Article Hindi

Revisiting Nitin Bose’s President (1937) – Anniversary special

The KL Saigal-starrer marks a significant moment in sound design, laying the foundation for technological and creative innovations in cinema.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Cinematographer and filmmaker Nitin Bose, who is known for introducing playback singing in Indian cinema with the film Dhoop Chhaon (1935), a remake of the Bengali movie Bhagya Chakra (1935), entered the film industry as a lensman.

Bose, who was born on 26 April 1897, grew up with a fascination for the visual arts as his father was a keen photographer. He started experimenting with photography himself and began making newsreels in the 1920s. Joining Calcutta's famous New Theatres as chief technician in 1931, Nitin Bose was responsible for making the studio technically superior to its contemporaries. He worked as a cinematographer on various films beginning with Dena Paona (1931) and directed his first Hindi film Chandidas (1934), a remake of the 1932 Bengali film of the same name by Debaki Bose, which was a huge success.

Along with younger brother Mukul Bose, who was a sound recordist, Nitin Bose spearheaded the use of playback singing in cinema and was responsible for some of the biggest successes of New Theatres, bilingual films such as President (1937), Dushman (1939) and Lagan (1941). During his time at the studio, he also trained several young cameramen, including a certain Bimal Roy.

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In an interview with Govind Nihalani, Nitin Bose discussed the social issues that his films dealt with and said, “When we directed films, we tried to make pictures with messages that would wake people up, rouse them. They could see themselves in our pictures. Just entertainment had no value; in fact, the word ‘entertainment’ was not used.

"We tried to make pictures that people would want to see again and again. The film needs to create a peculiar kind of hunger in the audience, which will bring them back. I remember S Mukherjee [of Filmistan Studio] said he had seen President ‘god knows how many times’. Yes, it was the political atmosphere and social reform movements of the times that affected us.”

The socials of the 1930s and 1940s took up issues such as caste discrimination, the class divide, human sacrifice, widow remarriage and the emancipation of women. Nitin Bose’s President (1937) takes an incisive look at capitalism and labour relations. Described as 'a tale of love and greater love', the film's story was developed from an idea by MM Begg.

Prabhavati aka the President (Kamlesh Kumari) runs a large and profitable mill. Having inherited the business as a small enterprise, she has been responsible for its stupendous success. Prakash (KL Saigal) is a worker who comes up with a more efficient design than that given to him, effectively ignoring what he had been asked to do. For his insolence and non-adherence to orders, he is sacked by the President. However, when he is proved right, she reinstates him.

When KL Saigal arrived in Bombay

The President’s sister Sheila (Leela Desai) is kicked out of her college hostel and comes to live with her sibling. Prakash and Sheila are in love, but Sheila realizes that her sister is also in love with him. So she decides to step away and sacrifice her happiness for that of her sister.

Prakash’s friend Deenu warns him about Prabhavati’s wrath and her determination to get what she wants. Frustrated and angry, Prakash targets the mill workers, overworking them and the machines, in a desperate bid to increase productivity. This causes the workers to revolt and Deenu, too, feels betrayed by his friend. Meanwhile, Prabhavati realizes what is going on and decides to sacrifice her happiness for that of her younger sister.

The socio-economic context of the film heightens its narrative, as it engages with the issue of management-labour relations. The main characters of the President, Prakash and Sheila are the most layered as we observe them in their workplace as well as at home. The narrative allows us insights into their thinking and the psychological impact of their surroundings upon them.

Writing about the characters presented in Nitin Bose’s films, film historian BD Garga had observed, 'Characters in a Nitin Bose film are no cardboard cut-outs; they are flesh-and-blood incarnations, revealed in all their diversity.'

Nicknamed Sherni by the workers, Prabhavati is a formidable woman. As a prosperous businesswoman, she is always punctual and keeps a keen eye on her mill and its workings. Although she takes harsh decisions which seem cold-hearted, she rethinks them and has a soft spot for her workers and looks out for them. She rewards creativity and recognizes Prakash’s talent. Adopting a paternalistic attitude, she tells the workers, “The mill belongs to you all”, encouraging them to revolt against actions that they feel are unjust. Towards the end, we see her slip into a delirium-like state and lock herself into her office.

Of course, given the craftsmanship of Nitin Bose in the technical aspects of filmmaking, he used sound design to support the plot and complement the emotional intensity of the drama. The sounds of the machines in the mill especially stand out and transport us to the factory atmosphere. Along with this is the skilful use of background music. KL Saigal was the star of the film, which has the immortal song 'Ek Bangala Bane Nyaara'.

In the interview with Nihalani, the filmmaker also spoke about the importance of sound in cinema, saying, “As a director, I feel the coming of sound may have added to the dramatic appeal, but not necessarily to its cinematic values. By cinematic, I mean to convey meaning through images. True, the judicious use and addition of sound can make a good and even cinematically rich film.”

In today’s cinema, when sound design has become such an integral part of creating verisimilitude in films, it is humbling to watch the works of early pioneers like Nitin Bose, whose films laid the foundation for the technological and creative leaps that the industry has made.