Birendra Nath Sircar, or BN Sircar as he was better known, was the creator of the legendary New Theatres Ltd studio in Calcutta and possibly the first example in Indian cinema of an active and visionary executive producer. A soft-spoken man, he was known to quietly and carefully study a problem then decide how to proceed. At New Theatres, he saw to it that the director got the budget he needed and let him go ahead in his work without any interference whatsoever.
The son of Sir NN Sircar, Advocate-General of Bengal, BN Sircar was born in Bhagalpur in 1901. He was sent to England for part of his education, studying engineering at the University of London. On returning back home to pursue a career as an engineer, he was asked to build a cinema theatre. This was the turning point in his life. He decided to build a theatre for himself and involved himself with two silent film ventures to learn the ropes of the film industry.
Sircar decided to form a film company to produce films and that is how New Theatres was born. By 1931, thanks to his connections he was able to raise money and build a state of the art film studio and laboratory. More importantly, he showed his leadership qualities by hiring the right talent. A stickler for quality, Sircar attracted directors such as PC Barua, Premankor Atharthi, Debaki Bose, Dhiren Ganguly, Bimal Roy and Phani Majumdar under his wings. Actors such as KL Saigal, Pahari Sanyal, Amar Mullick, Kanan Devi, Chandrabati Devi, Lila Desai and Prithviraj Kapoor were on his payroll. Technicians like Mukul Bose (Sound Recordist-Director), Yusuf Moolji (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 RC Boral, Timir Baran and Pankaj Mullick too were associated with New Theatres productions.
Dena Paona (1932), based on the popular novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, 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.
The company became known for its excellent screen adaptations of works of literateurs like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore and other noted writers such as Premendra Mitra, Kazi Nazrul Islam Shailajaranjan Mukhopadhyay and Buddhadev Bose worked as story-script-dialogue writers and lyricists in various New Theatres films. New Theatres production of Sarat Chandra’s novel Devdas (1935) is considered one of the landmarks of Indian cinema. Among the works of Tagore to be adapted for the screen were Chokker Bali (1934) and Sesher Kabita (1937). In fact, 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. A student 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 and director Nitin Bose. Natir Puja was released at the Old Empire Theatre in the presence of Tagore himself.
The period 1935 – 1945 were the heydays of New Theatres and it produced a string of films which are now deemed as classics for their innovative content and technical excellence. Dhoop Chhaon/Bhagyachakra (1935) was the experiment to use playback. Mukti (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. Muktialso 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 continues to haunt 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 KL Saigal, Kanan Devi and Prithviraj Kapoor was the Hindi version of the Bengali hit Saathi. Dushman (1938), Sapera (1939) and the Hindi version of the Bengali film Udayer Pathe (1944), Hamrahi (1945) – both directed by Bimal Roy – were some other important bi-lingual films produced by New Theatres. Udayer Pathe/Hamrahi is important in the history of Indian cinema as it was one of theyearly 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 Debaki Bose are finest examples of documentary films made in the pre-independence period. The pioneering spirit of BN 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) and Mahaprasthener Pathe (1952) were quite popular, the glory days of the New Theatres was definitely over and many of its important luminaries including Bimal Roy migrated to the greener pastures of Mumbai. BN Sircar himself 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, he was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award as well as the Padma Bhushan for his immense contribution to the Indian cinema.
BN Sircar passed away in 1980. With his death, Indian cinema lost one of its greatest visionaries.