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Monday, April 12, 2021

Virchand Dharamsey narrates the story of India’s silent film era

Virchand Dharamsey should be leading a retired life, but at 85 he is working hard, digging deep for hidden and unknown secrets of Indian films. The Mumbai-based writer has been writing a book for the past few years, tentatively as the Archaeology of Early Indian Cinema with a colleague Iyesha Geeth Abbas from Kerala. Covering the period between 1895 to 1945, it is a challenging project and at the same time noble, given the shortage of reliable information on the earliest years of Indian Cinema.

In the first three decades of the last century, over 1,300 silent movies, we made in India. Alam Ara was the first sound movie that was produced in 1931 and by 1934 the “Talkies” had taken over the screens. But only 29 of the silent movies made in India survive.

Dharamsey said: “There is a lack of history and this creates a lot of problems, especially with regards to the theory.” Still, if there is anyone willing enough to narrate the story of that period, it’s Virchand Dharamsey. The author of the definitive filmography of the silent film period between the early 1900s and the early 1930s.

DV Dharap, Firoze Rangoonwalla, Erik Barnouw, S Krishnaswamy, and Bhagishwar Jha are among the many other chroniclers of the pioneering years of Indian Cinema. “Not only does it present an exhaustive list of film titles, but it is also the first to list cast and production details which are invaluable tools for the film historian,” says Kaushik Bhaumik, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in his Ph.D. thesis The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry, 1913-1936.

He further explains: “A narrative begins to emerge from the details alone, the number of films produced rises, personnel change tracks, new studios emerge and new kinds of films with new kinds of name begin to be made.”

How was the struggle behind gathering information?

Dharamsey had been already working on research projects for historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, by the time he started compiling his filmography in the early ’80s. Setting on a quest to have a clear picture on the ear of silent films, appears to have been an extension of his curiosity of the past.

Virchand Dharamsey noted that the tools needed for archaeology is applicable for cinema, “how to dig, where to dig, what to collect.” Dharamsey began his research by meeting the surviving technicians from the time and streaming through old newspapers, magazines, advertising material, songs, and publicity booklets.

Mumbai collector like; Hussein Bookletwala, who had a precious pamphlet of Kanjibhai Rathod’s Kala Nag from 1924. Dharamsey also looked through old magazines, luckily few old journalists were still alive and could be interviewed.

When he wasn’t allowed to borrow the magazines or any tangible information to make a photocopy of them, he would write down the whole information by hand. His notebooks are held together by rubber bands and they are stored in a cupboard at his home in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. It is the representation of his labor.

Dharamsey also managed to track down a few of the employees who had worked in the film studios during the silent era. A great deal of information was lost because the inquiries always came late.

During a journey he had willing set on, a few milestones were missed. Dharamsey could never manage to meet Zubeida, the silent movie star, who lived in Mumbai and dies in 1988. He also failed to meet and interview Bhalji Pendharkar, because he was unable to travel to Kolhapur. Bhalji Pendharkar made films between the 1920s to 1960s before he died in 1994.

Having a few of the films available which he was researching, Dharamsey approached his subject with reference to textual, visual, bald dates, and silvers of information.

“The films existed only as descriptions, and I had to use my own judgment about them,” Dharamsey explained. “I was trying to recreate with data, just like an archaeologist or a historian. I was seeing the context in which they were made, the subjects they explored.”

Light of Asian Indian Silent 1912-1934, was the first time when the filmography was published in the year 1994. Suresh Chabria the former director of the National Film Archive India had edited the publication. He has been commissioned to coincide with a retrospective Indian Silent film which was held at the Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto festival in the Italian town Pordenone in that year. Chabria has also curated the prints shown of the Indian Silent film at the festival.

Dharamsey’s filmography begins with the first Indian film narrative from the year 1912, which played Pundalik by NG Chitre and RG Torney. Talking of the inceptions of film, the first movie made by an Indian came in the year 1901, when Harishchandra S Bhatvadekar shot a wrestling match in Mumbai. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released Raja Harishchandra and Mohini Bhasmasur in 1913. The details of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke production, released after Raja Harishchandra, have a craze of historians. The casts were Durgabai and Kamalabai, who were the first actresses, perhaps, to appear in movies.

Dharamsey has added remarks to the titles in his filmography. Very little is being known about the ‘Race is Thes’ but apart from the fact that it was released in 1926, starring Madan Mohan and Surajram. Dharamsey said: “Banned on the grounds that it ‘transfers to an Indian setting all the worst features of the lowest form of American vulgarity’.”

Let’s look into Virchand Dharamsey’s personal life.

Even though being passionate about archaeology, Dharamsey has no formal training in either of the disciplines. Being a school drop-out, he worked in his family-run spice export company in Masjid, South Mumbai for a brief period. Eventually, he branched out on his own when the business shut down in the mid-1950s Over the next few years after that, Dharamsey set himself as an interpreter, translator, and researcher for visiting historians like anthropologists and archaeologists. His ability to create foundational data with brick has been proved invaluable for film studies.

Historian Aparna Kapadia said; “Scholars like Dharamsey who have been researching and sampling material on unique subjects that interest them with dedication for years, are extremely important for the wider scholarly background.”  She thanks him in her 2018 study In Praise of Kings Rajputs, Sultans, and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.

She further explained: “Firstly, particularly in India, where the collection and the maintenance of primary sources is a fraught exercise, local collectors and interpreters play a critical role in preserving knowledge. Second, folks like Dharamsey are committed to knowledge for knowledge sake – genuine scholarship and historical veracity matter to them. This makes them invaluable resources for academics and historians especially when the officially available archive may have gaps.”

In addition to the filmography in Light of Asia, Dharamsey made invaluable contributions to the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, and published in 1994. Expanded the filmography in a revised edition of Light of Asia in 2013, Dharamsey added to the credits and unearthed duplications that had occurred because some films had alternative titles.

Meanwhile, continuing his archaeological research, Dharamsey published several essays on this subject in scholarly journals. He published his won book in 2012, about a pioneering 19th-century figure, titled Bhagwanlal Indraji (1839-88)–The First Indian Archaeologist: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of the Past.

The absence of early silent prints isn’t the only reflection of India’s disregard for its film history. The venue of India’s first-ever film screening is in such a precarious state that it has been earmarked for demolition which is in Mumbai. The Esplanade in Kala Ghoda neighborhood which is a 148-year-old mansion, where six of the earliest examples of cinema, including Arrival of a Train and Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels, were screened on July 7, 1896, by a representative of the pioneering Lumiere brothers from France.

Suresh Chabriasaid: “I don’t think we will find anything new in India, although I have a feeling there might be fragments in the American and European archives.” It sure is unlikely that we might find any more prints of Indian silent films.

“The new information requires a bigger hunt on a different scale,” he said. “Who knows what books will come out of what chests? I have to see it for myself, so I can’t say it has dried up.”Virchand Dharamsey is still keen on updating the filmography, but he acknowledges that the information from conventional sources is exhausted.

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