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The little-known legacy of Hiralal Sen: The first Indian behind movie camera

While Dadasaheb Phalke is remembered as India’s first feature film director, Hiralal Sen, the first Indian to make movies is a completely forgotten man.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2017 08:46 IST
Avijit Ghosal
Avijit Ghosal
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Hiralal Sen,Filmmaker,Royal Bioscope Company
Movie cameras used by Hiralal Sen, the first Indian to make films. (HT photo)

In 1913 Dadasaheb Phalke created history by directing Raja Harishchandra, the country’s first feature film. However, he was not the first Indian to make movies.

That credit belongs to Hiralal Sen (1866-1917), who worked out of Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known). Son of a lawyer, Sen was a pioneer who made movies – documentaries and product commercials – but has remained unknown to most even in his own state.

Born in Bogjuri (now in Bangladesh), Sen not only experimented with the new medium, but also made fundamental contributions to it.

“In 1904 he captured on film a public rally opposing Lord Curzon’s plan to divide Bengal. To record the immensity of the rally, he placed the camera on top of the treasury building so that he could film the speakers including Surendranath Banerjee against the backdrop of a huge crowd that extended almost two miles,” said Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, film historian and former professor of film studies of Jadavpur University. The camera placement was novel in those days.

Many consider the film on proposed Bengal partition to be the first political documentary in the country.

Sen also shot two product commercials that were way ahead of his time. There was no concept of creating sets in those years, and he chose lavish villas beside the Hooghly river to use as locations for the commercials. The products were Jabakusum hair oil and Edward’s anti-malaria drug.

“The high point of Hiralal Sen’s career was the movie he made when George V came to India. The other was the film on the Bengal partition,” said Mukhopadhyay.

“… ailing from cancer of the throat and standing on the verge of insolvency, he stood in competition with no less than four of the best cameramen from England working for the Government of India and beat them in their own game by being the first to release the ‘Visit Film’ of Delhi Durbar with a wider coverage” Kaushik Majumdar, a researcher on silent films wrote last year in The Silent Film Quarterly, a magazine published from Hollywood.

Hiralal Sen’s body of work was destroyed in a fire at a godown in Kolkata in 1917 where he had stored his films. (HT Photo)

To highlight his contribution, critics point out to the time when Sen worked. On December 28, 1895 the world’s first movie was shown in Paris. In India, the first show was held at Watson Hotel in Bombay on July 7, 1896. Hiralal Sen’s challenges were far more than merely those any medium faces in its nascent stages. He lived in a colony that was far removed from Europe (where the action was taking place) and had no access to either technology or infrastructure. When he showed his films, the city had electric supply in only two areas (Howrah Bridge and the Maidans), and he had to make elaborate arrangements to screen movies.

“Bioscopes needed electric arc lamps, or in their absence, lime light. Sen had to procure elaborate apparatus to produce lime light. He burnt lime in a bath with oxygen that was stored in a bladder. It produced a bright light that would light up the screen. The process was fraught with risks and could have involved minor explosions,” said Debiprasad Ghosh, Kolkata-based film researcher who has edited a book on Hiralal Sen that is awaiting publication.

“They were beholden to Father E J Laffont, a teacher of St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. He fixed the light generating apparatus and continuously offered them advice on how to handle the machines,” said Majumdar. Laffont used magic lantern and phonograph in his lectures on public science.

Unfortunately, Sen only lives in a few books and notes of researchers and academics. There is not even a proper biography on him. A careless, if not reckless man, he made little effort to preserve his work. On October 24, 1917, a fire in a godown in north Kolkata where all his films were stored destroyed his complete works. Sen died two days later at the age of 51.

“Sen is indeed the pioneer of movies. Nothing can be more unfortunate that he did not get the recognition,” said Anjan Bose, whose grandfather Anadi Nath Bose purchased two cameras used by Sen.

In 1898, Star Theatre in Kolkata began screening movies and Sen and his brother Motilal were captivated by a show. The brothers realised that movies are going to be a medium of the future.

Sen’s biggest drawback was he lacked business acumen that could have helped him to find commercial success with the medium he was passionate about. Towards the closing years, he fell on such hard times that he had to sell off his favourite camera to a usurer.

His father Chandranath Sen, a successful lawyer, funded his dreams. Sen spent a princely sum of Rs 5,000 to buy a cinematograph machine. The entire apparatus including projection equipment had to be purchased from England.

Along with his brother Motilal, Sen set up The Royal Bioscope Company in 1898, which was India’s first movie company. In the beginning, they used to purchase films made by companies in England and showed them at parties and weddings of the rich. These were mainly films shot by Englishmen on the daily life on streets of Calcutta and India.

File photo of writer Shirshendu Mukhopaghyay, flm director Rituparno Ghosh, actor Koushik Sen and poet Srijato during a film adda session at Hiralal Sen Mancha on November 15, 2012 in Kolkata. (HT Photo)

Sen also purchased films from Pathe Frere company and held shows at parties and weddings of rich families such as the one of Raja Rajendra Mullick (1818-1897) who built the famous Marble Palace at Jorasanko. He started travelling movie shows in Bengal, but did not hold bioscope shows at Calcutta Maidans like Jamshedji Framji Madan, who moved from Karachi to Calcutta in 1883. His company attracted the attention of the Britishers when he hired Dalhousie Institute and held shows at the turn of the 20th century.

But he was not satisfied by just making money showing films made by others. He wanted to shoot them too. In 1903 he filmed the popular Alibaba and Forty Thieves.

Sen had a fruitful association with Amarendranath Dutta and Kusum Kumari, stars who used to act in theatres at Start Theatre. Sen collaborated with him and filmed some of his plays that were produced by Classic Theatre. Initially, these were shown during intervals of the stage shows.

However, he fell out with Dutta and the association ended before it could spin big money for the Royal Bioscope Company. Poor at managing relations, his ties with brother Motilal, his partner in Royal Bioscope Company, also snapped towards the end. In 1913, he quit the company he set up with his brother and joined London Bioscope owned by Kumarshankar Gupta, ironically, a former employee of Royal Bioscope Company.

Sen did not marry. Movies were a natural progression for him.

“He was a pioneer. If a fire destroyed his works, we are guilty of almost erasing his contribution and memory,” rued Dipankar Bhattacharya, secretary of Uttarpara Cine Club.

“If his films were not destroyed, he would have got as much prominence as Dadasaheb Phalke,” remarked Shyamal Karmakar, head of editing at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute.

That’s not an exaggerated lament. There is not even an alley in his name, forget an award. He is hardly known outside his state. A visit to Blacquire Square in north Kolkata where the fire in the godown destroyed his entire films reveals that Sen is largely unknown.

“I have never heard of Hiralal Sen, or that a godown here caught fire,” said Haradhan Ghosh, 81, who was born 19 years after the fire and lives a few buildings away from 18 Blacquire Square.

In 2012, the year after Trinamool Congress government assumed power, an open platform was set up by the Kolkata International Film Festival authorities to screen silent era films in the way they were screened at the turn of the 20th century. They called the platform Hiralal Sen mancha. That was the biggest recognition the pioneer got.

The land of his birth was more generous. On October 26, the Federation of Film Societies of Bangladesh in association with Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy organised a programme in Dhaka to commemorate the death centenary of the “first filmmaker of the sub-continent”. They also published a book on him.