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New Theatres: A Cinematic Equivalence of Literature

New Theatres, a Kolkata based film studio, was one of the premier filmmaking institutions that promoted cinema as art and entertainment. The impact of New Theatres was a pan-Indian phenomenon. During the 1930s and the early 1940s, the company produced multi-lingual films which were popular all over the sub-continent. In fact, New Theatres nurtured the talents of many who later made a mark on the history of Indian cinema as actors, directors and technicians.

New Theatres was established by Birendra Nath Sircar (1901-1980), the son of Sir Nripendra Nath Sircar, an eminent jurist who was a member of the Viceroy’s Law Advisory Committee. Birendra Nath completed a course in Civil Engineering in the U.K and joined Martin Burn & Company as an engineer. In 1928-29 he quit his job and started learning the ropes of the movie business, which had become a passion during his foreign sojourn. In 1931 he produced two silent films – Chashar Meye (Dir: Charu Roy) and Chorkanta (Dir: Premankor Atharthi) – under the banner of International Film Craft. The idea was to test the market and also to fine tune the technical and production capabilities of his future enterprise. The success of these two efforts convinced Birendra Nath of his capabilities as a movie producer and in the same year the construction of the New Theatres Studio Number-1 (NT-1) at Chandi Ghosh Lane, Tollygunje began in full earnest. In order to exercise some control over the distribution of the films it would produce, two cinema halls Chitra and Mitra too were constructed by New Theatres during the same time. A second studio, NT-2 was built at the nearby Anwar Shah Road in 1932-33.

Dena Paona (1931-32), based on the popular novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya, was the first film to be released under the banner of New Theatres. The film, a ‘talkie’, was directed by Premankor Atharthi and starred Amar Mullick, Durgadas Bandopadhaya, Nivanani Devi and Haimabati Devi. The film was a huge hit and laid the foundations of the glorious era that followed.

New Theatres became the hub of the Bengali intelligentsia of the age who were attracted by the possibilities of the emerging medium of cinema. Birendra Nath, a stickler for quality, attracted talented directors such as PC Barua, Premankor Atharthi, Devaki Bose, DN Ganguly, Bimal Roy and Phani Majumdar under his wings. Superstars of the age such as Kundan Lal Saigal, Pahari Sanyal, Amar Mullick, Kanan Devi, Chandrabati Devi, Leela Desai and Prithviraj Kapoor were on his payroll. Technicians like Mukul Bose (Sound Recordist- Director), Yusuf Mulji (Cameraman), Nitin Bose (Cameraman-Director) and Subodh Mitra (Editor) were well aware of the various technical innovations being introduced in Hollywood and Europe and were able to adapt many of these within the limitations of the New Theatres Studio lot. Music composers and singers such as Raichand Boral and Pankaj Mullick too were associated with New Theatres productions. The company became known for its excellent screen adaptations of works of literateurs like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya and Rabindranath Tagore and noted writers such as Premendra Mitra, Kazi Nazrul Islam Sailajanandan Mukherjee and Buddhadev Bose worked as story-script-dialogue writers and lyricists in various New Theatres’ films. New Theatres’ production of Sarat Chandra’s novels Devdas (1935) is considered one of the landmarks of Indian cinema. This bilingual film (Hindi & Bengali) film, directed by PC Barua and starring PC Barua, Jamuna Devi, Amar Mullick, KL Saigal and Chandrabati Devi was a huge hit all-over India and established the character of Devdas as the archetypal jilted lover and romantic soul for generations to come. Other films based on the works of Sarat Chandra like Grihadaha (1936) and Biraj Bou (1946) too was well received by the audience. Among the works of Tagore to be adapted for the screen were Choker Bali (1937) and Sesher Kabita (1953) – both had the young Chhabi Biswas in important roles. In 1932, on the occasion of Tagore’s 70th birth anniversary, New Theatres arranged the filming of Natir Puja – an adaptation of his poem Pujarini. This effort is important in the annals of Indian cinema as it is perhaps Tagore’s only major involvement with the medium. The screenplay was written under the guidance of Tagore himself by his nephew Dinenandranth ‘Dinu’ Tagore who also composed the background music. Students of Santiniketan Ashramik Sangha acted in the film while, Tagore himself played the role of Upali, a major character in this dance-drama. The film was shot with a static camera at the New Theatres Studio by the noted cameraman Nitin Bose. Natir Puja was released at the Old Empire Theatre in the presence of Tagore himself.

The period 1935-1945 were the halcyon days of New Theatres and it produced a string of films which are now deemed as classics for their innovative content and technical excellence. Bhagyachakra (1935) was the first Bengali film to use playback. Mukti (Bengali & Urdu, 1937), the PC Barua masterpiece, was one of the first Indian sound films to be shot extensively on outdoor locations. The film, which had a young Bimal Roy as the cameraman, is also remarkable for its use of long tracking-shots, a rarity, given the substantial weight of the movie equipments of the period. Mukti also had the distinction of being the first film to use a Tagore composition in its soundtrack – the poet allowed Pankaj Mullick to set his poem Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe into music and the result was a song that has haunted generations.

A bulk of the Bengali films produced by New Theatres had Hindi or Urdu versions and so the company’s films had a pan-Indian audience. Street Singer (1938), a musical, directed by Phani Majumdar, starring Kundan Lal Saigal, Kanan Devi and Prithviraj Kapoor was the Hindi version of the Bengali hit Sathi. The Saigal-Kanan Devi duet from this film, ‘Babul Mera Naihar Chhutl Jaye’ composed by R.C.Boral was a major hit of the times. Dushman (1938), Sapera (1939) and the Hindi version of the Bengali film Udayer Pathe (1944) Humrahi (1945) – both directed by Bimal Roy – were some other important bi-lingual films produced by New Theatres. Udayer Pathe/Humrahi is important in the history of Indian cinema as it was one of the first films to incorporate a sense of ‘realism’ in its content and aesthetics.

New Theatres also produced a number of documentaries and newsreels. Among these were the coverage of the AICC Kolkata Session (1939) and Premier’s Appeal (1939). Earthquake Havoc in Bihar (1934) and After Earthquake (1935) – two films directed by Devaki Bose are finest examples of documentary films made in the pre-independence period. The pioneering spirit of Birendra Nath Sircar inspired him to produce two animated films – P Bros and On a Moonlight in 1934. These two one-reelers are among the earliest animation films in the history of Indian cinema. Michke Potash (1950) directed by Bhaktaram Mitra, was another major animation film produced by New Theatres.

After 1947, New Theatres began to lose its pre-eminence at the all-India level and its productions became limited to the Bengali industry. The economic decline of West Bengal coupled with the shrinking of the market for Bengali films produced in Kolkata caused by the Partition of Bengal affected the finances of the studio based film production industry in Kolkata. New Theatres also suffered from some speculative investments made by some unscrupulous businessmen. Although some films like Ramer Sumati (1947), Nurse Sissy (1947), Anjangarh (1948, Dir: Bimal Roy) and Mahaprasthener Pathe (1952) were quite popular, the glory days of the New Theatres was definitely over and many of its important luminaries migrated to the greener pastures of Mumbai. Birendra Nath Sircar retired from the movie business in 1955 after the completion of Bakul which was the hundredth and the final feature film to be produced under the aegis of New Theatres. In 1972, Birendra Nath Sircar was honoured with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for his immense contribution to the Indian cinema. The studio lots NT-1 and NT-2 were taken up by various business concerns but declined over the years due to recurring labour problems and mismanagement. In the early 1980s, these were taken over by the government of West Bengal. The studio premises and some of the old equipments are at present used extensively for shooting of Bengali films and TV serials. Recently the government has begun exploring the possibilities of upgrading the facilities with help of private partners.

The story of New Theatres is intimately associated with the pioneering spirit early years of Indian sound cinema. Its classic films firmly established cinema as the entertainment of the Indian masses. Kanan Devi once recalled New Theatres was ‘the banyan tree that gave shade to us all’. The supremely talented team at New Theatres under the leadership of Birendra Nath Sircar also contributed in creating high standards of artistic and technical excellence.

MAJOR FILMS PRODUCED BY NEW THEATRES:

      Dena Paona (1932)
      Chandidas (1932)
      Prem Bhakt (1933)
      Devdas (1935)
      Bhagyachakra/Dhoop Chhaon (1935)
      Grihadaha/Manzil (1936)
      Mukti (1937)
      Didi/President (1937)
      Bidyapati/Vidyapati (1937)
      Jiban Maran/Dushman (1938)
      Sathi/Street Singer (1938)
      Adhikar (1939)
      Sapure/Sapera (1939)
      Parajoy (1940)
      Doctor (1940)
      Shodhbodh (1942)
      Priya Bandhabi (1943)
      Pratikar (1944)
      Udayer Pathe (1944)
      Humrahi (1945)
      Dui Purush (1945)
      Biraj Bahu (1946)
      Ramer Sumati (1947)
      Nurse Sissy (1947)
      Anjangarh (1948)
      Mahaprasthaner Pathe (1952)
      Bakul (1955)

15 Comments

  • This is a great piece. The Studio era of the 1930s and 40s was something else. It showed that art and commerce could indeed go hand in hand as some great films on social issues were made in this period. Perhaps it is fitting that the two most major technological revolutions in Indian cinema history came in this period – the production of the first Indian Talkie Alam Ara (1931) and the advent of playback system with Bhagyachakra/Dhoop Chhaon (1935).

  • Wow, this article is so dense with information – thanks so much!! look forward to reading more and would love to see another article sometime with an explicit focus on the contributions of early Bengali cinema to Hindi cinema – to an outsider like me, at least, this is such interesting and illuminating information.

  • @Third Man: Thanks! Yes, those were the true pioneers! The legacy of the Studio era both in terms of technical innovations and aesthetics is truly incredible and undeniable.
    @Virginia: Thanks! Will try and do a blog as you suggested, but would it would involve a lot of time and research.

  • Good one Boorya… was pleasantly surprised to know about Tagore’s foray into films. It reminded of another reputed writer Shivaram Karnath’s experiment around 80 years ago when he brought a 16mm camera and shot a silent film in a remote village in coastal Karnataka. We do know that over the years cinema and literature have been closely interconnected.. but I would still wait for the day when cinema would not be seen in the context of literature…

  • @Ram: Thanks for reading and the info on Karanth!
    Agree with you completely that cinema and literature should be considered different art forms/media. But at the same time one must agree that the association with literature gave the new medium of cinema much needed ‘respectability’ in its nascent years.

  • Spot on Boorya, association with literature still gives ‘respectability’ to film…. sometimes I do wonder apna MS, CU, LS, track shot, montage, mise-en-scene keliye khud ki aukaad nai hai kya, that we need to take the support of literature?

  • @Ram: But doesn’t literature here function here as well-rooted, in-depth content which would then be complemented by cinematic grammar? Otherwise the MS, CU etc can be done with awful content as well and do nothing for you. I’m not saying Literature is always the source of great content but it is generally so. And the two mediums have their own requirements. Devdas (1935) in Bengali is a great example. Using cinematic techniques, Barua goes beyond the book and gives a fine pschological study that retains elements of the book and story and yet shows an understanding of how to use cinematic language to enhance the story.

  • @ThirdMan – Yes it does. In my limited experience, I have often observed that the stamp of literature gives films an increased level of listening and acceptance. At times, it even helps you raise funds for the film. Somehow I would not like to give extra points to Barua’s Devdas for the sole reason that it is based on a piece of literature – I would not like to see cinema in that context. As you have rightly pointed out, it is the cinematic language used in the film that would matter the most.
    All these observations have nothing to do with the content of this wonderful piece posted by Boorback. Its just that the title of this piece made an idle mind like mine, think overtime *S*

  • @Ram: Well, New Theatres did turn to literature in a big way as source material for their films and owner BN Sircar always maintained they made films that were the cinematic equivalence of literature and this was unique to New Theatres in those days of the Studio system, maybe that’s why the title. Boorback?

    In fact, I recall Boorback telling me that Bengali cinema has borrowed so much from literature that the older generation of Bengalis would ask each other “Boi Dekha?” meaning did you see the book as a means of asking the other person if he or she had seen the film.

  • @The ThirdMan – history does tell us that one of the USPs of New Theaters was literature; maybe their core audience base was such. As suggested earlier and rephrasing it now, I am willing to wait for the day when someone will write a book based on a film; and people will say “film dheka?, after reading the book.

  • @Ram & Third Man: Hey! Never imagined that this blog piece would lead to such an erudite debate on the relationship between cinema and literature. Personally, I feel pretty irritated when poor films often ride piggyback on great literature. However, on the contrary pulp fiction often is the source of great films – especially if we consider Film Noirs. The key I suppose is adaptation – the transformation of one media (literature) into another (cinema) using the means / techniques (mis-en-scene, editing etc). Also, the fact that a film based on literature is not the sole criterion of judging a film’s merit – Bresson, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Ray etc have all made great films based on equally famous works of literature. These great filmmakers were able to transcend the limitations of literature and create masterpieces of cinema.
    Its true, the USP of many New Theatres was films based on literature. At that time it did attach ‘respectability’ to cinema leading to interest and involvement of the middle classes. This participation of the middle class intelligentsia with cinema led to many innovations in the technique and aesthetics of cinema at that time. “Boi Dekha” entered the middle class nomenclature at that time and is still used today. Personally, I feel disturbed by the fact that “boi dekha” is still used today in spite of the fact that cinema is over a hundred years old today and is should have been considered as an independent entity!

    @ Asad: Thanks for your reading and appreciation.

  • @ Boorback ref: ‘Personally, I feel disturbed by the fact that “boi dekha” is still used today in spite of the fact that cinema is over a hundred years old today and is should have been considered as an independent entity!’ – I share this feeling of yours…

  • Udayer Pathe is indeed a great movie presented by The New Theaters but it was not directed by Bimal Roy. The director of this film was Jyotirmoy Roy while Bimol Roy was the photographer of the film.

  • Personally I love to say boi dekha as I give importance to the author. Satyajit Ray is a great film director but to me and most others who have read Pather Panchali, Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhya is immortal and indeed greater than Satyajit Ray.

  • I am 78 years old now and when I saw Udayer Pathe I was hardly 11 years old. It made a great impression on me. When I saw Pather Panchali I was at that time a college student and I was greatly impressed to see Ray’s beautiful translation of a great novel in to a great film. Though it was Ray’s first movie, his name was known to me as I grew up reading the books of his famous father Sukumar Ray which were illustrated by both Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray.

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