SHOMA A CHATTERJI | 1 FEBRUARY, 2019
New Theatres marked the entry of some of the greatest talents in the history of Indian cinema.
There was a time when the Indian film industry was sustained by the studio system which was very successful in the different cities of India. One of the pillars of this system was born in Kolkata on 10th February 1931. Motto of this company was– Jivatang Jyotiretu Chhayam (Light infusing shadows with life). New Theatres marked the entry of some of the greatest talents in the history of Indian cinema. From Prithviraj Kapoor to Bimal Roy, from Pankaj Mullick to Kanan Devi, from Pramathesh Barua, Hem Chandra, Kartick Chatterjee to Phani Majumdar, Debaki Kumar Bose and Nitin Bose, they all made their entry into cinema through New Theatres. Music, always a strong point with New Theatres, reached a high degree of excellence because of the aesthetic blend of composers, singers and lyricists. Along with composers like R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick and Timir Baran, there were singing stars like Kanan Devi, K.L.Saigal, Pahari Sanyal and Asit Baran. New Theatres also claims the credit for introducing the technology of playback songs in cinema through Bhagya Chakra in 1935. The New Theatres logo came to be regarded as the hallmark of quality, and the elephant is fondly remembered even today.
B. N. Sircar who founded the studio and looked after its activities without interfering with the directors, who worked there, was the second son of Sir N.N. Sircar, Advocate General of undivided Bengal and a member of the Viceroy’s council. After getting a degree in civil engineering from London University, Sircar returned with dreams of setting up his own business in civil construction. One day, he happened to chance upon a long queue outside Crown theatre in the southern parts of Calcutta, which now has a different name. Intrigued by the long queue, he stopped to ask what these people were waiting for. They were waiting to buy tickets for the film being screened in the theatre, he was told. He was amazed at the prospect of this business where people were willing to shell out money without seeing the quality of the product or even knowing how useful it would be for them. That sowed the seeds of getting into film production. New Theatres was born spanning a large tract of land off Tollygunje, in the southern extremes of Calcutta. Over the years, it had a lovely garden filled with mango trees, flowers and a “Gol Ghar” in the centre. .Sircar identified himself with the best in Indian cinema from its ‘silent’ days right through the forties and fifties.
Late filmmaker Arabindu Mukherjee who passed away some years ago, worked as assistant director at New Theatres from 1947 to 1958. He once said, “Gol Ghar has an interesting history. The story goes that Sir built it overnight when Rabindranath Tagore was expected to come to the studios for the shooting of his only directorial film, Natir Pooja, in 1931. He knew that Tagore would find the studio floors too hot to handle, so he created this cool corner for the poet laureate which later became his own little island of sunshine. The Gol Ghar has played host to some of the greatest figures in Indian history. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee and Sarat Chandra are just a few names whose footprints have graced the earth that houses New Theatres. From international cinema, personalities like Frank Capra, Jean Renoir and Pudovkin graced the studio with their presence. Sircar also constructed a theatre called Chitra (now called Mitra) as an outlet for films produced by New Theatres.”
Animator Jayanti Sen informs us that New Theatres made India’s first animation film called The Pea Brothers. Directed by Gunomoy Banerjee, it was released at Chitra talkies on June 23, 1936. Though Filmland, a noted film journal of the time, heaped praises on the film, it turned out to be a commercial flop. A sad Gunomoy Banerjee went back to making films with real people. New Theatres did go on to produce another animation film in 1951 called Michke Potash. Bhaktaram Mitra directed the film.
Sircar did not want to be performer or director. His pleasure was to give a good director the budget he needed, and let him go ahead without interference. He gathered around him the best talents of his time, representing the manifold aspects of filmmaking – direction, music, acting, photography, sound recording, etc. Watching the credit titles of a New Theatres film, one is struck by the names. Directors like Pramathesh Barua, Debaki Bose, Nitin Bose, Madhu Bose, Hemchandra Chunder, Phani Majumdar, Kartick Chatterjee and Bimal Roy, all of who went on to become nationally recognised talents in their own respective fields.
The unique selling point of a New Theatres production was –(a) a solid storyline, preferably picked from Bengali literature, (b) lilting songs and background music, (c) sound technique, and (d) good acting. Sircar never interfered with the film while it was under production. After each film was complete, he would watch it at a morning screening at New Cinema in Calcutta. Among the 150 films under the New Theatres banner made in several languages over a span of 24 years (1931-1955), it would be difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff and say – these are the best. From Doctor (1940) to Pratisruti (1941) to Udayer Pathey (1944) to Anjan Garh (1948), from Puran Bhakt (Hindi – 1933) to Vidyapati (Hindi-1938) to Devdas(Bengali – 1935) to Mukti (1937), every New Theatres film defines a distinct identity for itself, remembered for different reasons to this day.
Sircar won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award soon after it was instituted. He also won the Padma Bhushan for his rich contribution to Indian cinema. When one watches a New Theatres film today, one is struck by the quality of timelessness it has, in terms of story, treatment, acting, etc. because nothing, except the quality of the film print and its sound track, appear to be dated. Mukti is proof of this contention.
. The Partition of India in 1947 overnight took away a large part of the market in what is now Bangladesh and Pakistan. Added to this were the communal riots between 1946 and 1947 that affected revenues in a big way and the elephant on the logo was forced to become silent after the last production Bakul in 1955. It waved out its trunk and hooted once again with its new feature film Aadur Prem based on a love story between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy a story by Swapnamoy Chakraborty. Somnath Gupta, directed Aadur Prem. This happened in 2011 and the film also bagged a national award. But the elephant turned silent all over again.
B.N.Sircar (1901-1980) identified with the best in Indian cinema from its ‘silent’ days right through the forties and fifties. To the older generation of Bengalis, New Theatres is an institution like Rabindranath Tagore, the name they were familiar from childhood. Like the roaring lion of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Ltd., the elephant on the New Theatres logo came to be regarded as the hallmark of quality.