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Towards new genealogies for the histories of Bombay Cinema: the career of Sagar Film Company (1929-40).

Conventional narratives about the Bombay film industry's transition from the silent film era to the age of the talkies generally relate the failure of most of the silent film studios and the rise of new studios such as New Theatres in Calcutta, Bombay Talkies in Bombay and Prabhat Film Company in Poona. While this might be broadly true, such narratives miss out on important exceptions as well as on the signal contribution to the development of early talkies cinema in Bombay made by certain studios outside of the Big Three mentioned above. What follows is a brief presentation of the career of one such Bombay studio--the Sagar Film Company, that not only made a successful transition from silent films to talkies but went on to become one of the most successful film companies in the nascent talkies period. Sagar was in addition responsible for certain key innovations in matters aesthetic, cultural, technological and organizational, innovations that were to significantly determine the manner in which Bombay cinema would develop in the decades to follow.


The setting up and turbulent early years of Sagar Film Company make a fascinating story. Nanubhai Desai, one of the most successful directors of silent films, had dissolved his partnership with Sharda Film Company, taking with him Master Vithal, a very popular actor of the time. In September 1929, Nanubhai formed Sagar with Imperial Film Company's Vasantrai H. Desai and Ardeshir Irani. The company immediately started production of the film Ram Rahim. Flowever, owing to differences of opinion, Nanubhai left Sagar in the second week of October the same year. As Virhal was in a contractual agreement with Sagar, he could not act in the films of Imperial or any other company. In these circumstances, the production of Ram Rahim was halted because of the legal proceedings. The court favoured Sagar Film Company and deemed that Vithal could not work in any other company on account of his exclusive contract with Sagar. We can safely presume that Irani did not want to lose Vithal and as such could not afford to close down Sagar. A popular historiographical error until now has been to assume that Vithal worked for Imperial after leaving Sharda. This incorrect assumption is most likely to have stemmed from the fact that Ardeshir Irani was at the helm of Sagar as well as Imperial. After nearly fifteen or sixteen months of joining Sagar, Master Vithal acted in India's first talking picture, Alam Ara, which was produced by the Imperial Film Company. The film also featured Zubeida, the first established female actor recruited by Sagar. Thus it is worth noting that the two major stars connected to the first Indian talkies film Alam Ara, produced by Imperial, were actually officially under contract with Sagar.

To understand this state of affairs we need to recognize Irani's close association with the setting up of Sagar. Select Pictures, the South India distributor of Imperial films, was owned in co-partnership by Chimanlal B. Desai and Dr Ambalal Patel. Chimanlal Desai was a cloth merchant in Bangalore. His friend Thakorebhai H. Desai had established Select Pictures in 1922 at Bangalore as a distributor and exhibitor, mainly distributing Universal Pictures films. When Thakorebhai joined Pathe (India) Ltd as their manager in the South, he handed over Select Pictures to Chimanlal Desai. Chimanlal invited Ambalal Patel, who was a partner in Bombay Cycle & Motor Agency (Bangalore), to join him in managing the company. In addition, Thakorebhai's brother, Vasantrai H. Desai, was the business manager of Universal Pictures Ltd and a close associate of Ardeshir Irani. Vasantrai's close friendship with Irani must have brought Chimanlal and Irani together at some point in time. When the new company was formed, Irani had asked Chimanlal for an advance from Select Pictures towards production of a film. A month or two after having given the advance and still not receiving any films, Chimanlal came to Bombay to check on the state of affairs. Being an astute businessman, Irani was able to convince Chimanlal Desai to join as a partner in the newly floated company. The studio was set up opposite Chowpatty beach and was appropriately named Sagar. It began producing silent films in 1930.

Irani remained associated with Sagar till sound arrived in 1931, producing two talkies for the company--Romantic Prince (Meri Jaari) and Abul Hassan. By the end of 1931, he decided to hand over control of the company to Chimanlal Desai and Ambalal Patel. Imperial and Sagar worked independently of each other from this point onwards. Veer Abhimanyu seems to have been the first film produced by Chimanlal Desai and Ambalal Patel.

During Irani's time at Sagar the first director to be recruited by him from outside was Profulla Ghosh, who directed one silent and four talkies (three in 1931 and one in 1932) for Sagar. Vithal was Sagar's only star actor at the time. When Irani left he transferred some personnel from Imperial to Sagar, of whom Jal Merchant was moderately well-known while others like Mehboob, Yakub and the actress Khatoon were not yet established. However, at Sagar, Khatoon began playing lead roles. What is of interest here is that Ardeshir Irani retained all important staff for his own Imperial Film Company and handed over not-so-well-known actors to Sagar.

New Directions

Sagar Studio was now under the charge of Chimanlal Desai, with Ambalal Patel taking care of distribution and exhibition at Select Pictures headquartered in Bangalore. The new management soon started inviting established directors. Nanubhai Vakil, one of the most successful directors of the last phase of the silent era, was the first--he joined Sagar in 1932. Nanubhai was probably the earliest among the highly educated to join the film industry. He was a BA, LLB and the most successful director at Ranjit during the silent era. Another established director, Chimanlal Luhar, joined Sagar in 1935 and left in 1939. Imperial director R.S.D. Chowdhary also joined Sagar, but it is said that he behaved "inappropriately" with Zubeida and had to leave the company and return to Imperial. Ezra Mir was another important addition to the Sagar family during this period. Born Edwin Myers in a Jewish family of Calcutta, he had previously worked as an editor and also in the scenario department at Universal Studios in Hollywood. After returning from America, he directed Noorjehan, the first bilingual film (Hindustani and English) for Imperial in 1931. Immediately after this, he joined Sagar and directed three films that starred Zubeida. Sarvottam Badami directed his debut film for Sagar in 1932 and continued to work for the company until 1939. Badami was a projectionist at a cinema hall owned by Select Pictures and had worked at Ambalal Patel's Bombay Cycle & Motor Agency in Bangalore. Patel brought him to Bombay where he met Chimanlal Desai. Badami learnt sound recording in Bombay at a time when talkies had just arrived in India and most companies were hunting for sound recordists. He was the first newcomer director to be introduced by Sagar.

Sagar's attempts to bring about changes to common patterns in Bombay cinema did not stop with bringing in Badami. As a part of the drive to introduce fresh faces, Chimanlal Desai visited Calcutta, where he invited Sabita Devi (Iris Gasper) and Kali Prasad Ghosh to join Sagar. Ghosh had directed four silent films for Indian Kinema Arts. Both Sabita Devi and Kali Prasad Ghosh accepted Desai's invitation. Their first film at Sagar was Shahar ka Jaadu (1934). Sagar invited Kumar and blind singer- actor K.C. Dey to act in this film following their success in the New Theatres film Puran Bhakt (1933).

Mehboob Khan, director of films such as Aurat, Andaz, Aan and Mother India--now considered milestones in Bombay film history--began his career playing one of the thieves in Alibaba and the Forty Thieves directed by B.P. Mishra for Imperial. He played minor roles in several Imperial films and in two Sagar films--Mewad no Mawali and Dilawar. When Ardeshir Irani decided to leave Sagar, Mehboob was transferred to Sagar. With the arrival of talkies, Mehboob played a small but important role in Romantic Prince (Meri Jaan) and went on to play various roles in films such as Chandrahas, Mirza Sahiba, Mad Cap, Nachwali, Sati Anjani, Maha Geet and Ver ni Vasulat. He was strongly considered for the role of the hero for one of the Sagar films but nothing came of it. Sagar had, apart from Jal Merchant and Kumar, introduced two new young actors Motilal and Surendra in lead roles, and Mehboob probably realized that he stood little chance as an actor when faced with such competition. So he changed track and decided to become a director. He had just seen Cecil B. DeMille's Sign of the Cross (1932) and started working on a script inspired by this film. Mehboob worked up all his courage and met Ambalal Patel and requested him to hear him out in a script reading. Patel was not satisfied and Mehboob went back to reworking the script with his close friends at Sagar. He approached Patel again for a script reading. After this he did not hear anything for a month or so when, to his surprise, he was called and asked to start his film. Thus was made Al Hilal/Judgement of Allah starring Kumar, Indira, Yakub, Sitara, Pande, Asooji, Kayamali and Azurie, with camera work by Faredoon Irani and music by Pransukh Nayak. Sitara until then had only acted in a few films as a dancer, but in Al Hilal she got a break as one of the lead characters. The muhurat shot (the first shot along with a short ritual blessing the production) was taken with her.

Other notable directors nurtured at Sagar included Zia Sarahadi, who joined in 1934 as a writer/lyricist and was promoted to director in 1938 with Abhilasa. He is best remembered as a progressive filmmaker who made Hum Log and Footpath at Ranjit. Ramchandra Thakur had an MA with Pali as his special subject. To better his financial condition he started freelance writing and reviewing films for Mouj Majah, India's first film magazine. During his college days, he had known Surendra Desai, the son of Chimanlal Desai, popularly known as Bulbulbhai. When Bulbulbhai joined his father's company he invited Thakur to join as publicity man on the strength of his literary flair. Over time, Thakur went on to become a director at Sagar.

Film Production at Sagar

In its existence of nearly eleven years, Sagar produced seventy-six full-length feature films. These included twelve silent films, forty-nine films in Hindi, two bilinguals (one in Gujarati/Hindi, one Bengali/Hindi), one Gujarati film that was the first Gujarati talkie, nine Tamil films (including the first ever Tamil talkie) and three films in Telugu. They also produced two short films, Shree Krishna Dan Leela (4 reels) and Crazy Comedy (3 reels), in addition to producing several topical films/documentaries. The silent films were produced in 1930 and 1931 with Moti Gidwani (three films), B.P. Mishra (five films), Madanrai Vakil (two films) and Dada Saheb Tome and (as mentioned earlier) Profulla Ghosh (one film each) as directors. Sagars first talkie Romantic Prince (Meri Jaan) was in Hindi, released on September 6, 1931. Its last film was Kumkum the Dancer (1940) in Hindi and Bengali, directed by Modhu Bose with Sadhna Bose in the lead role. Kumkum was to have been followed by Aurat, but this was finally produced under the banner of National Studio.

The history of film production at Sagar can clearly be divided into three phases. The first was the period when Ardeshir Irani was at the helm, followed by the formative years under Chimanlal Desai and Ambalal Patel. The next period, though brief, was when Sagar produced mythological and devotional films as well as films with an Orientalist/Islamic background. The third phase followed the resignation of Ambalal Patel from Sagar, leaving Chimanlal Desai as sole owner of the studio.

After its founding at the end of 1929, Sagar's first film to be released in early 1930 was Veer na Verl Conqueror directed by Moti Gidwani with Vithal in the lead. The film involved outdoor shooting at the princely state of Palanpur. Following the change of guard at the end of 1931, Sagar produced six mythological films in Hindi, all based on episodes from the Mahabharata. The first of these was Veer Abhimanyu (1931) with Zubeida and Jal Merchant in lead roles, directed by Profulla Ghosh. Contemporary critics considered Veer Abhimanyu as the first film with a cinematic sense that differed from the films released in the first year of talkies. The success of Veer Abhimanyu inspired Sagar to produce Subhadra Haran (1932) again with the successful pair of Zubeida and Jal and also directed by Profulla Ghosh. (This was Ghosh's last film for Sagar, and he went to Calcutta to join Radha Films.) The next film in the series was Maya BazarlSurekha Haran directed by Nanubhai Desai with their second unit actors Master Bachoo and Khatoon. Then Mahabharata and Pandava Kaurava were directed by Nanubhai Desai with Zubeida, Jal Merchant and Khatoon in lead roles. In Mahabharata, Mehboob played the role of Shishupala while the comedian Noor Mohamed Charlie played the role of Shakuni. Sagar produced its last mythological film Sati Anjani in 1934, directed by ace filmmaker Kanjibhai Rathod, his only film for Sagar.

During the same period, Sagar produced two mythological films in Tamil, Sampoorna Raja Harishchandra and Galava Rishi (both 1932), directed respectively by newcomers Sarvottam Badami and Raja Chandrashekhar jointly and by T.C. Vadivelu Naicker. Raja Chandrashekhar started his career as an assistant to the first woman director Fatima Begum and is remembered for having introduced M.G. Ramachandran as an actor. Naicker was a writer and active member of Suguna Vilas Sabha, a collective founded in 1891 to promote theatre activities. In Telugu, Sagar produced the mythologicals Paduka Pattabhishekhami and Shakuntala (both 1932). Being distributors in the South, Sagar possessed a working knowledge of the South Indian film market and had an already-set-up distribution circuit. This proved helpful in the release of their Tamil and Telugu productions. Sagar's first Tamil film Kalidas (under the Select Pictures banner) had been directed in 1931 by H.M. Reddy who had earlier directed two silent films for Imperial. Badami was also associated with the making of this film. The lead role was played by T.P. Rajalakshmi who sang several songs that increased her popularity on the stage. Rajalakshmi went on to become the first Tamil woman director. The film carried two nationalist songs "Rattinamam Gandhi kai banamam" and "Indhiyargal nammavarkkul eno veen sandai". The call for national unity was emphasized with the picturization of a song at the spinning wheel. In the film, Venkatesan (Kalidas) spoke in Telugu while other characters spoke in Dakhni. Thus, this could be considered as India's first multilingual film. Sagar also remade their earlier successful Hindi film Veer Abhimanyu (1936) in Telugu. They produced the first Gujarati talkie Narasinh Mehta (1932), directed by Nanubhai Vakil, based on the life of the bhakti saint poet of Gujarat. It is worth noting that Sagars first regional language films Kalidas and Narasinh Mehta were both based on the lives of poets--something that can be explained by the fact that films based on the lives of poets allowed studios to introduce a large number of songs, especially of a "classical" kind, that were expected to boost box-office receipts in a period when songs were the biggest selling point of the nascent talking film.

In the third phase, we find an inclination towards gradual change. Sagar invited Ezra Mir to direct films, and he made a bold film Zarina (1933) with a tragic end. This was one of the last films with numerous mouth-to-mouth kisses that created a furor in the public and press, especially in Lahore. Kisses had been in vogue until that period, the censorship code being common for Indian and foreign films, but would soon be on their way out.

With shifts in the studio production regime, Sagar launched into making films in a variety of genres. Shaher ka JadoolLure of the City (1934) was a social film critiquing decadent urban values and introduced the trend of urban films in Sagar. Besides featuring Sabita Devi, Kumar and K.C. Dey, the film launched the career of Motilal, one of the finest actors of Indian cinema. Motilal and Sabita Devi became a very popular pair and they acred in several Sagar films together, including Ver ni Vasulat / Vengeance is Mine, based on a very popular novel by leading Gujarati intellectual and nationalist Kanhaiyalal Maneklal (K.M.) Munshi. The first of several films to be based on his works, this depicted the helplessness of women in society through the social horrors experienced by the widowed Gunavanti and her son Jagat Kishore. Dr Madhurika (1935), directed by Sarvottam Badami with Sabita Devi, Motilal and singer Padmavati Saligram in lead roles, was probably the first Indian film about birth control. The story, written especially for the film by K.M. Munshi, featured Sabita Devi in the role of Dr Madhurika, who advocates birth control. Munshi also wrote the story for Badami's Kulvadhu. Another film directed by Badami is Kokila (1937), based on a novel by another famous contemporary Gujarati novelist, Ramanlal Desai, which tells the story of village welfare on one side and the dark side of the city on the other. A year earlier, Chimanlal Luhar had made Do Diwane {Be Kharab Jan) (1936), adapted from a popular play by Munshi and featuring Motilal and Shobhana Samarth. This film contrasted the contemporary culture with the values that had prevailed fifty years earlier. Badami's Lady's Only (1939), the last film directed by him at Sagar, told a tale of four girls with different mother tongues who come to Bombay. Sagar also acquired the rights of three Sarat Chandra Chatterjee novels, but the films were not produced.

Sagar produced some stunt films and films set against a feudal background. Silver King (1935), one of the best known costume-stunt films of its time was directed by Chimanlal Luhar, already legendary as a stunt film director at Sharda in the silent period. Deccan Queen (1936) remains the only stunt film directed by Mehboob, and introduced the singing star Surendra. Ramnik Desai directed the courtesan film NachwalUDancing Girl featuring Jaddanbai in the lead role. Hailing from Lahore, Jaddanbai was a famous singer and a disciple of noted thumri singer Ustad Moizuddin Khan. The film featured popular songs such as "Apna deewaanayeh maashuk bana lete hain", "Baabul mora naihar chhoto jaaye", "Pardesiya re zara nainon se naina mila mora jiya tarse". In her first film, Talashe Haq, directed by Chimanlal Luhar and produced at Sagar Studios Jaddanbai had introduced her daughter Baby Rani (later Nargis, one of the foremost actors of Indian cinema) and her son A.R. Akhtar (Akhtar Husain). Sagar also produced a documentary film on Jaddanbai.

While all this was happening, Mehboob Khan established himself with two films Manmohan (1936) and Jagirdar (1937). Manmohan narrates the story of a painter and his childhood love, and ends in rragedy. The lead players were Surendra, Bibbo (Ishrat Sultana), Yakub and Ashalata, and the film featured music by Ashok Ghosh assisted by Anil Biswas. One of the biggest song hits of the time was the duet " Tumhi ne mujhkoprem sikhaya" sung by Surendra and Bibbo. Faredoon Irani, the cameraman for this film, employed many different camera angles, particularly in the last reel, where the changes in angles were superb. While Manmohan had Faredoon Irani as cameraman, Jagirdar was shot by Keki Mistri. The film dealt with the affairs of the feudal class. In the film, the young jagirdar Surendra rebels against family tradition by wanting to marry the woman he loves, Nila. The film had several hit songs such as "Pujari more mandir mein aao", and brilliant background music. Also, the lighting of the film was of a remarkably high order and the manner in which Mehboob set up film sequences and played with the absence-presence of dialogues between sequences showed a great understanding of the cinematic medium. The story for Jagirdar was written by Babubhai A. Mehta, who was also the chief accountant at Sagar. Babubhai also wrote the story for Mehboob's Aurat made in 1941, a film that he remade as Mother India in 1957. Mehboob's Hum Turn aur Woh (1938) presented the changing cultural and social scenario of Bombay of the time, and was acclaimed for its great tempo, the director deftly handling college scenes, a picnic party or a wedding night.

Aurat was the last film conceived at Sagar. The film was to go on floor, and in the meantime negotiations were on with the Fazalbhoys, owners of the most wellequipped film studio in Bombay, and the Tatas. Bulbulbhai Desai tells us, "The Fazalbhoys wanted to go into an ambitious production programme to match the new well equipped studio they had established, and asked Tatas to join in the venture. As the Fazalbhoys were not able to produce any significant films due to their inexperience, the Tatas said that if film companies such as Sagar joined they would come on board. Thus Sagar plus Fazalbhoys plus the Tatas jointly formed the National Studios. Our Sagar was released under a new name." But after a year or so, due to variances in styles of working, strong differences of opinion arose--and, as a result Chimanlal Desai opted out of National Studios, leading to its closure.


Sagar remains an interesting example of an early Bombay film studio with cultural ambitions--aimed at film production with content of a high quality as well as advanced technical standards of production. But above all its career shows a relentless acceptance of innovation, of breathless experimentation with genre, film-style, personnel brought in from all parts of India and other elements of the film production process. Sagar was the first studio to change Bombay film music and orchestration. The early career of Anil Biswas, an important music director of Bombay film history, was at Sagar. Surendra, also introduced by Sagar, was called the Saigal of Bombay. Bibbo was a famous singer of the pre-Noorjehan days, and had acted in many Sagar films. In addition to introducing the directors and actors mentioned earlier, Sagar also worked with stalwarts such as Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Pandit Bechan Sharma Ugra, Wazahat Mirza and Chaturbhuj Doshi who were joined in the later years by writers such as Dr Safadar Aah, Zia Sarahadi, Professor Waqif Moradabadi and Babubhai Mehta (whose career as film scenarist has seldom been noticed in Bombay film histories). Thus, while most studios were turning to writers from the Parsi Theatre as a strategy to adapt to the coming of sound and in some ways fell back upon "tradition", Sagar wanted to break the stranglehold of the past and bring in a fresh approach to filmmaking. Unlike at other film studios, none of Sagar's writers were munshis from the Parsi stage brought in to set the cash registers ringing with their theatrical melodramas.

It is this openness to the established as well as rising talents of the day, and to new styles of filmmaking and presentation, that marks out Sagar from all other major studios of the era that made their fortunes through a steady stable of studio personnel in all departments and specialized in a certain kind of cinema that branded them as exclusive. In the history of early talkies cinema in India, a studio like Sagar is forgotten in the standard narratives that focus on studios such as New Theatres, Bombay Talkies and Prabhat--studios that branded themselves with certain themes and styles. But Sagar's generic experimentation with social and urban films, whether Mehboob's films dealing with feudal India or Ezra Mir's flamboyant productions, is probably what we need to study in order to understand how the demotic Bombay film of the 1940s and 1950s came about.


All illustrations courtesy the writer.

Caption: 1 Still from the Sagar silent film Mewad no Mawali/Rogue of Rajasthan (Madanrai Vakil, 1930) featuring Elizer and Nirasha.

Caption: 2 Film booklet cover image for Chimanlal Luhar's Dynamite (1938) starring Surendra and Maya.

Caption: 3 Chitrapat magazine cover featuring the star of the times, Zubeida, in Sagar's Veer Abhimanyu (1931). Note the costume derived from the Parsi Theatre.

Caption: 4 Film booklet cover for Sarvottam Badami's Kulvadbu/Daughter-in-Law (1937) featuring the popular pair of Motilal and Sabita Devi. The story for the film was written by K.M. Munshi.

Caption: 5 Film booklet cover for Mehboob's Manmohan (1936) starring Surendra, Yakub and Bibbo.

Caption: 6 A group photo featuring some of the leaders of the Bombay film industry, 1935-39. Among those identifiable are: second from left, B.D. Bharucha, a leading exhibitor and Honorary Secretary of the Motion Picture Society of India; followed by Rai Bahadur Chunilal of Bombay Talkies (wearing a waistcoat); Satyamurti, the Congress leader who presided over the first All India Motion Picture Convention (in dhoti with stick); behind, M.B. Bilimoria, a leading distributor and treasurer, Motion Picture Society; Chimanlal Desai of Sagar, who presided over the second All India Motion Picture Convention (in dhoti, holding a newspaper); and K.S. Hirlekar, Ex-Honorary Secretary of the Motion Picture Society, who went on to pioneer the documentary film movement in India.


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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Dharamsey, Virchand
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Jun 1, 2013
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:On "disreputable" genres: B-movies and revisionary histories of Bombay Cinema.

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