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

The five-reel film from the famous Madan Theater comes from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris

The five-reel film from the famous Madan Theater comes 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), made by the famous Madan Theater in Kolkata in the heyday of the silent film era.

The five-reel Behula came from the Paris-based Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, where it had been preserved all these decades. Housed in a distinctive heritage building on the Avenue des Gobelins in Paris, the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation has preserved, restored and promoted the historical heritage of the legendary Pathé film studios in France and has more than 10,000 film titles from around the world in its collection.

This is the third Indian silent film acquired by the NFAI from the Paris archives in recent years, but the first to be acquired in its entirety (the other two acquisitions were just shots of two silent classics). All three were created by the historic Madan Theater.

“At a time when discovering a complete silent film is nearly impossible, we were excited to discover” Behula in the remarkable Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation. Unfortunately, the other two silent film classics we bought were just shots and not the entire movies,” said former NFAI director Prakash Magdum, under whose supervision the archives acquired all three silent film classics, including Behula

Perhaps India’s most influential and largest film-producing studio in the first three decades of the 20th century, Madan Theater was founded by pioneering film producer Jamshedji Framji Madan and typically produced pictures based on Indian mythology and historical romances such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Durgesh Nandinic

“Since 2018 we have been in contact with the Jerome Pathe Foundation. Then in March 2019 there was a major retrospective of Indian silent films. I then had the opportunity to view the original camera negative of Behula† Since then, we have made efforts to get the film to the NFAI,” said Mr. Magdum, adding that the digitization of the film has been completed in France and the photo was acquired by the NFAI during the pandemic.

Mr Magdum said that the intertitles of Behula were missing because the original camera negatives had no intertitles.

“Work is currently underway on these intertitles at the NFAI, in consultation with film historians, most notably noted silent film scholar and cinematographer Virchand Dharamsey,” he said.

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

The films produced by Madan Theaters, where a large number of European, especially Italian and French artists worked, were known for their remarkable and highly innovative special effects and elaborate sets, and Behula is no exception.

Speaking about the innovative special effects in the film, Mr. Magdum notes how in one scene the emulsion was deliberately scraped off to get 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 designed to the standards of the silent film era,” he says.

In March 2021, the NFAI acquired 14 minutes of footage from the silent Bengali classic Madhabi Kankan (1930), based on a 19th century historical novel by the eminent historian-writer RC Dutt, of the Cinematheque Francaise. In 2017, the archive acquired footage from another historical Bengali silent film – Bilwamangal (1919) – one of the first offers of Madan Theater, also from the same archive.

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