My Reaction to Hindi Films
By C. L. R. SASTRI
Just for once I should like to do a spot of cinematic criticism. It is not that I have seen all the films, or even a very large number of them. I am aware that there are lots of film-fans who make a point of never missing a single premiere. I envy their singular fortune: but emulation is out of the question. The vast majority of us can indulge in that luxury only occasionally. Then there are some films that one will not go to see if one is left to one’s own devices. Thus I am not attracted by historical and spectacular films: wild horses cannot drag me to them. It does not matter what superb actors and actresses are being screened: they cannot alter my rooted antipathy to the genre itself. I cannot persuade myself to enthuse over antique dresses and speeches and gestures; nor am I unduly fond of gorgeous spectacle. That partially explains my prejudice. Similarly, those films in which the ‘stars’ are very young boys and girls are non-starters so far as I am concerned.
There was a time when I liked only western films, giving the elbow, as it were, to the indigenous variety. Instead of, like Brer Rabbit, “lying low and saying nuffine”, I used to go out of my way to pass strictures upon them. Those strictures, as it happened, were mostly just. Anyhow, it was true that I was not inclined to cross myself, or to fall into a trance, every time the name of an Indian picture was announced. Then, all of a sudden, like Paul of Tarsus, I was smitten by a dazzling light. “The stream of tendency”, not ourselves, that guides our footsteps in this life took me to the Krishna Cinema on a certain evening in July of 1937 to see the New Theatres’ ‘President,’ the beauties of which were just then being extolled to the skies. That journey of mine to Charni Road opened my eyes, so to speak: it was the starting-point of my fervent admiration for the Indian cinematic industry, and, in particular, for the products issuing from the leading Indian studio, the New Theatres, of Calcutta. I was convinced that the ‘President’ was an out-and-out triumph for the Indian cinema; and that Saigal, the hero of that film, is not only, as he has been claimed to be by persons qualified to judge in these matters, the greatest of Indian actors, but that he is an actor worthy to be included in the world’s First Eleven of male film stars; and I was bewitched by the virtuosity of Leela Desai also. The acting of Kamlesh Kumari (the President) improved as the road show progressed, reaching its crescendo of excellence in its concluding stages.
A word must there be said about Saigal’s singing. It was superb. His voice was enchanting, and all his songs had an incomparable lilt. One factor in their favour was that they were never cacophonous, and that they never rose an octave higher than was imperative. But they were too short, and they were too few. Leela Desai’s remark to him, “Prakash Babu, apka gana log bahut Phasand karthe hain”; was perfectly just. Another remarkable feature of Saigal’s acting was that it was the last word in naturalness and spontaneity. I do not think that there is any western actor who can score over him in this respect. Even if he had only stood there doing nothing one could easily have discerned in him a born actor. He can be very witty, too. Saigal, in short, is in the great tradition; and with this I am content to leave him for the present.
What shall be said of Leela Desai, who acted the part of the President’s sister, the mischievous school-girl, and who always took the active part in the love-making between her and Prakash Babu (Saigal)? I cannot find a single fault with her acting. She played up to Saigal splendidly. Even her eyes were most expressive. What naughtiness was in them? As a shameless hussy she could give points to any of your Hollywood actresses–and win. In the love-duet between her and Saigal it was she who always led. She was the personification of Mr. Bernerd Shaw’s pet notion that, in this eternal amorous game, it is the woman who leads the man on and not, as is commonly supposed, the other way about. From the moment she jumped down her school garden-wall and almost fell plump into the arms of Prakash Babu, who was sitting below chewing the end of his reflections anent his dismissal from his job, she never, in a manner of speaking, left him to himself. She would bring down the house with her: “Uske bad kya hua, Prakash Babu?” The poor man had to dance to her measure ever afterwards. When she found herself with him alone she gave us the impression of having fed on honey-dew and on the milk of paradise. Then, in addition to her sparkling dialogue and supremely ‘alive’ acting, she was gorgeous in her dancing performance. Her whole face was a mirror in which her thoughts were reflected. She was an imp of mischief from commencement to conclusion.
An honourable mention must be made of the acting of Mahomed Nawab (the jobber, Dinubhai, and friend of Prakash Babu in the picture). Next to Saigal he was the most delightful actor in the show. He could set the house in a roar by the least of gestures; and his countenance could assume any expression it chose and squeeze the last drop of meaning out of it.
Ever since that visit of mine to the Krishna Cinema the leaven has been working, and I am now as crazy about Indian films as any man alive. This is not, however, to say that I fail to discriminate among them, or that I am not overcome by a feeling of the most acute nausea at my ‘recollection in tranquillity’ of by far the vast majority of them. And so I come back to that unquestionably best film studio in the country, the New Theatres’, of Calcutta: whose ‘President’ it was that opened the flood-gates of my fancy for this type of Swadeshi article.
I have no manner of doubt that with the advent of the same Theatres’ ‘Vidyapathi’ on the silver screen an entirely new standard has been set in the Indian cinematic industry. Having seen that film no less than eleven times, owing mainly to Kananbala’s versatile performance (indeed, in the acting, singing, walking, running, leaping, lying, talking, sense her little finger was mightier far than the loins of everyone else, barring Saigal, not only in this film, but in all the films of which I have experience), I hied myself in all haste to ‘Mukti’, where also she happened to be starring. I was stupefied by the amazing contrast. The maker of ‘Devadas’, save and I except in person, was not visible in ‘Mukti’; and it was then proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Devaki Bose is head and shoulders above Barua as a Director, as also that, in the sphere of music, R. C. Boral is far superior to Pankaj Mullick. Boral, indeed, is unrivalled in his chosen field. Timir Baran, excellent as his work was in ‘Devadas’, was responsible only for one film, and, therefore, cannot be bracketed with Boral, who has been associated with the musical side of the New Theatres’ films from auld lang syne.
I repeat, Vidyapathi’ is India’s Number One picture, and Kananbala India’s Number One actress. I am prepared to argue, till the cows come home, that even to behold Kananbala standing perfectly still is a liberal education in itself. With an ideal actor, or actress, and a director to match, you have a film that is worth paying a visit to: and the supreme merit of ‘Vidyapathi’ is that there you find this rare combination. One encounters a flaw in ‘Vidyapathi’, and it is to be found in the theme itself. That theme is that we can reach the god-head even through the love which man bears to woman or woman to man. Bating this controversial issue, however, the film is “the Pillars of Hercules of mortal achievement”, in a phrase immortalised by Mr. Maurice Baring. Both the hero (played by Pahari Sanyal, India’s Number Two actor) and the heroine (acted by Kananbala) acquit themselves beyond reproach. The jester of ‘Devadas’ and the washerman of ‘Chandidas’ and the hare-brained student of the ‘Millionaire’, and the absent-minded hero of ‘Dhoop-Chaaon’ presents a front of dignity here that is really to be seen to be believed. That blind singer, K. C. Dey, also ‘puts over’ the best performance of his career in this picture. But it is the unprecedented success that it is because of Kananbala. I had, before, admired Leela Desai in the ‘President’, Umashashi in ‘Chandidas’ and ‘Dhoop-Chaaon’, Molina in the ‘Millionaire’, Ratan Bai in ‘Yahoodi-ki-Larki’, and Shanta Apte in three or four films; but all these pale before the radiant performance and personality of the one and only Kanan.
I have already paid a glowing tribute to Saigal, in connection with the ‘President’. I am certain that what he does not know of acting is hardly worth knowing. He appears to have the knowledge of the whole science of acting at the tips of his fingers. I suspect that he can act with his eyes shut, and even then contrive to give us a brilliant performance. As a singer he is Apollo himself–on a brief sojourn on this planet. What a marvelous voice he has, indeed! More, he can modulate it to every emergency. He can, I verily believe, play on all the notes–and then some. He is so compact of melody that I can almost ‘go bail’, in Stevenson’s phrase, on the statement that he can infuse harmony even into a laundry bill. It was said of Socrates that he brought philosophy down from Heaven to inhabit among men. Substitute ‘Saigal’ for ‘Socrates’ and ‘music’ for ‘philosophy’, and that dictum will stand equally true. When Saigal begins to sing I shut out everything else from my mind for the time being. I went to the picture, ‘Devadas’, half-a-dozen times–chiefly to hear his ‘Duhkhe’ song. Then there is that other song of his, in the ‘Millionaire’, where, standing before a microphone, he pours out his heart to his ‘be-all and end-all’, Leela (played superbly by Molina), who had been ‘listening-in’–without, let us hope, an over plus of displeasure. In ‘Puranbhakt’ he has a very tiny role, as a Sanyasi, but he makes even that memorable by his one and only song.
To me he represents the finest acting in the country. Like the Apostle, he can be all things to all men–on the screen. He can be the last word in exuberance–as in the ‘Millionaire’: a model of seriousness, as in ‘Chandidas’: a mixure of both, as in the ‘President’: and a most inimitable tragic hero, as in ‘Devadas’. Talking of Indian film-acting I can say that he “flames in the forehead of the morning sky”.
Next to him comes Pahari Sanyal. Mahomed Nawab is our ablest comedian–though he can act a serious role, well enough, for is not his portrayal of the Jew in ‘Yahoodi-ki-Larki’ his masterpiece? His portrayal of the snake-charmer in ‘Sapera’ is also not to be sneezed at. As for Prithviraj, he has come into his heritage at last, with the release of ‘Vidyapathi’. He is the handsomest of our screen actors. No one can walk as majestically as he does: besides, he has a way of patting one on the pack that is all his own. He bears a close resemblance to Basil Rathbone, and has a figure which ought to be the envy of every man.
Have I forgotten Jamuna, of ‘Devadas’ fame? “Nahin, Paru, Nahin.” She shone resplendently in the earlier half of that play; and she was at her best in the very first scene itself, in which she had a very pleasing coquettish way of her own. She gave an ideal performance by the over-whelming sincerity of her acting. Hazlitt said of Cavanagh’s playing that “his service was tremendous”. So was Jamuna’s whole-hearted identification of herself with her part.
A word must be written about Bharati Devi. She made her debut in the New Theatres’ ‘Doctor’. She was even better in ‘Saugand’ and in ‘Kashinath’, nor is she below her form in her latest role in ‘Wapas’. Her singing is as good as Kananbala’s and the same holds good as regards her acting in general. The future of Indian films is safe in such hands as hers. Why I have harped so much on the products of the New Theatres’ Studio is that, taking them by and large, as the saying is, they are decidedly the best pictures that our indigenous industry has so far produced; they are the “very sea-mark of its utmost sail”: and not least in naturalistic acting, which is the alpha and omega of acting in general.