Article Silent

When Baburao Painter’s film Sairandhri (1920) was censored for being too gruesome

For the artist-filmmaker’s 127th birth anniversary on 3 June, a look at his first completed film, Sairandhri (1920).

Sonal Pandya

Based on a tale from the Mahabharata, Baburao Painter’s silent movie Sairandhri (1920) was his first full feature. It was adapted from Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s Marathi play Keechakvadh and featured a gruesome scene in which Bheema, the second Pandava, beheads Matsya king Virata's powerful general Keechak for lusting after Sairandhri aka Draupadi, who, like the Pandavas, had changed her name and was living in anonymity in the final year of their exile.

In Cinema at the End of Empire, author Priya Jaikumar wrote, “Sairandhri, celebrated by the nationalist leader [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak, was based on the Marathi play Keechakvadh, which was banned by the British for its allegorical protest against viceroy Curzon."

Baburao Painter

Sairandhri (1920), starring Baburao Pendharkar as Krishna and VG Damle, was produced by the Maharashtra Film Company, which was co-founded by Painter and situated in Kolhapur.

Painter himself was inspired by the Ravi Varma paintings on that particular episodic story from the Mahabharata on chromolithographs and postcards.

Pictures: The private canvas of Baburao Painter

The feature also marked the inclusion of actresses in Indian cinema with Kamaladevi and Sushiladevi who were part of the cast.

The film was a success as it opened to packed houses. However, the beheading scene (done via trick shots) was so realistic to some audience members that it led to the first recorded censorship attempt in India. The film was taken down until the scene was deleted. That same year, film censor boards were established at Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon (Burma was then a part of British India) to regulate the content.

Sairandhri was shown at Bombay's Majestic cinema at Girgaum, alongside footage of the newsreel of the 1918 Indian National Congress, which was leading the freedom struggle against the British.

Sadly, no prints of the original 1920 silent film Sairandhri have survived.