or religious reasons for that. I have seen the footage and I feel the performance of Nawab in the role of Shah Jahan was remarkable.” Shot by two foreign technicians Charles Creed and Marconi, the film revolves around the events in the 17th century when Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’ sons fight for the throne. The surviving footage has the characters of Shuja and Jahan Ara along with Shah Jahan.
According to film scholar Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, this recovery is huge in the history of Indian cinema. “It was brave to make a film adaption exploring an inter-religious love story with Mughal history as the backdrop in 1930. During that time, a film based on Bankim’s Rajsingha by Madan Theatre was also banned. That film has been lost. It is significant that another film of the same gharana and from that era has been recovered by NFAI,” Mukhopadhyay pointed out.
During the silent era, three major film production houses — Madan Theatres, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Hindustan Cinema Films Company and Dwarkadas Sampat’s Kohinoor Film Company — made some 1,350 films in India. “While we have some elements of the other production houses, nothing had survived from Madan Theatres though it was the biggest producer and distributor during those days,” NFAI director Prakash Magdum said.
In 2016, NFAI had acquired 594 metres long footage (run time 28 minutes) of Rustom Dotiwala’s ‘Bilwamangal’ from Cinematheque Francaise — the Paris-based film organization which holds one of the largest archives of cinema in the world. Produced by Elphinstone Bioscope Company in Kolkata (the earlier avatar of Madan Theatres) with Bengali intertitles, ‘Bilwamangal’ is credited as the first Bengali feature film. When the footage of ‘Bilwamangal’ was discovered, the search for other footage began worldwide. Magdum himself paid three visits to Cinematheque Francaise before this footage was recovered. The 13-minute-long footage has been digitised by NFAI. “Anyone keen on seeing it can come to the archive. At a later point of time, we can put it up on our portal. As of now, the film does not have credits or inter-titles. That’s how it used to work in the silent era. We are in touch with film historians in this regard so that things can be in order for a proper screening,” Magdum said.
Source: Times of India