No, this is not going to be some illuminating overview of the early days of Indian cinema. I can claim no appreciable knowledge of the same. These are my impressions of a DVD that contains surviving material of three silent films taken from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Of the three films, two are from India's pioneer of film Dhundiraj Govind Phalke aka Dadasaheb: Raja Harischandra (1913), regarded as India's first feature film, is available only as a fragment containing the opening and closing reels, while Kaliya Mardan (1919) is present almost entirely. The last film in this set is a feature from Bengal, Jamai Babu (1931) by one Kalipada Das. Along with my impressions I have also given screenshots, click on the screenshots for the full resolution.
Both the Phalke films are based on famous incidents from Hindu mythology, obviously with an aim to differentiate them from foreign product and have immediate attention value amongst the Indian public. I suspect the decisions about which stories to adapt for film would have resembled the sequence in R.K. Narayan's Mr. Sampath (The Printer of Malgudi), where a film-making team brainstorms about their maiden production, trying to zero in on suitable stories from the mythos to adapt for the screen. If Phalke's two films set six years apart can be taken as an indication, there was not much evolution to his style. Of course, he was making films in the period when the mechanics of the trade were still primitive in most parts of the world and the added challenges of working in Indian conditions with the aim of producing material that would appeal to a film-illiterate Indian audience cannot be underestimated. However it stands that in these films, his style is generally that of filmed theater than an erudite visual language. Most shots are mid-range upfront, capturing naïve actors repeatedly performing a set of uncoordinated arm-waving gestures without any clear idea of the length and rhythm of the shot.
Another source of unintended humor is a practice Phalke, as depicted in the bio-pic Harishchandrachi Factory, unfortunately could not avoid - the use of cross-dressing men for female roles. The image in Kaliya Mardan of a flock of hirsute gopis grinning lasciviously at the child Krishna (incidentally played by Phalke's daughter Mandakini) is more disturbing than anything. Technically, panning of the camera is quite rare, and apart from the odd overhead shot in the last reel, I cannot recall the use of any striking camera angles or tracking movements. Occasionally he juxtaposes shots where characters in a room are looking out of a window at another scene. Apart from the use of some rudimentary visual effects for the climactic battle between young Krishna and the snake (an obvious rubber inflatable with the plug right on top of its head), this is about the extent of its difference from amateur theater.
What a world of difference in the 12 years between KM and JB. While no match at all for the genius of FW Murnau or Fritz Lang, the visual style in Kalipada Das' film is, of course due to the greater experience and exposure to better quality western cinema, more sophisticated and professional than the previous films. The story of a country bumpkin that lands at his in-laws' place in Calcutta and has a series of misadventures on account of his bumpkin-ness is quite modest and not particularly noteworthy, but the film's execution has a pleasing polish. The location shoots give a lovely view of the old city and have a quasi-documentary feel. The framing and the editing of these sequences (both credited to one D.R. Barodkar) are elegant. Camera pans are more frequent (not as an empty exercise in style), close-ups, juxtapositions, lighting schemes and non-theatrical angles are judiciously used, and there is, heavens, even the odd tracking shot. Considering that I have not even heard of this film, it was a lovely surprise and it would have been nice to have some access to Kalipada Das' other work (sadly, nothing else is known to survive at this point).
The NFAI DVD (authored by one Kriti Media Services and manufactured by Sony DADC) gives us an acceptable presentation of these films. Given the age and likely condition of the source material, we cannot expect miracles. That said, the bulk of Kaliya Mardan and Jamai Babu look quite acceptable (although Jamai Babu, despite being newer is more scratched and washed out). NFAI have specially commissioned scores for these films by composer Rahul Ranade and he obliges with material that sits comfortably with the style of the films. There are no extras apart from a dull slideshow of pictures of the NFAI screening facilities. A small interview or featurette on the restoration and presentation of the films on the DVD, or even a sitting with Rahul Ranade regarding his contribution would have been much appreciated. The package includes liner notes, carelessly printed on a very non-standard size leaflet. Oh well, just appreciate the good stuff while they still bother to put it out.