100-year-old silent classic Behula reaches the NFAI’s vaults 


The five-reel film by the famed Madan Theatre was sourced from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris

The five-reel film by the famed Madan Theatre was sourced from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris

The vaults of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) here have acquired another rare gem in the form of a 100-year-old silent film Behula (1921), which was made by Kolkata’s famed Madan Theatre in the heyday of the silent film era.

The five-reel Behula was sourced from the Paris-based Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, where it had been preserved for all these decades past. Housed in a distinctive heritage building on Paris’ Avenue des Gobelins, the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation has been preserving, restoring and promoting the historical heritage of France’s legendary Pathé film studios and has more than 10,000 film titles from across the world in its collection.

This is the third Indian silent film to be acquired by the NFAI from the Paris-based archives in recent years, but the first to be acquired in its entirety (the other two acquisitions were only footages from two silent classics). All three were made by the historic Madan Theatre.

“At a time when discovering a complete silent film is a near impossibility, we were delighted to find Behula in the remarkable Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation. The other two silent film classics that we had acquired were unfortunately just footages and not the whole films,” said former NFAI Director Prakash Magdum, under whose watch the archives acquired all three silent film classics, including Behula.

Madan Theatre, arguably India’s most influential and biggest film producing studio in the first three decades of the 20th century, was founded by pioneering film producer Jamshedji Framji Madan, and typically produced pictures based on Indian mythology, and historical romances like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Durgesh Nandini.

“We had been in touch with the Foundation Jerome Pathe since 2018. Then a major retrospective of Indian silent films was held in March 2019. At the time, I got a chance to see the original camera negative of Behula. Since then, we have been making efforts to get the film to the NFAI,” Mr. Magdum said, adding that the digitisation of the film was completed in France and that the picture was acquired by the NFAI during the pandemic.

Mr. Magdum said that the intertitles of Behula were missing as original camera negatives lacked intertitles.

“Work on these intertitles is currently on at the NFAI with due consultation with film historians, particularly noted silent film scholar and cineaste Virchand Dharamsey,” he said.

As was typical fare with early Madan Theatre offerings, Behula was a mythological tale featuring the remarkable Anglo-Indian actress Patience Cooper, then riding high on her success with the lavish Nala Damayanti (1920), also by Madan Theatre.  

The films produced by Madan Theatres, where a large number of European, particularly Italian and French artistes worked, were noted for their remarkable and highly innovative special effects as well as elaborate sets, and Behula is no exception.

Speaking about the innovative special effects in the film, Mr. Magdum notes how, in a particular scene, the emulsion was deliberately scraped off to give the effect of lightning.

“There are other effects in the film that are worth experiencing. Despite studio work, the film also has several outdoor locations. The sets are certainly elaborate by the standard of the silent film era,” he says.

In March 2021, the NFAI acquired a 14-minute footage of the silent Bengali classic Madhabi Kankan (1930), based on a 19th century historical novel by eminent historian-writer R.C. Dutt, from the Cinematheque Francaise. In 2017, the archive acquired footage of another landmark Bengali silent film — Bilwamangal (1919) — one of Madan Theatre’s first offerings, also from the same archive.

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