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Seeking truths

Unlike other movie production units of the 1930s, New Theaters focused on real-life subjects. I D Prasad Choudhary looks back at some of the movies made by the legendary banner.                                                                                                     Published in "The Statesman"

To cineastes and film historians, the emergence of New Theatres is a notable landmark. Since the early 1930s it was not only a movie production centre but also a catalyst for national awakening. Its age coincided with the famous Imperial Movietone (of Alam Ara fame, India’s first talkie), Sagar Movietone, Ranjit Movietone ~ all in Bombay ~ and V Shantaram’s Prabhat Film Company, Kolhapur, to name a few.

New Theaters

The story of its foundation is interesting. Birendra Nath Sirkar (1901-1980), its founder and a great pioneer of Bengali-Hindi cinema, was a civil engineer. While supervising the construction of a movie theatre in Calcutta, he cherished the dream to have his own theatre. His first theatre, Chitra (later rechristened Mitra) was inaugurated by none other than Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Next, he started New Cinema to showcase Hindi films and then in 1931 came New Theatres in Calcutta’s Tollygunj area. This was an important period for talkies in India. The great Ardeshir M Irani had already created a craze for talkies with Alam Ara (1931). New Theatres’ first talkie was Dena Paona in Bengali (1932). Before the emergence of talkies, BN Sircar had already ventured into film production during the Silent Era with International Filmcraft under whose banner two silent films ~ Chorekanta and Chasher Meye ~ were produced. 

Making the logo of New Theatres interesting is the inclusion of an elephant’s portrait in a semi-circle design with its name inscribed below. The prolific period of New Theatres’ ~ from 1931 to its last film (if the recent Aadur Prem is not considered), Bakul (1955) ~ is known as the Elephant Era in the history of cinema. New Theatres was acclaimed as one of India’s most progressive film production centres that presented titles in Bengali, Assamese and Hindi. Some very talented people who have associated with the company are KL Saigal (legendary singer-actor), Prithviraj Kapoor (actor), Kidar Shrama (producer-director-lyricist, dialogue writer), Durga Khote, Jagadish Sethi, Nazam, Wasti and DN Mahok (lyricist, story-dialogue writer, producer and a pioneer of Hindi cinema in the early talkie era). And then there were Debaki Bose, Nitin Bose, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Kartik Chatterjee, Hemchander, Dhiren Ganguli, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, to name only a few.

When most film production units were churning out films on religion, mythology, popular legends and fiction ~ on the Parsi Theatre style with spectacular sets, high-flown dialogues, plethora of songs and dances, not mirroring real life ~ New Theatres titles focused on real-life problems and adapted themes from great classics of Bengali literature.

Madan Theatres, another epoch-making film company of Calcutta, which was more or less precursors to New Theatres, is credited with such films as Laila-Majnu, Satyabadi Raja Harishchandra, Shirin-Farhad, Ali Baba and Forty Thieves, Vishnu Maya, Bilwamangal, Chatra Bakawali, Gulru Zarina, Indrasabha (with record 72 songs), Prahlad, Shakuntala, Aankh Ka Nasha, Aladin and The Wonderful Lamp.

New Theatres can be compared with a top-notch university with many departments. The great producer-director Bimal Roy (Do Beegha Zameen, Parineeta and Madhumati fame) was an assistant cameraman who received rudimentary training in New Theaters.

The most appreciable aspect of New Theatres was the invitations it extended to newcomers with little grounding in the profession. And the fact has been appreciated by Vasant Choudhury, BR Chopra, Naushad, Majrooh Sultanpuri and many others.

Meanwhile, Madan Theatres (later on Tollywood Studio) had already gained wide popularity in cinematic creations. There were many other production banners in Calcutta of that era ~ East India Film Company, Pioneer Films, Radha Films, Kali Films, Bharat Lakshmi Pictures, Durga International, Newtone Film Productions, New India Films, Bengal Talkies, Modern India Talkies, Upper India Movietone, Adarsh Chitra National Theatre, Moonlight Pictures, Kesari Films, Jayshree Pictures, Manohar Films, Film Corporation of India, Devdutt Films, Associated Productions, Cosmopolitan Production, Film Financiers, HM Films, Shree Shankar Talkie Corporation, Moti Mahal Theatres, Seeta Ram Cinetone Ltd., Kamala Movietone etc.

But New Theatres stood above all in its approach to sublime themes of human interactions and social concerns. A short discussion of some of its films may go a long way to help one assess its contribution to society.


Films

Chandidas (1934)

It touched upon untouchability and rigorous caste system. The movie most faithfully depicted a Brahmin priest’s love for a low-caste washerwomen, and the opposition of the rich upper-caste village chieftain, Gopinath (Nawab). The film strikes at double standards. He wants to sexually exploit the washerwomen and gets her kidnapped by his henchmen. But she heroically frustrates his evil design. Himanshu Rai, another great visionary, in his Achhut Kanya (1936) raised the same issue of casteism with much success.

Dhoop Chhaon (1935)

The movie pinpoints a problem of class and caste with respect to marriage. A blind singer comes across an orphan boy. To look after him, he takes up stage singing. The boy grows up to become a popular radio singer. A girl from a rich family falls in love with him and both agree on marriage but her social status comes in the way. But they are ready to face all odds. Surprisingly, the boy turns out to be the long-lost son of a millionaire.

Devdas (1935)

The novel has been explored in both theatre and movies. The villainous social condition that came in the way of Devdas marrying Paro forms the backdrop. A shattered Devdas soon finds himself with Chandramukhi, a courtesan. The mental suffering of Devdas and Chandramukhi makes the movie an unforgettable piece of art.

Manzil (1936)

Based on Sarat Chandra’s novel Grihdah, the plot revolves around two friends, one of them being married. The bachelor loves his friend’s wife and seduces her into eloping with him. But the love life with his friend’s wife is far from happy. He commits suicide and the girl is thrown into a pitiable predicament of excruciating sufferings.

Mukti (1937)

A painter of delicate sensibilities and an introvert is married to an extrovert girl given to a life of pomp and show. The mismatched marriage creates knotty problems in their conjugal life, leading to the protagonist’s death. But the sufferings of the protagonist emotionalises the audience who are shocked to realise that mukti or freedom from the painful situation faced by the couple is not possible without a change in the basic concept of marriage and other social institutions.

The President (1937)

This is the tale of a textile mill head who has sacrificed her all to the progress of the mill only to fulfil the wish of her dead father. She falls in love with a designer at the mill, who is soon gets promoted to the position of manager. But the manager meets the president’s younger sister and falls in love.

Vidyaparti (1937)

New Theatres turned to the saint-poet who dedicated his life to praising Lord Krishna. This made the king and queen fall in love with the imageries expressed in the poems. But the queen’s love for the poet created conflicting problems and ruined her family life, even though it was all platonic. Apparently Debaki Bose, the director took utmost care to lace the film with the choicest of the great poets’ creation to enhance the aesthetic experience of the audience.

Films

Street Singer (1938)

In the movie of epic proportions, the protagonist with his childhood friend, a girl, rising from a very humble rural beginning to an exalted position of an ace singer, helplessly loses his friend and love to the greedy predations of city life. Disappointed in love and his life struggle, he is compelled to return to his rural roots.

Adhikar (1938)

The movie depicts the struggle of a poor illegitimate daughter of a rich businessman. The rich man has bequeathed his entire property to this legitimate daughter. The slum-dweller, by fair or foul means, disposes her half-sister of her father’s property, thereafter winning over her lover too. Tragically, she fails to get the love and sympathy she has ever hankered after. The result: unending mental suffering.

Dushman (1939)

The protagonist is his own enemy. A tuberculosis patient, he decides to overwork against repeated advices of his doctor to earn enough to make his life with his lady-love comfortable. There is another fellow, a doctor from a rich background who, too, is a suitor to his lover’s hand.

Rajat Jayanti (1939)

The movie centres around two lovers, Rajat and Jayanti. The crux of the movie’s problem is that the boy, Rajat, through intensely in love with Jayanti, fails repeatedly to express his feeling to the beloved, resulting in many embarrassing situations. He is the only successor to his maternal uncle’s vast property. A greedy and cheat of a father and his villainous daughter try to force him into marriage. It is a wonderful experience to see PC Barua,the serious and melancholic hero of Devdas (1935) and the romantic protagonist of Vidyapati (1937), and Pahari Sanyal in comic roles.

Zindagi (1940)

PC Baruah’s last movie with New Theaters deals with live-in relationship. An unemployed but highly educated man has a chance meeting with a lady who is married but is ignored by her husband. They fall in love and develop sympathy for each other. In the long run, they fail to adjust with each other because of their divergent outlook and background.

Doctor (1941)

The story of an ideal doctor dedicated more to his profession than to his family is still fresh. The Brahmin revolts against casteism and marries a girl of low-caste. Such is his dedication to the marginalized that he does not look after his wife who dies for want of medical attendance.

Lagan (1941)

This is the tale of a poor poet and musician who teaches a girl.Once she gets married, she tries her best to help her teacher. He soon falls in love with her. New Theaters’ approach to handling this subject is quite appreciable.

Films

Saugandh (1942)

An elder brother’s commitment and sacrifice to raise his younger brother to a higher status at any cost is a must watch effort.The film also highlights the evils of the dowry system.

Jawab (1942)

The film focuses on an amnesiac (played by PC Baruah) struck between two women ~ one simple and innocent from rural background and the other highly educated and sophisticated. The protagonistis finally drawn to the simple village belle.

Wapas (1943)

This is a technically sound film. In it, a simple village girl is torn between a village beau and high-status rich, her father’s choice for marriage. Similarly, her lover happens to be a servant under the rich boy to whom she is to marry.

Kashinath (1943)

Based on a famous Sarat Chandra novel, it finely delineates the interactions of a husband given to studies and “simple living and high thinking”, and a wife, a rich businessman’s daughter living a life of pomp and show.

My Sister (1944)

The movie revolves around a poor brother committed to his younger sister than to living a happy married life with a rich man’s daughter. For his dear sister, he takes to vocations that create further problems. Finally, the pristine brother-sister love wins. Some sequences of the film against the backdrop of Japanese bombings in Calcutta during World War II are applaudable.

Chhota Bhai (1949)

The adaptation of Sarat Chandra’s Ramer Sumati attempts to look at village problems through the eyes of a parentless boy, growing under the loving care of his sister-in-law. She treats him like his son. The villain comes in the form of the siter-in-law’s mother. Finally, Chhota Bhai proves to be an angel.

Yatrik (1952)

According to some film critics, the movie embodies of all that New Theatres stood for. The movie’s treatment of religious misconception and dogmas, and its depiction of so-called sanyasi or ascetic make it unforgettable.The study of some of the movies points to an important aspect of New Theaters ~ cinematic art which tries to highlight the universality of a character’s reaction to particular situations into which he is willy-nilly thrown.