Article Marathi Silent

Remembering Baburao Painter, the first true auteur of Indian cinema

On the 66th death anniversary of visionary filmmaker Baburao Painter, we revisit some of the technical innovations he introduced.

Courtesy: Film History Pics on Twitter

Suyog Zore

Not many cinegoers today may recall the name of Baburao Painter. Some may remember him as a filmmaker from the Silent era. Only a handful may be aware of his unparalleled contribution to the nascent art form in India.

Suryakant Mandhre, a popular leading man in Marathi cinema in the 1950s and 1960s and younger brother of the actor Chandrakant, has, in his book Kolhapuri Saaz, or Adornments of Kolhapur, comprising short biographical sketches of some leading artistes from the erstwhile princely state, revealed how the visionary filmmaker made many technical innovations and introduced several new methods of filmmaking to Indian cinema.

In the book, first published in 1993 in Pune, Suryakant has recounted how Baburao Painter, born Baburao Mestry on 3 June 1890, built the first Indian film camera when he was in his twenties. The story goes that Baburao and his cousin Anandrao went to DG 'Dadasaheb' Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, to see the film camera and learn how it functions, but Phalke declined their request, reminding the unlettered young men that they would not even be able to read the camera brochure, what to speak of understanding its functioning.

Dejected but not defeated, they returned to Kolhapur, where they continued to watch silent English movies at a local theatre. Eventually, Anandrao decided that they should build their own camera. The cousins, who already knew how a still camera worked, dismantled a second-hand projector they had bought in Mumbai to learn how moving images were projected on the screen, so that they could then reverse-engineer the process and try to capture moving images on film.

Baburao and Anandrao began working on their camera in 1914 with the help of a carpenter friend Dnyanba Sutar. Anandrao died in 1916, but that did not stop Baburao from continuing with his work. With great dedication he finally succeeding in making the first indigenous film camera in 1918. He shot his first film Sairandhri (1920) with this very camera.

Now with the advent of the internet one can access any information, order any parts and build almost any machinery in one's backyard, but Baburao Painter performed this feat a hundred years ago with no access to any kind of information and without any formal training.

Baburao Painter

Baburao Painter also introduced many other innovations that made the job of other filmmakers easier. For instance, he was the first to use a technique called 'stenographic' in India. He would sketch character movements and even costumes with the screenplay. In other words, he was the first indian filmmaker to create storyboards for his films.

Painter was also the first to use 3D sets for his films. Earlier, all films in India were shot on 2D sets, rather like stage plays. Baburao Painter also introduced Indian filmmakers to artificial lighting as well as the use of reflectors.

Painter developed sophisticated art direction and shooting techniques, like the use of backdrops in red and yellow to register the right shades of grey on film. He manufactured primitive filters with tinted glass for his films. He was the first Indian filmmaker to use the editing technique of fading. Painter also pioneered the use of electric lighting with generators in Indian films.

Painter also came up with innovative promotional strategies. For instance, he was the first Indian filmmaker to print booklets about his films. The booklet would have all the details of the film, including still photographs. The practice continued until the early years of the 21st century.

Baburao Painter

Sadly, with the advent of sound in cinema, Baburao Painter lost interest in filmmaking. Though he did make a few films with sound like Savkari Pash (1936) — in which Suryakant's brother Chandrakant played the male lead — and Pratibha (1937), which were remakes of his own silent films, the auteur returned to his first love, painting. Baburao Painter died on 16 January 1954, aged 63.