The United States, France, and Germany, lay claims and counter-claims about being the first to have invented the motion picture as a commercially viable form of recreation. Whatever the truth may be, it has been reckoned by all that cinema, the most wonderful of all entertainment arts, was born in 1895.
The Lumiere Brothers of France exhibited their short films in December 1895 at Grande Cafe, Paris. The following year, they brought the show to India and held its premiere at the Watson Hotel in Bombay on 7 July 1896.
From 18 July 1896, films were released at the Novelty Theatre on a regular basis. Entrance tickets ranged from four annas, i.e., twenty-five paisas, to two rupees. That was how cinema came to the subcontinent. Soon after, other major cities, including Lahore, had their first brush with the new invention and were listed in the film distribution territory.
In the next eighteen years, many cinema houses were built all over the country, exhibiting silent films from the West, mostly from the United States. Great excitement was generated amongst young people related to the indigenous production of theatre, radio and still photography. But film, unlike other forms of expression, involved understanding of a technology that integrated many different arts and crafts. There were no schools or institutions that imparted training of this sort. Moreover, the finances needed for such an enterprise were beyond the means of middle class enthusiasts. Neither the government of British India nor the distributors of foreign films were keen to augment their ambitions. But the zeal for the medium was too intense to be subdued. All over India, many individuals tried to make some sort of a film with their own meagre resources but to no avail.
However, in 1913, Raja Harishchandra, the first local and economically viable film, was produced in Bombay. It was almost a solo effort by Dhundiraj Govind, popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke. He is the undisputed father of Indian cinema, and his Raja Harishchandra (1913) can be regarded as the first full-length feature film though it had no sound and music. He remained the uncrowned king of the Indian film scene for more than two decades. His reign ended when the first talkie Alam Ara gave sound and music to the Indian cinema in 1931.
Lahore’s first silent film, The Daughter of Today, was made in 1924, almost eleven years after the release of Phalke’s maiden venture. At that time the city had nine cinema houses, mostly showing films from Bombay and Calcutta, besides movies produced in Hollywood and London. The Daughter of Today was the brainchild of G.K. Mehta, an officer with NWR (North Western Railways), who managed to bring a movie camera from abroad. Mehta started with supplying newsreel coverage to international agencies and made some documentaries as well. But his interest in movie making was short-lived and he left for other commercial ventures.
In Lahore, Bhati Gate’s Mian Abdur Rashid Kardar (A.R. Kardar) should be given the credit for establishing film-making in this city, which was later to become Lollywood. He started in the era of silent movies with the production of Mysterious Eagle alias Husn Ka Daku that started earlier but was released in 1930, and founded the industry in Lahore. With him was Bhati Gate’s M. Ismail, another name among the pioneers of cinema in Lahore, a great friend of Kardar’s who had a similar passion for acting. They were professional calligraphists who also prepared posters and paint boards for silent films occasionally.
The two went to Bombay in 1927 and were lucky in getting roles in Imperial Film Company’s Heer Ranjha, in which Ismail played the villain Kaido and Kardar did a side role. But they returned to Lahore in 1928 to pursue a career in film-making, which was to credit them as bellwethers of the film industry in northern India.
Kardar had started his career as assistant director and hero of The Daughter of Today, produced by G.K. Mehta under the banner of Premier Film Company in 1928. The film was directed by Shankradev Arya with Wilayat Begum in the female lead and M. Ismail, Vijay Kumar, Heera Lal and Master Ghulam Qadir in the supporting cast. G.K. Mehta may thus be regarded as the first film-maker of Lahore. The Daughter of Today was produced in the first open studio in the city set up near the Bradlaw Hall. Some more films were also produced in this studio but it was closed down for financial reasons.
In 1925, Himansu Rai, a young foreign qualified Bengali, arrived in Delhi with a well-planned proposal to launch a joint film venture in collaboration with the Emelka Film Company of Munich, Germany. Himansu Rai was given financial support by Justice Moti Sagar, a retired Lahore High Court Judge and his businessman brother, Prem Sagar. Rai, was thus able to set up the Great Eastern Film Corporation. He produced The Light of Asia a.k.a. Prem Saryas. Its German title was Die Lenchte Asien. The movie was based on the life and times of Gautama Buddha. Rai played the main role with Sita Devi from Calcutta in the female lead. Franz Osten and Josef Wirsching, both from Germany, held the megaphone and did the camera work respectively. The post-production work was carried out abroad. The film was a tremendous success both in India and Europe.
Osten and Wirsching stayed on in India. The former directed many notable projects, including Bombay Talkies’ Achhut Kanya, Kangan, etc. Besides Osten’s films, Wirsching’s cinematography includes two of the finest pieces of Kamal Amrohi’s cinema art titled Mahal and Pakeezah. These films are best remembered for their deeply focused imagery and the dramatic effects achieved by the clever use of light and shade.
The success of Prem Sanyas prompted the Great Eastern Film Corporation to expand their activities in the Punjab capital. They selected Syed Imtiaz Mi Taj’s famous play Anarkali as the basis of their second ambitious project, The Loves of a Mughal Prince. Artistes from The Light of Asia, along with Imtiaz Ali Taj, Hakim Ahmed Shuja, and M.S. Dar acted in this venture. It offered a real opportunity for Lahore to enter mainstream cinema. Directed by Charu Roy, the art designer of the Buddha movie, it turned out to be a well-crafted and extravagant undertaking, both in terms of time and money. But the Imperial Film Company of Bombay, sensing the possibility of making good money from such a novel idea, made a quick film based on the same theme and ran it throughout the country before The Loves of a Mughal Prince could be released. As a result, this far superior and original work was looked upon as a copy. When it failed to click, the fate of the Lahore mission was sealed. Himansu Rai settled in Bombay and there, with the support of his highly educated and beautiful actress-wife Devika Rani, established Bombay Talkies.
With no work left after The Daughters of Today, A.R. Kardar and M. Ismail sold their belongings to set up a studio and a production company under the name of United Players Corporation in 1928. The studio was set up at Ravi Road (now timber market) where shooting was possible in daylight only. But they had good sites of the Ravi forest (Zakheera) and tombs of Jahangir and Noor Jahan to shoot at.
Their team reached the spot on tongas and once during a tonga ride a camera went down the river along with a technician. United Players produced eight successful films. The first was Mysterious Eagle, which was a debut for Kardar as director. He cast himself as the male lead opposite Gulzar Begum. Others in the cast included M. Ismail, Master Ghulam Qadir, Ahmad Din and an American actor Iris Crawford.
Kardar left acting and introduced debonair Gul Hameed as hero in his second film Brave Heart alias Sarfrosh, with more or less the same cast in addition to giving roles to Rafiq Ghaznavi who later became a music director.
Simultaneously, Roop Lal Shori, a resident of Brandreth Road, returned to Lahore after training in photography from America. He succeeded in getting finances from McLeod Road’s Dr Amar Barocha and Fleming Road’s trader Sheikh Mubarak Ali to produce Life After Death alias Qismat Ke Her Pher. Khurshid Begum and Herald Louis were the leading pair. The Shoris also made a great contribution in making Lahore as one of the top film-making centres of India and their name may be ranked with A.R. Kardar and Seth Dilsukh M. Pancholi.
Kardar’s third film was Safdar Jang in which he introduced Mumtaz Begum as heroine. All these films were released in Lahore’s Deepak cinema at Bhati Gate (later called Paramount, which no longer exists) between June and October 1930. His next film was Shephard King alias Gudaria Sultan. The fifth was Golden Dagger alias Sunehri Khanjar in which he introduced Nazeer, later a famous producer-director who married Swarnlata, in the male lead opposite Gulzar Begum.
Now that Kardar had established himself as a director, he hired the services of Jhelum’s J.K. Nanda, who had training in direction and photography from Germany, to direct his sixth film Wandering Dancer alias Aawara Raqqasa, which was a plagiarized version of a well-known Rudolph Valentino film, The Son of the Sheikh. The screenplay was written by M. Sadiq.
Kardar’s seventh film was Mistress Bandit. In the last three films Nazeer and Gulzar Begum had established themselves as successful leading pair and M. Ismail as a leading villain. Kardar’s eighth and last film was Sweetheart alias Qatil Katar, in which he again appeared as the hero opposite debutante Bahar Akhtar whom he introduced with her sister Sardar Akhtar, later a leading actress.
J.K. Nanda was the director of the film which could not be completed because Kardar married Bahar and destroyed all its negatives. This marked the end of the United Players Corporation – Mahmood Zaman & Mushtaq Gazdar