Hiralal Sen Pioneer Filmmaker
In the Calcutta of the fading years of the nineteenth century an English entrepreneur named Stephens ran a flourishing business exhibiting short films entitled among others “A running train,” “Man washing streets by water pipe “and so on. Most of his exhibitions were at the Star theatre in Calcutta, but he also ran shows in the suburbs and rural areas of Bengal. At this time, Father Lafouis at the St Xavier’s college also showed films to a restricted community of students and invitees using a cinematograph that belonged to him.
Hiralal Sen, born in 1866, was a scion of one of the leading Bengal families. His father was Chandramohan Sen, one of the earliest graduates of Calcutta University and a well-known lawyer. They were a well to do family and Hiralal showed an early interest in photography and painting and also experimented with projecting figures onto a cloth by using a back projection with lanterns. His partner in this endeavor was his cousin was Dinesh Chandra Sen who saved much of Bengali folk culture from oblivion by making painstaking collections of songs, stories and other material form the Bengali countryside.
Hiralal came to Calcutta from his native Dhaka in 1887. He immediately immersed himself into photography , winning a prize in a competition sponsored by Bourne and Shepard, the famous Calcutta photography store that still exists. He started a business of photography (H L SEN and Bros) which began to rival the well established brands in Calcutta at that time.
By this time the moving pictures had reached India and he was attracted to its possibilities, Sen ordered a cinematograph and associated equipment from London after he saw an advertisement advertising film equipment in a foreign magazine. Manufactured by John Range and Sons in London, the equipment cost him the then princely sum of Rs. 5000. It took him a while to master the intricacies of the equipment and he had a lot of problems with some of it. Fortunately Father Lafouis came to his rescue by supplying him with a piece of equipment that had become damaged as well with advice on running it. He then started the Royal Bioscope Company in association with his brother Matilal Sen and began regular shows in 1898-99.
He began by putting up shows in Bhola in East Bengal, followed by shows in the Minerva Theatre in Calcutta, Bhawal palace, Classic theatre and finally at the Dalhousie Institute where he began to have regular shows. One contemporary newspaper gushed “"This is a thousand times better than the live circuses performed by real persons. Moreover it is not very costly … Everybody should view this strange phenomenon." The company organized regular shows in the mofussil and also had private shows for the well-heeled at their homes.
The company soon began to shoot movies as well; Sen is credited with making India’s first commercial for products like Batakrishna Pal’s “ Edward’s antimalarial specific “ and C K Sen’s Jabakusum oil. He also began to shoot what were India’s first news shorts as well, making a film on the Swadeshi Movement which has been described as India’s first political film. This film recorded the agitation against the partition of Bengal which consumed the province after 1905, He developed innovative techniques to shoot speeches, like those of Surendranath Bannerjee, whose orations were important in rousing the swadeshi spirit . In those silent movie days, he used a recording of Bannerjee’s speech and managed to hook it to the film so that the audience got the impression of hearing the speech with sound. A contemporary however recorded that, not unexpectedly, the sound synchronization left much to be desired! India’s first documentaries originated here, shot by Sen, in those days these were called ‘topicals’. Hiralal Sen himself went around Calcutta and shot scenes of everyday life: a moving tram, the bathing ghats, a cock fight, the temple at Kalighat and others which were then showed all over Bengal.
The famous theatre personality Amarendranath Dutta was very tech savvy, as we would call it nowadays, and he was interested in the new medium. He collaborated with Sen to film many of his plays. The most famous of them was the play Alibaba, written by Kshirod Prasad Vidya Vinod. It was this film, released in 1903, a full ten years before Raja Harishchandra that can lay legitimately lay claim to be the first full length feature film in India. He showed this film in all corners of Bengal and it became India’s first hit, as the songs and dialogues became well known all over Bengal.
As with many of Bengal’s famous names, Hiralal Sen was not a very good businessman. He failed to keep track of his own creations and many were stolen by not so scrupulous partners and competitors. It is said that his own brother conspired with a local Parsi businessman to steal his films. The last straw was a fire which burned down his brother, Matilal Sen’s house where his films were stored in a godown. This ended all traces of a glorious chapter in India’s Film History. Suchitra Sen, who in the 50’s and 60’s became Bengal’s heart throb, was incidentally related to him. (He was her uncle in law)
Hiralal Sen died in 1917.