The protagonist of Arun Roy’s Hiralal is credited with having made India’s first advertising film as well as its first political documentary. Yet, scarcely anything is known about the man who is among the pioneers of Indian cinema. Roy’s Bengali-language biopic, which was premiered at the 24th Kolkata International Film Festival, hopes to change that.

Born in present-day Bangladesh in 1866, Hiralal Sen grew up in a wealthy family and was obsessed with still photography. He became interested in motion pictures when he saw a movie at Kolkata’s Star Theatre in 1898. Sen imported a camera from England and, with his brother Motilal, set up the Royal Bioscope Company to produce films. Creativity and commerce boomed for a few decades and the company churned out documentaries, advertisements and filmed scenes from theatre productions. But Sen’s poor business acumen soon came in the way, causing the company to fold in 1913. A cancer diagnosis resulted in his premature death in 1917. Shortly before that, a fire at the warehouse where all his films were stored destroyed his life’s work.

Kinjal Nanda as Hiralal Sen. Courtesy Easel Movies.
Kinjal Nanda as Hiralal Sen. Courtesy Easel Movies.

In the film, Sen is played by Bengali theatre actor Kinjal Nanda. In development since 2015, Hiralal was a passion project for Roy, who has an avid interest in the history of Bengal. The television screenwriter made his feature filmmaking debut with Egaro (2011), about Bengali football team Mohun Bagan’s defeat of the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911. With this, Mohun Bagan became the first Indian football team to win the Indian Football Association Shield, a mantle till then held by British army teams.

Hiralal, Roy said, had been taking form in his mind since the early 2000s. “Not just Hiralal, I have loads of stories and subjects from Bengal’s history I want to make films on,” Roy told Scroll.in. “Between 1800 and 1930, Bengalis left a huge contribution to arts, politics and sciences, but within these larger stories, there are many small events which can become complete films.”

One such story with the potential to become a standalone film, Roy said, is the relationship between 19th-century Bengali theatre personality Amarendra Nath Dutta (played by Arna Mukhopadhyay in Hiralal) and stage actress Kusum Kumari (Tannistha Biswas). Kumari, one of the most popular theatre actresses in 19th-century Bengal, was mentored by Dutta. Sen joined hands with Dutta’s Classic Theatre company to shoot his theatre films, including the feature-length Alibaba and the Forty Thieves (1903).

In the film, Kusum Kumari shares a relationship that blurs the lines between professional and personal with Dutta and develops feelings for Sen as well.

Tannistha Biswas as Kusum Kumari, and Arna Mukhopadhyay as Amarendra Nath Dutta. Courtesy Easel Movies.
Tannistha Biswas as Kusum Kumari, and Arna Mukhopadhyay as Amarendra Nath Dutta. Courtesy Easel Movies.

The screenplay by Roy, with dialogue by Saunava Bose, took two years to be completed. Roy and his team scoured libraries across West Bengal looking for material on Sen, aided by their researcher, Rudrarup Mukherjee. Almost all major known events from Sen’s life made it to the film and a few creative liberties were taken in the form of dramatised events and melodramatic flourishes – such as the love triangle between Sen, Dutta and Kumari – and fictional elements.

One such fictional departure is the portrayal of theatre and film producer Jamshedji Framji Madan (Saswata Chatterjee) as a villain and the man responsible for the fire that destroyed Sen’s films. “There is no mention [in official records] of how all his films were destroyed by fire,” Roy said. “But looking at the dates of the fire and the release of Madan’s production, Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra, the first film produced from Bengal, it does look suspicious. After all, I am not making a documentary.”

Roy shows Madan to be a shrewd businessman who is not above using crooked means to outdo the competition. He is aided by his cunning lawyer Tarini (Adhikari Koushik), who is one of two fictional characters along with Kanu (Bidyut Das), Sen’s Man Friday. “I figured that if a man in those days had to move around the city carrying a camera to shoot projects, he probably had to have an assistant,” Roy explained.

Saswata Chatterjee as Jamshedji Framji Madan. Courtesy Easel Movies.
Saswata Chatterjee as Jamshedji Framji Madan. Courtesy Easel Movies.

Despite its large scope and daunting length, Hiralal was made on a humble budget of Rs 90 lakhs. A few scenes from 19th-century Kolkata were computer-generated. Other tricks included shooting actors from a low angle in exterior scenes, to avoid catching contemporary architecture, vehicles and other giveaways on camera.

Of the 76 characters in the film, 73 are played by debutantes handpicked from contemporary Bengali theatre. The only big-name actors are Chatterjee, Kharaj Mukhopadhyay, who plays Bengali playwright Girish Chandra Ghosh, and Shankar Chakraborty who plays the owner of Jabakusum hair oil, for which Sen shot what is considered India’s first ad film.

“I did not want people to come to the theatre expecting to see a star or a known actor,” Roy said. “I wanted them to see Hiralal Sen. Also, new actors react in new ways which are unexpected.”

The theatre background, however, ensures that the newcomers ably carry their roles. Nanda, for instance, portrays Sen as an arrogant, obsessive man. To capture his weak physique near the end of his life, Nanda lost 25 kg in two months and did not drink water for the final seven days of shooting, Roy said.

Kinjal Nanda as Hiralal Sen. Courtesy Easel Movies.
Kinjal Nanda as Hiralal Sen. Courtesy Easel Movies.

After its premiere at the Kolkata International Film Festival, Roy hopes to trim his film as much as he can. “The original cut was 210 minutes long,” Roy said. “We brought it down to 153. We want to cut it further during release.”

However, he doesn’t expect this to be easy. “Just as Hiralal was important, so were the people and the times around him,” Roy said. “It is quite the task to think of what to keep and what to let go of.”

Arun Roy.
Arun Roy.