Baburao Painter is remembered for the many innovations he brought to Indian cinema. On his 125th birth anniversary, a visit to Kolhapur, a city that witnessed the rise of the trailblazer.
In a scene in the Marathi film Sinhagad (1923), one of the lead characters take a walk around a fort in the dark. Not many know how Baburao Krishnarao Mestry, the film’s director, had shot that scene, considering that in those days technology did not support night shots. The story goes that Mestry, who was 30 at the time, decided to shoot at night despite the limitations of his self-made camera, because he wanted it to look authentic. A packet of gunpowder was brought on set and spread along the path. It was lit the moment the shot began. The artificial light created by the explosion helped Mestry achieve his aim. The film won a medal at the Wembley Exhibition, London, next year.
Mestry, better known as Baburao Painter (since he was also a well-known painter and sculptor), may not be as famous as the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, but he was a trailblazer credited with many firsts in the Indian film industry. For instance, unlike Phalke, who bought a film camera from Germany to shoot Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first full-length feature film, Painter made his own camera along with his cousin Anandrao and his disciple VG Damle in 1918. His maiden film Sairandhri (1920) marked the entry of women actors in Indian cinema. Painter also introduced three-dimensional spaces in films instead of painted backdrops. An accomplished painter, he created innovative and attractive film publicity material, preferring to sketch the look of his sets, character and costumes. It was an expertise gained from his experience as art director at Gandharva Natak Mandali, Pune, where he and his cousin Anandrao were responsible for painting elaborate stage backdrops.
It was during his time there as a theatre professional, soon after the release of Raja Harishchandra, that he developed an interest in films and filmmaking. He went on to start the Maharashtra Film Company (MFC) in 1918 to exhibit international silent films. Later, he made films under its banner. Filmmaker V Shantaram learnt the nuances of his craft from Painter at the MFC. No wonder that Kolhapur, a city where he was born and lived, still celebrates the genius of Painter, whose 125th birth anniversary is on June 3.
As one reaches the buzzing Khari Corner near Gandhi Maidan in Kolhapur, it’s impossible to miss the large black mural with Maharashtra Film Company engraved on it. There’s an artwork in front — a replica of a camera placed atop a foundation stone bearing the filmmaker’s name. On its right is a quaint wada where Painter’s two daughters, Ashalata (68) and Vijaymala (70), reside. Of Painter’s eight children — six daughters and two sons — only three are alive; the third daughter lives abroad. Both Ashalata and Vijayamala confess that they realised, quite late, how talented their father was. “I was just 10 years old when he passed away. What I do remember is that our house was always full of guests — patrons of his art, people from the film industry and his students,” says Vijaymala, who is also a painter.
Marathi filmmaker and painter Chandrakant Joshi talks about how radical Painter’s craft was. “There is a scene in Sairandhri that shows Bhima slaying Keechak. It was so realistic that during the first few shows the women in the audience started screaming, assuming it was real.” Perhaps that was the first time “censorship” was introduced in films — the British government asked Painter to tone down the scene. “While there is no document that suggests the scene was edited, apparently, a representative would announce prior to the screening that it was shot using props,” adds Joshi.
Painter’s films dealt with realistic subjects and their themes were mostly patriotic or mythological. While Savkari Pash (1925) was inspired by the plight of illiterate farmers and their exploitation by money lenders, Lokshahir Ram Joshi (1947) was based on the life of the 18th century poet and lavani singer popular in the time of the Peshwas. The patriotic tone of Sinhagad appealed to Lokmanya Tilak so much that he conferred the title of “Cinema Kesari” on Painter. The film did very well and the government went on to levy entertainment tax on it.
Out of the 18 silent films and nine talkies that Painter made, surprisingly, only five — three talkies — Pratibha (1937), Lokshahir Ram Joshi and Matwala Shahir (1947), and two silent films — Murliwala (1927) and Sati Savitri (1927) are available today at the National Film Archives of India, Pune. “In those days, filmmakers used nitric films, which caught fire easily. A number of his prints were destroyed like that. Besides, whenever anyone would ask for prints of his films, my grandfather would never refuse. Those never came back,” says Ashok, his grandson.
MFC shut down in 1931 after his associates Damle, Shantaram and Fattehlal Sheikh went on to start Prabhat Film Company. Some of the films produced by MFC include Nisha Sundari (1929), Savkari Pash, Kalyan Khajina (1924) and Sati Padmini. Joshi says Painter preferred silent films over talkies because he believed that cinema should go beyond language. “Yet, moving with the time, he made talkies as well,” he says.