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Memoirs of a lost legend

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By has visionary playwright and screenplay writer niranjan pal been forgotten by the city of his birth, asks amit roy HAD YOU HEARD OF NIRANJAN PAL BEFORE READING THIS ARTICLE? TELL T2@ABP.IN
  • Published 18.08.11

Who was Niranjan Pal?” This simple question was posed by a researcher and scholar on Indian cinema, Kusum Pant Joshi, when she introduced Light of Asia, a 97-minute “silent” movie, at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London on August 6.

The film, made in 1925, tells of Prince Gautama’s transformation into the Lord Buddha.

Niranjan Pal, who began to conceive of the film a hundred years ago when he was living in London, was its writer and co-director; the lead was Himansu Rai, another Bengali from Calcutta who was part of a theatrical group called The Players; and the director was a German, Franz Osten.

After the film had ended, the audience in NFT1 gave a prolonged standing ovation to Pandit Vishwa Prakash and his team of musicians who had been seated on the floor to one side of the screen rendering the live score. Many felt their matching of music to picturisation was near perfect.

Later, Pal, Rai and Osten would gather again in India and set up Bombay Talkies, which produced some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, among them Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), Achhut Kanya (1936), and Jeevan Naiya (1936).

Pal, not always an easy man to work with, fell out with Rai, his friend of many years, and went off to Calcutta to join Arora Films, according to Kusum.

“He played an important role in the development of documentary film-making in India and also in ad film-making,” she said.

It is not clear how many people know of Niranjan Pal back in Calcutta where he was born on August 17, 1889, the son of the famous nationalist leader, Bipin Chandra Pal. But Niranjan Pal’s memory has just been honoured in London.

There is also every chance more people will get the chance to see the BFI’s restored copy of Light of Asia, plus two other films in the trilogy for which Pal also wrote the words — Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929). He was the author, too, of an English thriller, which was turned into a mainstream film, A Gentleman of Paris (1931).

To Kusum’s question, “So who was Niranjan Pal?”, the answer is he was a visionary playwright and screenplay writer.

In London, an important influence on Pal was his mentor, Kedar Nath Dasgupta.

A moment from A Gentleman of Paris, a 1931 film based on a thriller penned by Niranjan Pal Seetha Devi in Light of Asia, written and co-directed by Pal King George V and Queen Mary saw a royal command performance of Light of Asia

There were many firsts to Pal’s name. “In 1916 he was the first person of Indian origin who made a documentary film — A Day in an Indian Military Depot — on Indian soldiers in the First World War,” said Kusum.

Thankfully, Kusum and her husband, Lalit Mohan Joshi, who set up the South Asian Cinema Foundation in 2000, have undertaken a mission to bring Niranjan Pal back to life, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund. They say he is a lost legend whose inspiring tale needs retelling.

In the audience for the special screening of Light of Asia was Melita Malewar, who had come from Chennai.

Melita smiled. “Niranjan Pal was my grandfather,” she told me. “I was only three when he died in 1959 but I heard a lot about him from my grandmother. In 1989, the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth, we tried to revive interest in my grandfather in Calcutta, but no one was interested. Finally, we gave up.”

But now it looks as though Kusum and Lalit might well achieve the reincarnation of Niranjan Pal. Kusum revealed that Light of Asia was shot in a month in 1925 on location in Jaipur with the enthusiastic backing of the local Maharaja, Sawai Man Singh II, who made his caparisoned elephants and horses and his retinue available for the shoot.

Back in London later that year, Pal was facing the prospect that Light of Asia, which English critics did not much care for, would turn out to be a big flop.

It is not clear what made him write to King George V but that was what he did and was taken aback when His Majesty ordered a command performance at Windsor Castle on April 27, 1926. Perhaps the King had nostalgic memories of his Delhi Durbar in 1911.

Kusum understands the King slept through the screening but Queen Mary congratulated Pal and Rai. With royal endorsement secured, Light of Asia then turned out to be a great success in Britain, France and even America. But it seems it did not get a release in India, possibly because the words were written in English.

Pal first arrived in London in 1908. He was dragged there by his father who did not want his son to get into trouble with the British authorities back home by engaging in revolutionary activities.

Kusum and Lalit have made a documentary on Pal. They are also republishing his autobiography, Such is Life, and adding three chapters to the first half of the book, which is called, Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend.

In 1929, Pal returned to India for good after 21 years in England, with his English wife, Lily, and their son Colin Pal, who would one day become a cinematographer — and Melita’s father. Lily survived her husband by 20 years while Colin died, in Bombay, in 2005, aged 83.

During his two decades in England, Pal wrote plays in English and the words for a number of silent films. He also collaborated with Uday Shankar to write a libretto for one of his first Indian ballets, performed by Anna Pavlova and Shankar himself.

His experiences reflected the good and the bad in the England of his day. Critics in London tolerated him so long as he stuck to Indian subjects but sought to marginalise him when he tried to promote the idea of “Indian cultural nationalism” by poking fun at notions of British superiority. But Kusum points out that it also says much for England that Pal found sympathetic friends in the upper reaches of British society.

“There has always been a group of very open-minded English people who were very critical of their own colonial and imperial rule and oppression in various parts of the empire and who stood up for India,” added Kusum.