With a history of almost 100 years, Indian cinema has witnessed the creative energies of numerous talented people, some of whom are etched into popular history and some whose influence is eventually forgotten. Today, as we see the frenzy over Indian popular cinema crossing new boundaries and demanding the attention of a growing number of people around the world, one organization based in the U.K. is working hard to shine a light on the past. The South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), with the support of the UK National Lottery Heritage Fund, is kicking off a yearlong project to honor a forgotten pioneer of early Indian cinema, Niranjan Pal. Why is this a big deal? In the current scene of Indian filmmakers scrambling for “crossover” films or big East-West collaborations, it is important to learn that Pal was in fact the first person to ever do such a thing with his Indo-Brit film and theatre co-productions.
Notable film critics and historians Derek Malcolm, P.K. Nair, Prof. Satish Bahadur and Lalit Mohan Joshi founded the SACF in January 2000 in London. Joshi, who wrote and edited the comprehensive Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema (2001), describes the mission of the SACF is “to build a film culture looking at cinema as a whole.” With their focus on the entire spectrum of Indian Cinema, not just mainstream Hindi films, the foundation is supported by personalities such as filmmaker and lyricist Gulzar, director Shyam Benegal, screenwriter and director Saeed Akhtar Mirza, and director/producer Adoor Gopalakrishnan who has been showered with the highest civilian honors by the Indian government. Speaking about the need for the SACF, Joshi explains, “For the longest time people outside India knew of just the films of Satyajit Ray. The popular conception was that Indian Cinema was either Ray or rubbish. Besides the mainstream, we wanted to show people the richness of the rest of Indian Cinema through events, screenings and a journal, the South Asian Cinema Journal.”
After two years of planning and failed grant applications, the SACF finally received a generous grant of £32,400 from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund this year for its project titled Lifting the Curtain: Niranjan Pal and Indo-British Collaboration in Cinema. “Not much exists on Niranjan Pal right now in books or other types of media,” explains Joshi, “yet he is a legend of Indian cinema who was the first in establishing Indo-Brit collaboration.” Pal started his career as a screenwriter, penning the successful films The Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928), A Throw of Dice (1929), and perhaps the most well known of the period Achhut Kanya (1936). He was one of the founders of the illustrious Bombay Talkies along with fellow filmmakers Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten.
The project aims to explore the work of Pal in several ways while involving and engaging the community. The first stage involves research workshops with 20 volunteer trainees that aim to “demystify film heritage research at key London film and arts libraries,” Joshi says. Ten volunteers will then be filtered out to work on research towards publishing a comprehensive book on the life and work of Pal. The book will be distributed to the British Library, the British Film Institute and any other libraries and institutions that are interested. The yearlong efforts will culminate between March and June 2011 when the SACF in partnership with venues around London will host public screenings of some of Pal’s films such as Light of Asia, Shiraz and Achhut Kanya, as well as exhibitions on his contribution towards Indo-British film heritage. Joshi adds, “One of the events we’re working on is a sort of theatrical interaction between the audience and Niranjan Pal.
We want to have a conversation with Pal, where an actor will play him and essentially give a live interview about his work. We hope it will be a fun and interactive way for the audience to get to know Pal." Before I heard about this project, I was admittedly unfamiliar with Pal. I knew of Acchut Kanya and Bombay Talkies but little else. Speaking with Joshi and learning more about Pal, I found this filmmaker’s career fascinating and even more fascinating how there is such little written or known about him for the level of influence he had on Indian Cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. It is therefore refreshing to see an organization such as the SACF embark on this project, which is removed from the mainstream but incredibly important nonetheless. “When you are a small organization, you can’t focus on everything,” Joshi concluded, “We haven’t done much. But whatever was done was done with passion. And we feel just as passionate about Niranjan Pal and educating film lovers about this pioneer and legend.” As they say, to move forward you must also look back.