& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Prabhat Pheri

We live by popular misconceptions and myths, and then when we encounter the truth, we become a bit more aware and better informed, but also a bit sad that our myth turned out to be baseless.

I'd always believed that V. Shantaram was the founder of Prabhat Film Company in Poona, and that Prabhat wound up when Shantaram moved to Bombay and started Rajkamal Kalamandir.

Earlier this week, I saw an interesting documentary Prabhat Pheri (Journey with Prabhat) at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto that enlightened me about the real story of Prabhat Studios.

The documentary, directed by Samarth Dixit and Jessica Sadana, takes a languid, unhurried look at Prabhat’s history.  It’s replete with innumerable stories, and derives its strength from firsthand accounts, and nonlinear narration.

A brief digression: Prabhat played an important role in developing cinema in Marathi, and provided a platform to V Shantaram to make some of the most socio-politically relevant cinema in the early era of the Indian film industry, which included classics such as Aadmi (1939) and Padosi (1941).

Padosi, which is relevant even today, should be seen in the context of the rising Hindu-Muslim tensions in pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) India that were set in motion after the Pakistan resolution of 1940; it predated the Quit India Movement (1942) and foresaw the tragedy of Partition.

Those who grew up in Bombay during the era of mono-channel television of the 1970s would recall having seen both these classics on Doordarshan on Sunday evenings at the neighbour’s home.

Of course, Prabhat Pheri is not just about Shantaram. It’s about Prabhat Film Company and all its founders – Vishnupant G Damle, K. R. Dhaibar, S Fatehlal, S. B. Kulkarni. It’s also about the Film and Television Institute of India, which is what Prabhat became after it ceased operations as a film studio.

The story of the glorious legacy and heritage of the pioneering studio emerges from the narratives of some of the technicians who are still alive, and from the stories the former officials of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Samarth and Jessica have been student of the institute; and the documentary is the duo’s personal and often idiosyncratic paean to their alma mater. It is at once a gloomy and enervating portrayal of the inexorable march of time and the changes it wreaks on individuals and institutions. But equally, it is also an exhilarating episodic account of both Prabhat and FTII.

A technician, who had worked with the founding stalwarts (and who despite his unassuming demeanour turns out to be extraordinarily knowledgeable), recalls the woman who became Prabhat’s logo (see film).

Another recalls the “real reason” why Shantaram had to leave Prabhat. Apparently, the founders had an unwritten code of conduct – if they fell in love with a heroine, they’d have to leave. And Shantaram fell in love with Jayashree.   

And yet another recalls an argument between Ritwick Ghatak (who served as the vice principal of the institute) and Mithun Chakravarty (who was a student) that ensued when Ghatak caught Mithun drinking alcohol.

Prabhat Pheri is an interesting and unusual look at an institution that has played an important role in Indian cinema; kudos to Toronto’s Hot Docs for bringing Prabhat Pheri to Canada.

The Innis Town Hall in downtown Toronto has been a venue for great cinema. Coincidentally, a couple of years ago, it was the venue for the Satyajit Ray festival, where I saw Ray’s documentary on Tagore. 

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