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Prabhat – The Torchbearer of Social Awareness in Indian cinema – By H.N.Narahari Rao

Prabhat Film Company, which had its glorious days in the 1930s and 40s, has given the world of cinema some of the most renowned films of the early talkie era. The significant feature of Prabhat’s film classics was the variety of genres in which its films were made. Never at the beginning of the talkie era (not just in India but elsewhere too), had filmmakers tried to tackle such a variety of subjects to create social awareness in the people. It is a matter of great pride for Indian cinema – now celebrating its centenary – to go down memory lane and acknowledge these pioneers who achieved such great distinction. At a time when filmmakers in India were making films based on mythology and historical subjects – which were almost replicas of successful stage performances – the artists of Prabhat selected highly sensitive and even controversial subjects that dealt with contemporary problems facing society.

It is to be noted here, particularly by those interested in the history of cinema that even before Italian Neorealism made its presence felt through Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and others in the 1940s, and through John Ford, Frank Capra, Orson Wells, William Wyler, Billy Wilder and others in Hollywood in the 1940s, V.Damle, S.Fatelal, V.Shantaram, Gajanan Jagirdar and their associates presented the great classics of Prabhat in the 1930s:  Amrit Manthan (Marathi & Hindi) 1934, Dharmatma (Marathi & Hindi) 1935, Amarjyoti (Hindi) 1936, Sant Tukaram, 1936, Kunku (Marathi) / Duniya Na Mane (Hindi) 1937, Manoos (Marathi) / Aadmi (Hindi) 1939, Shejari (Marathi) / Padosi (Hindi) 1941, Ramshastri (Marathi & Hindi) 1944, and others. These films, made with dexterity and technical perfection, reached out to Indian viewers and touched their hearts. It is heartwarming to know they were successful in their efforts.

Prabhat’s classics are of  great importance insofar as that they deal with issues such as abolition of human and animal sacrifice, the practice of untouchability, women’s emancipation, the notion of Bhakti, the social evil of forced marriages and the eradication of prostitution. Another striking feature is the excellent performances given by child artistes. In many films including Ramshastri, Sant Tukaram, Sant Dnyaneshwar, Gopala Krishna and others, Prabhat reached a high professional level. Historians have recorded that enormous pains were taken to select suitable children and train them to perfection. It is gratifying to know that India’s prestigious film institute, FTII, is situated on the very site where the Prabhat studio once stood. What a heritage that is! Prabhat’s classics, seen today on DVD, bring back nostalgic memories. Given below are short reviews of some of the films, copies of which, fortunately, are still available for viewing.

Ayodhyecha Raja (1932) was the first Marathi talkie film. It is also the earliest talkie whose print has survived. Directed by V.Shantaram, this prestigious work was also one of the biggest hits of the early talkie era. It kindled the golden era of the great classics that followed in 1930s and 40s and made an invaluable contribution to Indian cinema.

Ayodhyecha Raja

The film tells a story famous from Indian mythology – that of Raja Harishchandra, the noble king of Ayodhya, who sacrificed his kingdom, his wife, his child, and sold himself as a slave to uphold the noble values which he practiced as king. Durga Khote (1905-1991), Indian cinema’s most renowned actress and a Dada Phalke Award winner, made her debut as Taramati. Hailing from a respectable family, her appearance in films emboldened other women to enter the world of cinema, hitherto considered a taboo. Historically, the importance of Ayodhyecha Raja is undeniable.

Dharmatma

Dharmatma (1935): Prabhat’s films had a direct bearing on the political situation that prevailed in the country, and Dharmatma directed by V.Shantaram is another biographical story of the saint poet Eknath who lived in the 16th century and whose teachings were the same as those of Mahatma Gandhi – the practice Truth and Non Violence and the eradication of untouchability. The highlight of the film was Balagandharva, the legendary stage actor of Maharashtra, who played the main role. As a follower of Sant Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, born into a deeply orthodox Brahmin family, wrote thousands of abhangs (poems) in Marathi and was able to reach out to all sections of people through his singing.  Not only did he preach equality among people, he even put his teaching into practice (taking the revolutionary step of eating in the home of an untouchable), incurring the wrath of his community as well as of his son. The community boycotted him, but later, his writings and principles were appreciated by the Yatis (the highest religious heads) and he became a highly respected and popular saint.

At the time the film was made, there was a need to mobilize support for Gandhiji’s principles and his struggle for freedom, and cinema was one of the most convenient and powerful media through which mass communication could be established. British censorship was so strict that the original title of the film, Mahatma, had to be changed because of its reference to Gandhiji.  Despite the censorship, however, Prabhat took the message of building national unity to the people through films such as Dharmatma. The film’s message was significant and relevant for this very reason, and it continues to be so today.

Sant Tukaram

Sant Tukaram, (1936), in Marathi, directed by V. Damle and S. Fatelal is also a landmark film for a variety of reasons.  It won recognition both at the national and international levels, besides creating a record at the box-office in that it ran in a single theatre for over 57 weeks. It entered many international film festivals abroad and won an award at the Venice festival in 1937. The film gives a neat portrayal of the life of Saint Tukaram, bringing together history and folk tale.  Traces of neo-realism can be found in abundance in its straightforward narration and in its portrayal of rural poverty of that period. In his role as a saint, Vishnu Pagnis as Tukaram maintains the same tempo throughout his performance, but what ultimately takes the honours is the amazing histrionic talent of Gauri in the role of Jijai, the pragmatic housewife.

In one emotionally charged sequence, she drags her child with one hand, holds a slipper in the other, goes to the temple, questions the deity, and denounces the God openly for heaping injustice on her family. She is able to argue and convince her husband that a mere recitation of verses does not fill their children’s belly. Harsh in her words, she ventures so far as to scold and abuse him contemptuously. Strangely, though, she does not transgress her wifely role by disobeying her husband, and Saint Tukaram appreciates her for being conscious of her duty. He preaches the same virtue to King Shivaji, asking him to abide by his responsibilities.

The important implication of the film is that one need not necessarily follow rituals or go through the complicated process of learning the Vedas, or other scriptures to approach God. One can call God by name, and offer prayers in one’s own humble way. This is the crux of Tukaram’s poems. Some miracles shown in the film – the sick boy regaining his health, the shower of grains during the harvest, the return of the book of verses from the river where it has been flung, and the eventually flying off in the celestial chariot – went down well with the audience.  Interestingly, in the concluding shots, Tukaram invites Jijai to join him on his final journey, but Jijai refuses, not willing to forsake the children. This is the only time that she fails to follow her husband’s wishes.

Kunku

Kunku (Marathi) / Duniya Na Mane (Hindi) 1937: Kunku, another classic to have emerged from Prabhat, and directed by V.Shantaram, was a subtle treatment of a subject that haunted Hindu society – the cruelty towards young women married to older men. Based on a novel by Narayan Hari Apte, it tells the story of a valiant young and aspiring woman, Nirmala, married to an old widower and her life of tribulation. Instead of meekly surrendering to her tragic fate, she takes it up as a challenge and makes her old husband realize his mistake. She does remain in the house as a dutiful wife but refuses to accede to his sexual desires and rejects his emotions. Full of repentance, he commits suicide. She sets a goal for herself, makes it clear that such social injustice is wrong and that what had happened to her should not happen to others. Defiance and sacrifice are her clear objectives, and she achieves them.

Sant Dnyaneshwar

Sant Dnyaneshwar (1938): Close on the heels of their huge success with Sant Tukaram (1936), V. Damle and S. Fatelal, the noted live-wire duo of Prabhat, launched Sant Dnyaneshwar (1938) from the same saint cult genre. This time it was a biographical study of Sant Dnyaneshwar who lived in 13th century (1275-1296) and of his appeal to an entire body of people, irrespective of the caste or religion to which they belonged. Born into an orthodox Brahmin family, the boy Dnyaneshwar, his two brothers and a sister lose their parents, who commit suicide, because the Brahmin community has ostracized them for violation of celibacy.

The four children led by Dnyaneshwar go from place to place to attain purification, but the harsh, cruel, and inhuman community of scholars, refuse to yield. Even as a child, Dnyaneshwar launches a crusade against this unjust judgment and strongly professes that all are born equal and deserve to be treated kindly.

He launches a crusade against the so-called religious scholars, and even brings about a miracle when he makes a buffalo pronounce the Vedas through its mouth. Another miracle happens when he makes the wall on which he and his siblings are sitting start flying in the sky to meet the most revered saint Mahatma Changdev who has come to scoff at this young saint. Changdev surrenders at the feet of Sant Dnyaneshwar. The young Sant Dnyaneshwar, at the age of twenty-one feels that he has accomplished his mission of establishing equality among men and voluntarily renounces life and attains salvation through live Samadhi in the presence of a sea of people. Sant Dnyaneshwar’s technical qualities won acclaim even from celebrities such as Frank Capra.

Apart from the miracles, the film remains steadfastly neorealistic in its treatment. Miracles are a part of the stories of the lives of saints in India. Without them, films would have become dryly rationalist and lacking in mass appeal. Social reforms initiated by many saints and preachers in India won adherents because there were stories of miracles attached to them. The noble objective of eradicating superstition and creating equality is a gigantic task, and any sincere attempt in that direction through art is always welcome. This was what Prabhat wished to achieve through such films. It was the need of the hour when the people of India had to stand united behind the freedom struggle. Unlike films which emphasize the negative aspects of social problems, Prabhat used a positive approach to propagate rational thinking.

Gopala Krishna

Gopala Krishna (1938): Directed by V. Damle and S. Fatelal, Gopal Krishna, portrays the childhood adventures of Lord Krishna. Even though it deals with mythology, its visuals give  it a realistic look. Emphasized here are humour and entertainment – an allurement for children who enjoy fantasy in films. Interestingly, the child Krishna makes repeated statements to mobilize public opinion among villagers to stand up against the oppressive rule of Kansa the king. Kansa wants to take away the herd of cattle which is the main livelihood of the rural community. The film stresses the value attached to the usefulness, reverence and respect of cattle as an integral part of the cultural life in villages. Gokul – the village where Krishna lives – resists the ‘colonial’ doctrine of Kansa who wants to rule it by denying people their freedom. This is a direct metaphor to the British rule and to the freedom movement which was then in full swing. It is reported that at many places in Prabhat films the word ‘freedom’ was removed by the censors working under British rule. Gopal Krishna, too, has miracles, but it has the touch of Prabhat, which is what makes it interesting to watch even today, several decades after its making. The film was also successful in terms of its popularity rating.

Manoos (Marathi) / Aadmi (Hindi) 1939: Directed by V. Shantaram, the subject of Manoos is of immense social significance. It tells of a sincere attempt to rehabilitate a prostitute.  Ganpat, a policeman on duty during a raid on a brothel, saves Maina, a prostitute, from arrest. They meet frequently. Ganpat is gradually attracted towards Maina and they fall in love.  He decides to marry her, and takes her to his house to meet his highly religious mother. But Maina, unable to see herself as part of a highly orthodox family, runs away. Arrested later by the police and sentenced to death for killing her evil uncle, she sends a message to Ganpat to look beyond love and lead a good life.

Manoos

Shantaram had the courage to tackle such a subject at a time when India was still in the firm grip of age-old traditions and superstitions. A policeman, who is supposed to be the guardian of law, venturing to marry a prostitute from a brothel – a profession looked upon as a sin socially and legally – was a topic which anyone else would have hesitated to handle. Shantaram did it gracefully. The film is no doubt melodramatic, but nobody can deny that it made society sit up and think. Shantaram was an optimistic; he did not believe in the philosophy of frustrated lovers drowning their sorrow in liquor and spreading pessimism in young minds as happens in Devdas. The film is regarded as one of the classics of Indian cinema.

Shejari

Shejari (Marathi) / Padosi (Hindi) 1941: Released in 1941 in Marathi and Hindi versions, this film was an ambitious effort by V. Shantaram to promote communal harmony. When the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi intensified, and the British tried to divide the country along communal lines, Shantaram made a bold attempt to instill confidence in the people and urge them to live peacefully, particularly in rural areas, where discordant views on trivial matters quickly generated communal tension. This message of peace is conveyed through a story of two neighbours, Mirza, and Patil who have lived harmoniously for decades. They become estranged over the question of acquiring land for the construction of a dam. Ultimately, when the dam is blown up, Mirza, Patil’s beloved friend, tries to rescue him, but both perish in each other arms. Despite the inconsistency in its treatment, the film had a great social impact at a crucial juncture in India’s history.

Ramshastri

Ramshastri (1944), directed by Gajanan Jagirdar was the last successful film to roll out of Prabhat Film Company before its closure in 1953 following the untimely demise of V. Damle. It is a biographical work about a renowned personality, Ramshastri, who held the prestigious post of Chief Justice under Madhavarao Peshwa of the Maratha Kingdom in the 18th century. Seen today, some seven decades later, we have a sense of fulfillment that this great heritage has been preserved. For it gives us several insights into the quality of cinema that Prabhat made in the early days of the Talkie era. Its subject contains a valuable and lasting message. Ramshastri, a poor Brahmin boy, married when he is still a child, lives with his widowed mother who survives on alms. She decides that unless her son becomes an educated and scholarly person like his father, he will not be able to lead a decent life. The boy goes to Kashi to study Sanskrit, and returns after twelve years as a highly learned person with a deep knowledge of religion and political science. His unmatched wisdom and fearless and impartial views (as in the case of the abolition of the slave market where girls are sold) earn him the position of Chief Justice in the Peshwa regime.

The climax of the film is his historic and courageous judgment pronouncing the death sentence on the ruling Peshwa for the murder of his nephew. Ramshastri becomes a hero, is deeply revered by the Maratha people and given a rousing and tearful farewell when he relinquishes his office and voluntarily leaves the kingdom with his family.

The film portrays Ramshastri as a great Brahmin in the true sense: his sacrifice in his pursuit of knowledge, his incorruptible and unbiased judgments and his political acumen are all very convincingly portrayed. With its huge studio settings, its display of the kingdom’s colossal grandeur, and with the thousands of participants on the screen, all in period costumes, the film compares well with Hollywood spectacles of that era. Watching it today, we experience the dedication and sincerity of its makers in every frame. Ramshastri is a treasure of the Indian film world and our proud heritage.

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