Amit Tyagi, former dean of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), first watched a film by Prabhat Studios at the insistence of his mother, who said they were excellent. ‘Amarjyoti’ and ‘Padosi’ made a big impact on him. Later, he watched ‘Manoos/Aadmi’ and was completely sold on Prabhat. “Years later, I saw ‘Sant Tukaram’ and realised what a gem it was. Those remain my personal favourites though one realises that there are other noteworthy films. I do regret not having enough time to study the minor Prabhat films in more detail. Maybe I will get an opportunity to do so someday,” Tyagi, now an associate director at MIT School of Film and Television, MIT-ADT University, Pune, tells Dipanita Nath.
On August 30, Tyagi and Nitin Patki, projectionist and sound technician at FTII, delivered a talk on the importance of Prabhat Films in the cinema history of our country. Excerpts from an interview:
What makes you revisit the history of Prabhat Films through a talk?
There is always a need to understand history, whether it is our films or any other art form or indeed our social structures. History nourishes our minds and enriches our understanding. Prabhat Film Company’s work is not really early Indian cinema, though we count it as “early cinema” as most of our silent films are lost (never preserved and not available today). Prabhat’s work represents some of the peak achievements of Indian cinema in the studio/early sound era of the 1930s and early 1940s, both in aesthetics and on technical terms. These achievements continue to influence films that have been made in India ever after, including today’s films. There is a direct line that leads from Prabhat ‘s Amarjyoti (1936) to Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika (2019). Hence, without understanding Prabhat’s work, you really cannot understand Indian cinema as it stands today.
Tell us about the level of expertise we can see in Prabhat films.
Prabhat’s legends and anecdotes are too many. In Prabhat’s Amrit Manthan, there is a close-up of the villain where the camera moves closer and closer until his eye fills the whole screen. People were astounded when they saw this as they are even today. Prabhat’s technicians had made a replica of the eye as a sculpture and taken a shot on the sculpture that matched the speed of the camera movement of the earlier shot taken with the actor. The result was that the two shots could be joined together with a quick dissolve without anyone in the audience noticing. It is as big an achievement as making Shah Rukh Khan a dwarf in Zero. That was Prabhat, technically and aesthetically daring, experimental and achieving results that matched the best in the world.
Can you give us an idea of the beginning of Prabhat Studios and the philosophy on which it ran during the pre-Independence years?
Prabhat Studios began in Kolhapur, the exact date is June 1, 1929. They made six silent films there before making their first ‘sound’ film Ayodhya Ka Raja in 1932. This was directed by V Shantaram, who was already rated as one of the best directors of Indian cinema. They made Sairandhri, India’s first colour film in 1933, processing the film in Germany (during Hitler’s days), but the film was not successful. In 1933, they shifted to Pune and Amrit Manthan was the first film to be produced at the Pune studio. It is difficult to figure out if there was indeed a philosophy or ideology at work in Prabhat, unlike say the Soviet film-makers after the Revolution of 1917. But to have made films that combined social comment, entertainment, technical finesse and aesthetic excellence with box office success — that is something all film-makers dream of but never achieve.
Can the effect of the era of the freedom struggle and the world war be seen in the films of Prabhat?
Prabhat films are in line with Tilak, Gandhi and Congress thinking of the time that wanted to show Indians the richness of their own heritage. So they did fit in with the thinking on various social issues of the time. If you look at Duniya Na Mane, it is still a contemporary story of a young woman married off to an older man. The social evil being talked about in the films are still there with us! That is why we need to look at Prabhat films, they tell us about Indian society in a way no one else did.
As dean at FTII, which was the site of Prabhat, did you feel the presence of legacy and history?
I first grew aware of Prabhat’s influence as a student at FTII when a lot of old Prabhat employees were still around. The apprenticeship schemes of Prabhat, the way they spotted talent among employees was fascinating and quite unparalleled even today. When I became dean at FTII, I realised another part of Prabhat — families that had employees at Prabhat still continue at FTII with different generations. So, in a sense, FTII is the inheritor of the Prabhat mantle. As film-makers, that is what we have to live up to.