Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema

In a 1913 essay of great historical and cultural value, the pioneering Indian filmmaker, Niranjan Pal elaborates his vision for using the emerging medium of cinema to showcase the best aspects of Indian culture. Niranjan Pal was the son of the great freedom fighter, Bipan Chandra Pal.
Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema

Introduction

THE STORY OF THE INDIAN FREEDOM STRUGGLE is as vast, diverse, widespread and chequered as this scared land itself. Or to invoke K.M. Munshi’s durable dictum, the story is the story of our own people. Both stalwarts and forgotten heroes working in every realm of our national life had internalized this bhava while working in their chosen fields: will my work contribute meaningfully and constructively to my country? Will it uphold the glory of this great civilization? Will it show Bharatavarsha as a cultural beacon endowed with the light that guides the world? Concatenate with these questions was its opposite strain: what is the best way to clear the polluted fog of mischievous canards spread by the British—or Europeans in general—about our civilization, culture, traditions, customs, manners and above all, our society?

We observe all these traits in the body of work of these savants.

Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema
Luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance: Or a Commentary on Our Civilisational Amnesia

For obvious reasons, the most-hailed heroes of our freedom struggle are largely drawn from the political or activist sphere. But as we have shown on various occasions in The Dharma Dispatch and elsewhere—for example, the brilliant lecture series on the exemplars of Indian wisdom from Karnataka—there is an inexhaustible treasure-chest of more profound champions of the Indian Renaissance awaiting our rediscovery. These include scientists, painters, litterateurs, educationists and scholars.

To this class belongs Niranjan Pal, one of the founding fathers of Indian cinema. Assessing the real value of his contribution is not the subject of this essay. The intrinsic nature and the passion that informed his contribution is.

NIRANJAN PAL WAS the energetic son of his more illustrious father, the great freedom fighter, an architect of the Swadeshi Movement, and Purna Swaraj, Bipan Chandra Pal. The Brobdingnagian personality of his revolutionary father, the vibrant cultural atmosphere at home and the turbulent climate of the Bengal of his childhood left a lasting impact on Niranjan. The icing on the cake was the kind of luminaries that his father was close to: Balgangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Aurobindo Ghosh among others. As a teenager, Niranjan himself plunged head-on into the freedom struggle. He carried this struggle from London where lived as a student. Here, he came in contact with two extraordinary heroes: the intrepid Madanlal Dhingra and that lion, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Niranjan chose a career in theatre and emerged as an acclaimed playwright before embracing cinema, a sunrise industry in those days. He was among the handful of Indians of that era who spotted the potential of cinema as a great force that it eventually became.

In 1913, Niranjan Pal elaborated his vision for using this rapidly ascendant medium for showcasing India’s real culture to the world in an essay titled Cinematography and its Prospects, written in London. This essay remains a work of historical value and cultural importance, and we are astonished at how farsighted Niranjan was. He covers almost every facet of the movie business as it existed in his time and his heartfelt exhortations issued to his countrymen to use this new medium as a vehicle for national service are quite moving.

The following are some excerpts from that essay, which we hope will be of some use to researchers and cultural historians of our own time.

Happy reading!

Cinematography and its Prospects

I wonder if the Indian public have an adequate idea of the possibilities of cinematography, both as an educational medium and as a commercial venture. This new industry is still in its infancy, and its field is still unexplored. The future possibilities of Cinematography as a business concern have not yet been fully realised even in England, and the only country that has foreseen its commercial anti educational value is America.

Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema
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In spite of their many faults — their corrupt political organisations and trusts – it must be admitted that no other nation can beat the Yankees in their splendid organising power and business enterprise. In five years’ time they have built up a vast business to deal with and trade in Cinematography and it may be safely asserted that at the present time they control the market. I was told the other day by a prominent English member of the trade that it was due to the enterprise of their cousins across the seas that England owes its thousands of Picture-Halls and scores of photo-play (i.e., motion picture reels) manufacturers that have brought happiness and sunshine into so many homes. It has given employment to at least from a hundred thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand men and women, besides catering for the recreation and amusement of the poor workers who cannot afford to pay for the luxury of a seat in a theatre. Not only does it teach and amuse people but it has helped to keep them from drinking saloons and public houses (brothels).

Cinematograph halls have thus become a great success in Europe and America, both financially and morally. English and American capitalists are now diverting their attention to a different direction. All who have observed the sudden growth of picture-palaces in England and America will certainly admit that if they could be once introduced in Oriental countries like India and China they would find a much wider field. I am told that, so far as they have been introduced into Bombay and Calcutta, Cinema Halls have been a great success financially. A new Syndicate is being formed in London for building and equipping Cinema Halls in all the large cities of India to provide for the amusement of the people.

Our lack of enterprise is indeed a matter of great regret, for I do not know why our financiers should not combine to extend this educative form of refined amusement to India before it is too late. By doing so, not only will they get the full value for their investment, but in a way they will help the cause of mass education also.

It is not so much a matter of money, as the estimate given below will show. It is rather a question of enterprise and organisation. I say this

because I have so little faith in the great financiers of our country, and I believe there is hardly a single instance where they have not come too late into the field to make any successful attempt to prevent foreign capitalists from exploiting India.

Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema
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A little money is required to start a Cinematograph business and much money may be made out of it.

There are two different openings in this trade, (1) The building and managing of Cinema Halls and (2) Manufacturing photo-plays (film reels).

The initial cost of building and equipping a Cinema Hall in India with a sitting capacity of five hundred will be from £ 1000 – 1500 and a working capital of £ 500. This will be sufficient to start the business. For the information of readers I give below an estimate of probable receipts and expenditure.

Now about the manufacture of films. This business is more profitable than the other and can be begun with only a capital of £ 1000 or ₹ 1500.

As a rule, the photo-plays that are produced by English and American firms vary in length from 500 ft – 2000 ft, and the cost of production varies accordingly. But on an average, the cost of producing and filming a photo-play rarely exceeds one shilling per foot. Of course, the cost of production in India will be much less. Suppose an Indian firm produces Kalidasa’s Sakuntala as a one-reel (1000 ft) photo-play. I do not think the cost will be more than £ 250 including everything, even if the main parts are acted by Star Indian artists. To print ten copies of the same will cost about £ 86.6. If these eleven films are sold to some European or American film merchants, it will easily fetch £ 150 for each film, that is, £ 1,660 for the eleven films. Thus, by investing £ 336.6, a profit of £ 1,323.14 can easily be made. But instead of selling the film outright to some firm, it is always advisable to let them out on hire, and in this way more profit can be made.

Niranjan Pal’s Passionate Appeal for Showcasing the Glory of Indian Culture through Cinema
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There is a very good opening for Indian films. The cinema-patrons always want to see something new and exciting, and the Red Indian and Wild-West pictures that were once the rage have now diminished in popularity. The photo-play producers are now looking for new materials in India and the East. This is the time for enterprising capitalists in our country to take the business in hand.

Apart from all commercialism in the Cinema trade, one great thing can be achieved for the good of India: this is to present her before the world as she really is—her culture and her people in their daily life. It will certainly serve to change the idea many foreigners have that Indians are a kind of semi-civilized people and have hideous manners.

Speeches on platforms and writings in the press can never do what the cinema can in these directions, because everybody all over the world visits the picture-theatres and nothing can impress a man so much as a play can. With little risk, much may be done for the good of the investor, for the good of his people and his country.

The Durbar pictures which are daily shown here at the Scala Theatre have not failed to make people say things that are indeed complimentary. Often, I have heard these remarks passed by ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls about our pictures: “ Aren’t they the most fine horsemen?” “Isn’t he a fine man?” “How lovely India must be!” “I would love to be out there in India!”

And if these people can see us in our home-life living peacefully and ungrudgingly content with what we have got, there will gradually grow a body of friendly critics in England who, uncalled for, out of their own convictions, will say a word for poor India.

You would be doing a great service to the country if you on dwelt on this subject at length, to create an interest in it in the minds of those who may take this cinematography enterprise in hand.

I shall be only too happy to answer any enquiries regarding this matter and to the best of my ability to help those who intend to start the business.

Postscript

Niranjan Pal went on to collaborate with the iconic Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai and became a screenwriter with the legendary production house, Bombay Talkies. He wrote screenplays for early blockbusters such as Achyut Kanya, Janmabhoomi, and Jeevan Naiyya.

From that high point of Niranjan Pal, the country never realized when Hindi cinema transformed itself into something called Bollywood, a code word signifying a sprawling den of vice and crime.

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