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Remembering Dhirendranath Ganguly, father of Bengali cinema – 125th birth anniversary special

The multi-faceted artiste also worked as dialogue writer, screenwriter and make-up artiste and founded not one but three production houses in the first half of the 20th century.

Roushni Sarkar

Dhirendranath Ganguly, better known as the father of Bengali cinema, was an institution in himself. He not only founded three of the early production houses — Indo-British Film Company, British Dominion Films and Lotus Film Company — but also produced and acted in probably the first silent comedy film Bilat Ferat (1921), directed by Nitish Lahiri.

As the young man chose his path in the world of celluloid, he was scorned by his highly educated family for pursuing films as a career. However, he went to Santiniketan and studied under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore, developing the fine sensibilities that eventually led him to change the course of Bengali cinema.

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Dhirendranath Ganguly's association with films began as his interest in photography introduced him to JF Madan, who agreed to invest in his film ventures. Along with Madan Theatre’s manager Nitish Lahiri, Ganguly formed the first Bengali production house called the Indo-British Film Company in 1918.

Their first production, Bilat Ferat aka The England Returned, also featured Manmatha Lal, Kunjalal Chakraborty and Sushilabala along with Ganguly.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen discuss Ganguly's contribution to Bengali cinema in their book Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema: 'Dhirendranath Ganguly made his acting debut in this famous satire contrasting conservative Bengali culture with that of the colonial elite advertised as a story about a young Indian [who] returns to his native land after a long absence and is so mightily impressed with his foreign training that, at his parental home, he startles everybody with his quixotic notions of love and matrimony.'

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They elaborate on Ganguly’s achievements through the film, writing, 'Ganguly's acting incorporated Hollywood slapstick and a number of 19th century performance traditions of Calcutta. A long time in the making, the film was promoted as the first Bengali film, with a live 'all-Bengali' band to accompany the screening.'

Ganguly regarded cinema as a comprehensive medium. He was as enterprising as he was attentive to the smallest details of filmmaking. The multi-faceted artiste also worked as dialogue writer, screenwriter and make-up artiste.

According to Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, former professor of film studies at Jadavpur university, “Ganguly was the first artiste to bring sophistication in Indian cinema. Before Ganguly, there were producers such as Dadasaheb Palke and Hiralalal Sen who made films which were primarily mythological and full of spectacles that served the popular taste. Dhirenbabu brought a sense of contemporaneity in films and there was a shift from the domain of religion to that of the social.

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"In 1921, the first formal Non-Cooperation Movement broke out and the same year Ganguly took the initiative to ridicule the Desi Saheb, who used to speak, write and dream in English, had no contact with local people and tradition, and would open the umbrella in Mumbai if it rained in Manchestar. Bilat Ferat was essentially a contribution to the anti-colonial discourse that was gradually forming during that time.”

Indo-British Film Company produced two more films in 1922, Sadhu Aur Shaitan and Yashoda Nandan.

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Ganguly then moved to Hyderabad in 1926 and became art instructor at the nizam’s art college. The nizam eventually helped him form the Lotus Film Company and Ganguly produced Razia Begum, directed by Bhagwati Prasad Mishra in Bombay (now Mumbai). The film depicted the romance between Razia Sultan and her Hindu lover and incurred the wrath of the nizam. Soon, due to the controversies, Ganguly was ordered to leave Hyderabad.

“Producing Razia Begum was a significant social event. With the film, Ganguly introduced the notion of secular romantic love on screen. Before that no such attempt was made. Therefore, it can be said that the social value of the secular tale overshadows the story value of the film. In 1930, he also produced Flames Of Flesh or Kamonar Agun, the earliest predecessor of Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018), based on the historical tale of Alauddin Khliji and Rani Padmavati,” noted Mukhopadhyay.

“As Ganguly came back to Kolkata and continued to produce and direct films from his new production house British Dominion Films and, later, with New Theatres, he made it a point to fulfil a social commitment and add an urban sophistication in his works,” he added.

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Ganguly was also instrumental in bringing Debaki Kumar Bose, who eventually directed Flames Of Flesh, to the film industry. Bose was initially an active participant in the Swadeshi movement and used to sell Swadeshi products. Ganguly gauged that Bose could benefit the film industry and their collaboration began.

Ganguly had deep insights regarding on-screen performances. “He used to sketch facial gestures in a notebook before getting on with his performance. As a student of Santiniketan, Ganguly perceived the face as a mask. For example, for comic performances, he would separately draw the facial expressions of smiling, mocking and laughing in his notebook,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Ganguly’s career spanned three decades and he made 49 films, mostly based on the political developments in the country. Unfortunately, today copies of most of his films do not exist, except for a documentary made by Kalpana Lajmi, titled DG Pioneer (1979).

His daughter Monica Basu Thakurta, who acted in Path Bhule (1940) and Dabi (1943) opposite her father as a child artiste, wrote a book titled DG and Bengali Films. According to her, Ganguly was witty and had a knack for dressing up. He loved the art of disguise and often dressed up as a woman to display his make-up skills.

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Bose and Pramathesh Barua would not be convinced that make-up could entirely conceal one’s identity. To prove them wrong, Ganguly would sit outside their studio in Kolkata for days, dressed as a beggar. “For days neither the guard nor Barua or Bose could recognize Ganguly. Eventually, they were forced to acknowledge their error in judgement,” Thakurta told the Indian Express, a daily, in an interview.

In 1974, Ganguly received the Padma Bhushan and in 1975 he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award for his enormous contribution to Indian cinema.

Some of the films directed by Ganguly are Yashoda Nandan (1922), Hara Gouri (1922), Indrajeet (1922), Bimata (1923), Chintamani (1923), The Marriage Tonic (1923), Sati Simantini (1923), Vijay And Basanta (1923), Yayati (1923), Abhisarika (1938), Path Bhule (1940), Karmakhali (1940), Ahuti (1941), Daabi (1943), Srinkhal (1947), Shesh Nibedan (1948) and Cartoon (1949).