indian film history

Missing silent film ‘Bilwamangal’ finally returns to India

A digital version of 20-minute duration has arrived at the National Film Archive of India from Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

Only 28 fiction and non-fiction films survive from the silent cinema period between the late 1800s and the early 1930s. Make that 29: Bilwamangal, directed by Rustom Dotiwala for the legendary producer Jamshedji Framji Madan in 1919, has been added to the list of titles stored at the National Film Archive of India in Pune. A devotional based on the popular legend of the Krishna devotee who was later known as Bhakta Surdas, the movie stars Dorabji Mewawala and the popular stage actress Miss Gohar.

‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.
‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.

“We have around 28 surviving minutes of footage, and it is in excellent condition,” said NFAI director Prakash Magdum. Nearly 1,300 silent movies are estimated to have been made in India, and all but a few have been lost. The original nitrate print of Bilwamangal was stored at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. After several months of negotiations, the French organisation has given the NFAI a digital version of the print in exchange for a copy of the 1931 silent film Jamai Babu. “It is a very important acquisition for us,” Magdum said. “The original film was 12,000 feet long, and 594 metres is what we have got. We have a digital version of the original nitrate reels in 2K resolution.”

‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.
‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.

The oldest silent movie print at the NFAI is DG Phalke’s second version of Raja Harishchandra from 1917. Bilwamangal is now the second oldest title in the NFAI’s possession, and the first ever visual representative of the kind of movies made by Madan, who is described in BD Garga’s Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey as “the first movie moghul of India to own a vast production, distribution, and exhibition network, which was to dominate the entertainment industry for nearly two decades”.

Bilwamangal was produced by Elphinstone Bioscope in Kolkata, the predecessor of Madan Theatres Ltd. “With this acquisition, NFAI now possesses in its collection films representing three important Indian studios of the silent era – Madan, Kohinoor and Hindustan,” the NFAI said in a press release.

‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.
‘Bilwamangal’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.

Like most silent films, Bilwamangal has been heard about but not seen. “Historical factors, apathy and the inexorable process of nitrate decay have virtually wiped out the Indian silent cinema’s greatest and best known achievements,” writes former NFAI director Suresh Chabria in the anthology Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934. Much of what we know of the period is from publicity material, such as song booklets and advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and surviving writings from the time.

“It’s most exciting,” said Chabria, who watched Bilwamangal after it came to the archive in Pune. “The movie is different in style from the works of other filmmakers of the period, DG Phalke and Baburao Painter.” The footage includes scenes of Bilwamangal arguing with his father over his relationship with the courtesan Chintamani (Miss Gohar), a dance by Gohar, and a moment of religious awakening when Gohar is visited by the god Krishna. “The surviving portions have what has been described as the Madan style,” Chabria pointed out. “The lighting is beautiful, and there are long takes.”

The NFAI’s admittedly modest silent film treasure includes complete versions of The Light of Asia (1925) by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai and Osten's Shiraz (1929). Only fragments survive of the 1917 version of Raja Harishchandra and Kaliya Mardan (1919), Baburao Painter’s Maya Bazaar (1925), Sati Savitri (1927) and Muraliwala (1927) and PV Rao’s Marthand Varma (1933).

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.