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The Renaissance Man of Indian Cinema

Sharad Dutt writes how Birendra Nath Sircar, grandson of Piyari Charan Sircar the renowned educationist, was immortalised by his immense body of work in the early 1900s with films like New Theatres’ first talkie, Dena Paona, and other laudable films like Chandidas, Vidyapati, and Devdas.

The Renaissance Man of  Indian Cinema
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It is quite rare, indeed, that four generations of a family have served the society for three centuries in various fields. One such family existed in undivided Bengal. The Sircars earned prestigious status in the annals of Indian history for their unique contribution. Piyari Charan Sircar was among the most renowned and revered educationists. Even today he is acknowledged as the pioneer and creator of the modern Bangla language, both for the idiom of Bangla grammar and textbooks for primary classes, which are still as popular after almost two centuries.

His son, Sir NN Sircar, a legal luminary, was Advocate-General of Bengal and a member of the Law Council of the Viceroy from 1934 to 1939. And his grandson, Birendra Nath Sircar, born on July 5 of 1901, in Bhagalpur, who passed his intermediate in Science with high first class, was sent to London for studying civil engineering. During his stay in London, young Birendra Nath was fascinated by theatre and watched films on weekends. He returned to India in 1926, and soon realised that civil engineering was not his cup of tea.

A member of Bhawanipore Club, once after finishing a tennis game in the club, Birendra Nath chanced to meet Haren Ghosh. A famous impresario and also a highly respected name in the arena of arts, culture and aesthetics pursuits, he had successfully organised the shows of eminent dancers like Uday Shankar, Sitara Devi, Balasaraswati and Sadhana Bose. Around this time cinema was emerging in India. After the release of Dadasaheb Phalke's film Raja Harish Chandra, many film companies mushroomed. Ghosh could not resist joining the new crop of filmmakers and produced a silent movie, Buker Bojha (Burden on Chest), with a leading name Durga Das Banerjee, while cinematography was by Nitin Bose (grandson of Sir JC Bose), the ace cameraman of Bengal. But Ghosh ran short of funds and requested Birendra Nath to lend him some money to complete the film. Generous enough to render financial assistance, Birendra Nath also started visiting the sets of the films. Perhaps, at this point, he was enticed by the world of cinema, and thus, became the co-producer of Ghosh's company. Though Buker Bojha, that was released on November 9, 1930, flopped, providence had other plans for Birendra Nath. Soon he was introduced to an engineer, who was also interested in film production. He was PN Roy, who had assisted Himanshu Roy (later the founder of Bombay Talkies), and produced his films, Light of Asia and Throw of Dice.

Birendra Nath set-up International Film Craft along with PN Roy, and with a missionary zeal to have complete control over cinema, he produced two silent films, under this new banner – Chor Kanta (directed by Charu Roy) and Chasher Meye (directed by Prafulla Roy). Both the films were shot by Nitin Bose and released at the new cinema hall Chitra (now named Mitra) constructed by Birendra Nath. And this was the very first time that he utilised his professional skills as a civil engineer and justified the degree. In spite of competent direction and excellent photography, these films did not hit the bull's eye. Chitra was inaugurated on December 30, 1930, by none other than Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. And this is when Sir NN Sircar got to know through the newspapers that his son was involved with film production. He was heartbroken but soon reconciled that his son was passionate about cinema and chose to help him financially.

A man of guts, willing to take risks and step into choppy waters, after deep introspection he formed a team of such youngsters, who would be keenly interested in films. He was already familiar with the work of Nitin Bose and liked what he had seen of him and his work. He had two other trusted persons in International Film Craft, Amar Mullick and IG Hafizji. With this new team of the dedicated trio, Birendra Nath wanted to create some milestones in the cine world.

He laid the foundation of New Theatres on February 10, 1931, bought 4 acres of land in Tollyganj, and started building a technically self-contained complete studio with the latest equipment. Nitin Bose took charge of the camera department, and for sound, Birendra Nath deployed the services of Wilford Demming, the sound engineer of India's first talkie film, Alam Ara. He trained three youngsters – Bani Dutt, Loken Bose and Mukul Bose (younger Brother of Nitin Bose). Within three months Demming was fully satisfied with the competence of these boys and conveyed it to Birendra Nath that they would proficiently run the sound department of New Theatres. Thereafter, Mukul Bose became in-charge of sound.

Given Bengal's rich tradition of music and theatre, there was no dearth of talent, and Birendra Nath had two accomplished music composers, RC Boral and Pankaj Mullick. Later on, Timir Baran also joined the New Theatres. When New Theatres produced its first talkie, Dena Paona, in Bangla, adopted from the novel of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and directed by Premankur Atarthi, the commercial success was dismal. And yet another film based on Chatterjee's novel, Palli Samaj, met with the same fate.

Though films produced by New Theatres were not doing well, its top of the line studios was the talk of the town. On the seventieth birthday of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, his ballet, Natir Puja, was staged in 'Old Empire' in Calcutta. Birendra Nath was keen to make an eponymous film and approached Gurudev. Delighted with the permission, Natir Puja was filmed in New Theatres. To authenticate the backdrop and recreate the creative environs of Santiniketan, Birendra Nath made a Gole Ghar and a pond in the studio's premises. The hi-tech studio had not only an absolutely first class laboratory but also a galaxy of versatile and talented artistes. Dhiren Ganguli (popularly known as DG),

Dhiren Ganguli (popularly known as DG), Debki Kumar Bose, Pramathesh Chandra Barua were among those recruited by Birendra Nath.

As fortune favours the brave, the initial spate of failure did not flag his spirit or deter him from making films. Lady luck smiled at New Theatres in 1932, when Debki Bose directed Chandidas in Bangla, based on the life of Vaishnavite a 16th-century saint-poet. The songs were based on the works of Chandidas. The background music by RC Boral became an instant success. This was a maiden attempt and Debki Bose set a notable precedent in the film industry that how background score could facilitate reducing the dialogue. With this super hit under his hat, Debki Bose directed many more laudable films for New Theatres, ie Purim Bhagat, Rajrani Mera, Vidyapati and Nartaki. After tasting the success of Chandidas, Birendra Nath embarked upon making its Hindi version, that was to be directed by Nitin Bose, as he had earlier wielded the camera for the Bangla version. With KL Saigal in the lead role opposite Uma Shashi, the Hindi version, too, was a winner all the way.

Venturing further, Birendra Nath assigned PC Barua to direct the Bangla version of Devdas, the most popular novel of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, wherein Barua himself played the main protagonist. In the Hindi version, Barua sought KL Saigal to play Devdas opposite Jamuna and Rajkumari. And Bimal Roy, who was in the camera department of New Theatres, wielded the camera independently for the first time. Kedar Sharma, the poster painter of New Theatres, too penned the dialogues and songs the first time. Undisputedly, Devdas set the box office on fire across the country, and Saigal became a superstar overnight.

Barua also directed Roop Lekha, Manzil, Maya, Zindagi, Mukti and Adhikar for New Theatres. He introduced multi-camera set-up and the technique of flashback in cinema. This was yet another landmark, as he also used the element of premonition, in other words, 'telepathy', in the concluding scene of Devdas.

It is as imperative to mention Phani Majumdar and Bimal Roy, who played a seminal role in New Theatres. Interestingly, both of them were working in Barua's company, Barua Films. Majumdar had joined Barua Films as a steno-typist taking dictations for screenplays. Gradually, it rubbed off and Majumdar was drawn towards films. And when Barua joined New Theatres, he naturally took Majumdar along.

It so happened that Majumdar narrated the plot of Street Singer to Birendra Nath at his residence. The latter was so impressed that he asked Majumdar to direct the film independently, who was just about 28. KL Saigal and Kanan Devi were in the lead. Bimal Roy had joined New Theatres assisting Nitin Bose as a cameraman in the Bangla version of Devdas. Barua marvelled at Bimal Roy's inimitable excellence and deputed him as an independent cameraman in the Hindi version. After a decade as a cameraman, in 1944, Birendra Nath gave him a chance to direct Udayer Pathe. After the success of this Bangla version, Bimal Roy directed its Hindi version Humrahi, and thereafter, he also directed Anjangarh and Pehla Aadmi for New Theatres. Later he moved to Bombay and set up his own production house.
Another significant name in New Theatres was Hem Chandra Chunder, who directed Crorepati, Jawani ki Reet, Wapas and My Sisters. Tapan Sinha, the distinguished film director, too, started his career in the sound department, and so did Hrishikesh Mukherji who worked in the editing department of New Theatres.

An uncompromising perfectionist, Birendra Nath nurtured and attracted the best talent of his time in each facet of filmmaking. His initial setback had spurred him on to enhance the standards of Indian cinema, and New Theatres garnered that much-sought-after glory to the big screen with the stellar stars, thinkers, writers, poets, amalgamating in this historic studio.

Whenever cine-goers entered the cinema hall and saw on the screen its mascot, the elephant with the raised head and lifted trunk, accompanied by the melodious voice of Pankaj Mullick singing Jeevtang Jyotiretu Chhayam in the background, it meant that they were to watch quality cinema.

In his lifetime, Birendra Nath produced 176 films in Bangla, Hindi and Tamil, a record of sorts. Twenty-nine of those films were based on Bangla classics – 13 of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, three of Gurudev Tagore, two of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, four of Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sailjanand Mukhopadhyay, and one each of Dwijendralal Ray, Tara Shankar Bandhopadhyay and Prabodh Kumar Sanyal. The famed Hindi writer Pandit Sudarshan scripted two films for New Theatres, Rooplekha and Dhoop Chhaon. In the latter, Mukul Bose introduced playback singing for the first time in Indian cinema, that was three months ahead of Hollywood. The illustrious Urdu dramatist Agha Hashr Kashmiri's popular play, Yahudi ki Ladki, was adapted for the film, Yahudi. He also wrote lyrics for the New Theatres movies.

The estimable contribution of New Theatres was duly recognised by the Government of India. The highest film honour of Dadasaheb Phalke Award was bestowed on eight leading lights of New Theatres. Birendra Nath was the second recipient of this award (1971). Other awardees were Prithviraj Kapoor (1972), Pankaj Mullick (1973), Dhiren Ganguli (1976), Kanan Devi (1977), Nitin Bose (1978), RC Boral (1979) and Durga Khote (1984).

Birendra Nath, the eternal BN Sircar, immortalised by his immense body of work passed away on November 28 of 1980. And his son Dilip Kumar Sircar kept the flag flying producing films and telefilms. He also procured a five-part television serial, 'The Story of New Theatres', highlighting the glory of his father's commendable enterprise, which was a befitting and true tribute to The Renaissance Man of the Indian Cinema.
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