indian cinema heritage foundation

Good Old Silent Days and After

02 Jul, 2020 | Archival Reproductions by Krishna Gopal
Krishna Gopal. Image Courtesy: Fifty Years of Indian Talkies (1931-1981)

I began my career, which covers over half a century, as a cameraman, in the good old silent days. I have worked with such eminent personalities as the late Dhiren Ganguly, Debaki  Kumar Bose, P.C. Barua; and three personalities of more differing temperaments it would be difficult to find - Dhiren Ganguly the businessman, Debaki Bose, the philosopher, and Barua, the artist. These fifty odd years have also given me an opportunity to play at being a producer as well as a director in several films, but the mediocre quality of my work convinced me that my true forte was of a mechanic, which, in my egotistic way, I now call “Engineer”. If I did anything worthwhile as a cameraman, (and I believe I did, if most friends are to be believed,) it was certainly not due to any artistic ability, but purely due to the mechanic in me. This admission is rather discouraging when I sit down to scribble something which is going to be read by members of the artistic elite in the motion picture racket. But then, I have already committed myself. I only ask your indulgence for the excessive use to the first person singular.

It was round about the time that I was working with Himansu Rai at Bombay Talkies. It was early 1935, or was it a little earlier? Two cameramen had come to India from Hollywood to obtain material for a documentary about central India, and that that too in colour. They needed the services of an assistant, and I lent them mine, a young man of 20 or so, Dronacharya, by name, who later was to become one of our leading cinematographers. Six months later he came back talking all the time of colour as if black & white was already dead. The enthusiasm was infectious, and I caught it.

First Time Colour
 

With the help of finance that a very good friend advanced to me, I succeeded in building India’s first colour processing and printing machines.

With the help of finance that a very good friend advanced to me, I succeeded in building India’s first colour processing and printing machines. Today these machines would look like Mecano toys, but the fact remained that they worked, and I succeeded in getting a patent for my process.

Although only a two-colour process, the commercial results were acceptable. Things might have improved, had not the Second World War intervened and cut off my supplies of raw stock. I had perforce to close down, but it gave me the confidence that I could construct continuous processing machines.

By this time, I was working at Ranjit with Sardar Chandulal Shah, and in his zeal to modernize, he through getting a few such machines from Kodak or Agfa. I implored him to let me have a try making them myself. I am still wondering whether the Sardar had real faith in me, or it was a bania’s natural desire to save money. I was his full-time servant and he would not have to pay anything extra. He decided I could go ahead. During the time that the machines were under construction, my colleagues often wondered aloud - why was I bent on wasting the boss’s money? But, when, after a year and a half, two fully automatic machines, in all their gleaming chrome, started turning their wheels and spitting out film at the then fantastic speed (?) of 30 feet a minute, the entire studio turned out to gaze and wonder. I was so elated I decided to go into business on my own.
By this time, I was working at Ranjit with Sardar Chandulal Shah, and in his zeal to modernize, he through getting a few such machines from Kodak or Agfa. I implored him to let me have a try making them myself.
With money collected from a wide variety of sources, I acquired sufficient wherewithal to put up a fairly efficient machine shop, and lost no time in putting it into production. My first independent venture was for that South Indian veteran, Sounderraja lyengar, who, already a producer and distributor, wished to enter into the field of commercial processing. With the completion of this as assignment, I was honoured by a commission from B.N. Reddy, who had built his new Vahuni Studios. Slowly, confidence began to be built up. Even the Government went so far as to grant the necessary protection. With all this backing and experience, we ought to have gone much further than we did, had good intentions of the Government been translated into practice. Rampant corruption then, as now, prevailed and several licences were issued to those who could afford the imported machines as well as the money that would induce the authorities to forget the ban. We began an intensive campaign against this but to no avail, because those before whom we raised our objections were all birds of a feather, and had their own axes to grind. But then, a licence here a licence there made little different to us because people came to know that we could deliver the goods. Very soon we had captured the entire Indian market, as well as buyers in neighboring countries.
 
My first independent venture was for that South Indian veteran, Sounderraja lyengar, who, already a producer and distributor, wished to enter into the field of commercial processing. With the completion of this as assignment, I was honoured by a commission from B.N. Reddy, who had built his new Vahuni Studios.

  
First Colour Lab 
 
A J Patel. Image Courtesy: Fifty Years of Indian Talkies (1931-1981)


And then came colour, this time in earnest. My friend A.J. Patel was an agent of the Gevaert Film Co., and Gevacolour had just been introduced. He got a roll or two and had it exposed, and sent back to Antwerp for processing. The results came four months later, and were enthusiastically welcomed. However the industry could not brook this four months’ delay. A.J.( as we affectionately called A.J. Patel ) decided to build a laboratory right here in Bombay, and entrusted the work to me.
And then came colour, this time in earnest. My friend A.J. Patel was an agent of the Gevaert Film Co., and Gevacolour had just been introduced.
The first job was to collect adequate information, and this we did by touring all over Europe. We took advice from eminent men in the field, studied all the pros and cons, and then set to work. Four-months later, the first Indian machine to process the integral tripack film was ready. A.J. started the ball rolling by processing his own first colour film called ‘Pamposh’. Others quickly followed - colour was well on its way.
Meanwhile, good old Vasan of madras had entrusted me with the setting up of his new automatic black & white processing laboratory. Midway, he too decided that colour was the thing of the future. He asked me to go ahead with quite a number of machines.
Meanwhile, good old Vasan of madras had entrusted me with the setting up of his new automatic black & white processing laboratory. Midway, he too decided that colour was the thing of the future. He asked me to go ahead with quite a number of machines. I am both proud and happy at Vasan’s trust in me. For the year and a half that we took to build the laboratory he never once entered the place to see what we were doing. Only when we were ready, he saw our work, held a gala function and invited Kamaraj, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, for the inauguration. On this foundation Gemini soon acquired a reputation for itself as the pioneer colour processors in the South. Since then they have never looked back and till today, this laboratory is a giant amongst similar enterprises in the South.

With Madras “going colour,” things began to hum in Bombay once more. I remember a policy meeting of a committee appointed by the Government of India, at which one of the members, Mr. J.B. Roongta, vehemently opposed the introduction of colour saying that it was much too expensive for the country. And yet this very Roongta was the first to go in for colour in Bombay after A.J. Patel’s now famous Film Center.

One could scarcely expect a ‘stunt’ film producer like Homi Wadia of Basant Studio to go in for colour, but even he thought that there was no other choice. 
With Madras “going colour,” things began to hum in Bombay once more. I remember a policy meeting of a committee appointed by the Government of India, at which one of the members, Mr. J.B. Roongta, vehemently opposed the introduction of colour saying that it was much too expensive for the country. And yet this very Roongta was the first to go in for colour in Bombay after A.J. Patel’s now famous Film Center.
There was now demand for colour all round all round, not only in Bombay and Madras, but in places like Calcutta and Bangalore. Not only did it get work for us, but brought us new friends and well-wishers. I could go on spinning out name after name, but of them Ramesh Prasad of Prasad Laboratories stands out prominently. From a modest beginning, with three of our machines, he has now probably the highest capacity of any two laboratories put together. He has even done something others had not done. At more than three times the cost, he imported a few machines, but this I do not grudge him. It was business, business all the way, and if he could increase his output with these machines, why should anyone complain? Besides, for us, there is always work and plenty of it. Many of our old clients are coming back to us for faster, more modern and sophisticated equipment. They knew we have the experience of over three decades during which time we have tried always to better ourselves.

I am nearing seventy-eight now and my only wish and prayer is that I shall go on working as I do now and when my time comes, I shall be at my working table.

This article is a reproduction of the original published in Fifty Years of Indian Talkies (1931-1981) published by Indian Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Bombay.

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