The Sands of Time: Part 26

August 9, 1940. As soon as he heard about it, he ran to the studio. He was at the stadium watching a football game between Mohun Bagan and Aryan FC when someone whispered in his ear that his studio was on fire. By the time he reached the doors, flames had consumed the lab. A decade of hard work, toil and artistic endeavor was reduced to ashes before his eyes. Pramathesh Chandra Barua, standing right next to him, was inconsolable. “My Devdas is burning!” Barua lamented, referring to his seminal bilingual film, released in the 1930s in Hindi and Bengali. Birendranath Sarkar, trying to make sense of the tragedy himself, touched his shoulder and said, “Not at all. Devdas is right there, standing next to me.

Birendranath had an impressive lineage. His great-grandfather Peary Charan Sarkar had written one of the first textbooks on the English language by an Indian. His father, Sir Nirendranath Sarkar, was a barrister, appointed as the first Advocate General of Bengal. Birendranath himself had studied civil engineering at the University of Glasgow. Once he began his practice as an engineer in Calcutta, many of his bills went unpaid, much to his chagrin. Frustrated by this setback, he reportedly crossed Cornwallis Street (now known as Bidhan Sarani), when he noticed a long line of humans queuing outside a cinema to buy tickets. He was amazed. Here he was, worrying about getting paid for work he had already done, and these people were eager to pay money for something they hadn’t even experienced! No matter how good the product was, it was a business where people had to pay up front. Sarkar decided to change careers and go into cinema.

BN Sarkar

It was 1928 and the Bhowanipore Club was the hub of young Bengali intellectuals where they huffed and puffed and roared about all sorts of issues that ailed humanity. In these circles, BN Sarkar came across Haren Ghosh, a sophisticated impresario who could seemingly make any business a success. They entered into a partnership to make films. The first product of this collaboration was a silent film titled Booker Bojha (1930). It was directed by Nitin Bose, an aspiring young filmmaker who had served as a cinematographer at the Eastern Films Syndicate. The cast included the reigning superstar of Bengal, Durgadas Bannerjee. The film was a disaster through and through, but it gave Birendranath aka BN Sarkar a taste of the inner workings of the film industry. Then he partnered with PN Ray, an engineer like himself who was also interested in filmmaking and started a company called International Film Craft in 1930. PN Ray came with some experience, as he had worked with Himanshu Rai (who was about to found Bombay Talkies a few years later). Under the new banner, Ray and Sarkar produced two films. The first was Chor Kanta (1931) directed by Charu Roy (who had played the main role in A roll of the dice), and the other was Chashar Meye (1931). At that time, Sarkar had also used his engineering skills to build the Chitra Cinema Hall, which was inaugurated by none other than Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Both films were released in the newly built theater and fell apart miserably and it was International Film Craft’s.

So far, all of his movies have been duds, and a lesser man would have given up by now. But for BN Sarkar, it was all about learning experiences. He put the pieces together from his last two experiences and put together a new team of talented people. Among them were Nitin Bose, who was the director of Sarkar’s first film, Amar Mullick who had been part of International Film Craft, and a certain IG Hafizji. With this skeletal team, BN Sarkar launched The New Theaters Limited on February 10, 1931. The era of silent films was over and India’s first “talkie”, the film by Ardeshir Irani Alam Ara had just come out. Although many thought it was a passing fad and that good cinema would continue to be silent, Sarkar knew a trend when he saw one. He hired William Demming, who had just been a sound engineer on Alam Ara. Unlike silent films, music was important for talkies and even in those early days songs were important. Two young talents have joined the ranks of New Theatres, Pankaj Kumar Mullick and Raichand Boral. Together, they would change the history of Bengali/Hindi film music.

KL Saigal (left), the logo of 'New Indian Theater Limited'
KL Saigal (left), the logo of ‘New Indian Theater Limited’

New Theatres’ first two ventures, both adaptations of Sarat Chandra’s novels, Dena Paona (1931) and Palli Samaj (1932), shared the same fate as some of Sarkar’s earlier ventures. They missed. But he shouldn’t be fazed by that. He kept thinking about experimenting with new ideas. He attended a staging of the dance drama by Rabindranath Tagore Notir Puja, overseen by Tagore himself. BN Sarkar was eager to try something new and he asked the bard to allow the play to be filmed. Perhaps impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm, Tagore nodded. Birendranath spared no effort to put the septuagenarian poet at ease around his studio. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of Tagore’s lair in Santiniketan, even building a pond inside the studio complex. And so it was at the New Theaters that Tagore’s play was recorded on film, under the supervision of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was not only officially the manager, but he also starred there. Notir Puja was released at BN Sarkar’s own Chitra cinema on March 22, 1932. But although Tagore’s name was involved in the film, it was not successful commercially.

New Theaters saw success for the first time after the arrival of a new singer. Kundan Lal Saigal came to Kolkata partly because it was a mecca for music, culture and the arts. Some say it was Raichand Boral who introduced Saigal to BN Sarkar, and another version of events says that Sarkar discovered Saigal at a party while traveling in Jalandhar. The thing is, Birendranath immediately hired this talented new vocalist and handed him over to Boral and Pankaj Mullick to hone his musical skills. Saigal made his debut as an actor-singer with Mohabbat Ke Ansu (1932), but the film that made him and New Theaters famous was that of Nitin Bose Chandidas (1934), a Hindi remake of an earlier film of the same name which they made in Bengali. The movie was a smash hit and started an almost endless string of hits. With Nitin Bose Chakra Bhagya (1935), the technology of reading vocals was invented. KL Saigal reached the zenith of stardom with PC Barua Devdas (1935). Barua himself played the lead character in the Bengali version, and Saigal reprized the role in Hindi. New Theaters was at the forefront of innovation, creativity and a pioneer of literary adaptations in Indian cinema. BN Sarkar was finally seeing the fruits of his labor.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

But it all came crashing down on that fateful day in 1940 when all his work was burned in the fire, including Tagore’s precious film. But as before, BN Sarkar, 39, put all the pieces together and started from scratch, with renewed vigor. A new movie called Udayer Pathé (1944) directed by a young director of photography from PC Barua Devdas, created quite a stir. The name of this young man was Bimal Roy. BN Sarkar continued to make films well into the 1950s. He was appointed a member of the Film Inquiry Commission in 1951. It was this commission’s report that led to the creation of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the film division and the Film Finance Corporation, which eventually became the NFDC.

By the time Birendranath Sarkar died in 1980, Bengali cinema had entered a downward spiral, never again to witness the dizzying heights it had seen before.

Comments are closed.