Hiralal movie review: A tragic tale of the forgotten luminary who brought movies to India

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Nov 19, 2018 13:40:28 IST


Director Arun Roy’s feature film Hiralal is a biopic of Hiralal Sen – a noted photographer living in Bengal who was also one of the pioneers of filmmaking and film exhibiting in India. The tragic story details the life of Hiralal Sen from the days when he was merely a still photography enthusiast, through his meteoric rise in making films, closing with his subsequent fall from grace.

A still from Hiralal

A still from Hiralal

The film begins by showing how Hiralal Sen is interested in the art of photography right from his childhood days. As he grows older, he becomes adept at still photography, till one day, he learns of a strange new technological innovation called the bioscope, in which still photographs can be seen in motion on a screen. An excited Hiralal makes it a point to see this new contraption in action, and is immediately fascinated by the possibilities that it has to offer. He quickly arranges for money and purchases a bioscope camera himself. He soon begins shooting ‘scenes’. A boat sailing in the river, a man leading his cow along the road – such were his subjects. Very soon though, his name spreads and he is summoned by Amarendra Dutta – a director of stage plays. Dutta is an arrogant man of quick temper, but he is drawn to the idea of Hiralal Sen’s bioscope. He strikes a deal with Hiralal and asks him to shoot song and dance sequences with the actors of his plays, to be screened in the middle of those very plays. Before they know it, the duo hit the jackpot and owing to the volume of work that seems to keep coming his way, Hiralal is forced to set up a film production company called the Royal Bioscope Company, in partnership with his cousin Motilal Sen. But when a Parsi film exhibitor finds his own business threatened by the ever-growing popularity of the Royal Bioscope Company, he sets in motion a slimy plan to usurp the competition, leaving Hiralal Sen’s pioneering contributions descend into oblivion, and forcing him to die a broken and unhappy man, in abject penury.

The greatest achievement of Arun Roy’s film is that it exists. It is a much-needed chronicle of one of the forgotten luminaries of the world of cinema in our country, and we must thank him for documenting the tragic tale of a man who not only brought the movies to India, but is also credited to have made the first advertisements in the film-medium. The story is well laid out and Roy manages to capture little nuances of Hiralal Sen’s life quite well – his passion for the bioscope, his love for his wife, his brief relationship with one of his actresses, his friendship and subsequent falling apart with Amarendra Dutta, his duel with Jamshedji Framji Madan, and finally, the total destruction of all the forty films he had made in his career – an alleged act of sabotage by Madan himself.

In terms of technicality, the film is beautifully made, although the performances suit the stage more than the cinematic medium. While this may be deliberate, and can be seen as a conscious tribute to the closely knit relationship between theatre and film in the early days of cinema, it does come across as being slightly dated for contemporary depictions. There are some beautifully executed scenes in the film. A silhouette of Hiralal sitting by the river and trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol – even as the silvery moonlight shines on the surface of the water – deserves special mention. In another scene towards the end of the film, the once affluent Hiralal accidentally walks into the household kitchen to discover that his wife Hemangini Devi is eating his leftovers for dinner. The dialogue-less scene is a reminder of the fragile and whimsical nature of the film business, and of how quickly luck can turn in this industry. Come to think of it, it’s sad how that hasn’t changed in more than a hundred years now. One of the most inspiring and beautiful moments in the film are those that depict the awe with which Hiralal – and subsequently his audience – react to the very idea of moving images. These scenes make us fall in love with the movies all over again.

Kinjal Nanda plays the protagonist of the film admirably well. Nanda is cautious not to make his character come across as a man without flaws. He is particularly good in the scenes that depict Sen’s last days of battling cancer. As the wife who stands rock steady in support during the hardships her husband has had to face, Anuska Chakraborty plays her part well. And Saswata Chattopadhyay is brilliant as the Parsi exhibitor Jamshedji Framji Madan, whose shrewd sense of business was instrumental in ensuring that Hiralal Sen’s name would be erased from the annals of film history.

One of the problems I have with the film is its length. In trying to draw a detailed picture of its protagonist’s life, it sacrifices economy. Standing at almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it does feel drawn out and repetitive – not once but several times. But that flaw is more than made up for by the fact that its intentions are honest – and that’s easy to see. Hiralal may not be the perfect film, but it is certainly an important one. And anyone who has ever watched a film in India is in debt of filmmaker Arun Roy for presenting before us the tragic tale of one of the founding fathers of Indian cinema.

Updated Date: Nov 19, 2018 13:44:27 IST