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Prabhat Studios

Early Marathi Cinema and Respectability

Hrishikesh Ingle ( teaches at the Department of Film Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

The history of early Marathi cinema has a necessary passage through the studio era, and specifically Prabhat Studios, in Kolhapur and Pune. This article elaborates two aspects: (i) early regional film-making—its strategies of imagining a cinema through regional content, and (ii) the notion of social respectability—that circumscribes the industrial enterprise, as evident in the history of Prabhat Studios. It also deliberates on the negotiation of a national and regional cinema as observed in the practice of bilingual film-making in Prabhat.

The author would like to thank, where an abridged version of this article was published.

In the history of Indian studio era cinema, the name of Prabhat Studios is invoked alongside that of New Theatres and Bombay Talkies. Prabhat has been variously celebrated for its technical, thematic, and cultural production in the late colonial period. As a studio that popularised genre film-making of mythic fantasies, devotional and saint films, Prabhat encapsulated regional and national cinematic imaginaries, characterised by the intersection of creative exuberance with industrial/technological advancement in pre-independence India. Prabhat was eponymous of its cinematic journey, as it ushered in a new “dawn” (Prabhat) in the film industry of western India that in turn symbolised an expression of modernity in the Marathi sociocultural milieu.

This article develops an evaluative account of Prabhat Studios, elaborating two interdependent cultural aspects. The first is the notion of respectability that is refracted from the kind of films produced by Prabhat, as well as the social perception of the studio, observed through various publicity materials. The second is the self-referential culture that Prabhat engendered underpinning the linguistic and territorial forms of Marathi and thus, regional cinema in Maharashtra. Before delving into these issues, however, let us recount the historical narrative of Prabhat Studios.1

Prabhat Studios: A Brief History

Prabhat was incorporated in 1929, in Kolhapur by V Shantaram, V G Damle, S Fatehlal, K Dhaiber and S Kulkarni, when the first four broke away from Baburao Painter’s Maharashtra Film Company (MFC) (Patel 1990).2 The studio began operating from Kolhapur initially, producing silent films, much in the vein of the MFC. In 1931, Prabhat produced the first Marathi talkie Ayodhyecha Raja (The King of Ayodhya), which represented the mythological story of Harishchandra, with which Dadasaheb Phalke had initiated the trajectory of Indian cinema. Perceiving the need for better infrastructure the studio moved to Pune in 1933. From this site on the outskirts of Pune, Prabhat produced some of the most celebrated early sound films in India. The practice of bilingual filmmaking, in Marathi and Hindi, gained Prabhat regional as well as national recognition. Some of the most important films produced between 1934 and 1942 were Kunku, Sant Tukaram, Sairandhri, Amrit Manthan, Dharmatma, Manoos, Sant Dnyaneshwar and Ramshastri. These came after Prabhat had distinguished itself by producing six silent films, namely: Gopal Krishna, Khuni Khanjar, Rani Saheb, Udayhaal, Chandrasena, and Julum, in Kolhapur.

The internal transition of Prabhat, from a film-making studio to a film-making company, is marked by two changes. The first is the demarcation of personnel roles, and the second its infrastructural set-up. The second change is significantly announced by its relocation to Pune. The studio had inherited the MFC’s artisanal mode of combining the best creative minds and channeling their artistic skills into producing various genres of films. By the time it shifted to Pune, this artisanal mode had evolved and the names of Damle as Art Director, Fatehlal as cinematographer, and Dhaiber as scriptwriter distinguished both the distribution of work as well as the structural set-up of different departments of the studio mode of production. The physical space of the studio was well demarcated, with separate soundproof buildings for music recording, and an airconditioned room for post-processing of the nitrate celluloid. The studio had developed a strategised distribution business, initially with Baburao Pai (the film distributor of MFC) and later by setting up its own Central Film Exchange, as well as constructing cinema houses in Bombay, Pune and Madras (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999). Baburao Pai became a partner in the company in 1939.

Since the first Marathi talkie, however, Shantaram’s name assumed importance not just as an actor–director, but also as the most accomplished filmmaker of the five founding members. A cursory look at the filmography given by Bapu Vatve (2001) points to Shantaram’s dominance as a film-maker, and the division of creative labour within the studio. This also led to Prabhat becoming synonymous with Shantaram’s oeuvre as a master film-maker who could deploy devotional spectacles, social melodramas, and fantastical histories, with a deep understanding of the various units of film-making. After Shantaram left Prabhat to start Rajkamal Kalamandir, Prabhat entered into a declining trajectory, finally closing down in 1953. The death of Damle in 1945 was the triggering moment of this plummet, as differences arose among the managing partners, and the Bombay High Court ordered the liquidation of the company in 1952. In 1955, Kelkar Attarwale from Bombay tried to run the studio as a space and site for film-making by renting it out to other producers and film-makers. However, this model failed to generate revenues, and in 1959, Prabhat Studios was sold to the Government of India for the purpose of setting up the Film Institute of India in 1961.

Regional Modernity

The period of Prabhat coincides with the late colonial moment of Indian history where nationalism, freedom from colonial rule, and imagining a modern social order dominated public discourses on India. In the cultural realm, these were visible in the tremendous output of the print industry, where local newspapers and magazines were filled with discussions of political and social questions. Modernity is manifestly visible in the expansion of exhibition spaces, in places like Bombay and Calcutta, where the educated class adopted cinema as an embodiment of a modern temperament. For the film industry, the discourses of nationalism had circumscribed an internal push to reimagine narratives of specifically Indian origin, thus instituting what Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1993) identified as the cultural contests of traditional content with modern technology. With Prabhat, this is inflected with its drive to be the best studio, employing latest technologies, hiring skilled personnel and talented artists. Its two decades of film production, therefore, encapsulates three critical moments of film history. One, the coming of sound; two, negotiations of transitioning from Presidency social spaces to urban middle class public culture; and three, the entrenchment of a predominantly linguistic regional address. The later two moments are especially significant as they antecede the formation of a regional Marathi cinema, before the political demarcation of Maharashtra in 1960.

Sound was not just for incorporating an aural aspect to scenario-driven narratives, it proved to evoke a perceptual dimension that could address both local as well as national audiences. While the silent era had perfected the transmission of dramatic action, through inter-titles and the vigorousness of gestures in flat, frontal scenarios, with films like Ayodhyecha Raja, sound instituted the dramatic aspect by borrowing from the immensely popular Sangeet Natak. It thus inaugurated a new dimension for visual and aural pleasures, where visual perceptual depth was complimented by talking–singing figures of actors on the screen.

The moment of sound, thus, opened new possibilities for companies like Prabhat to first, forge interactivity with Marathi audiences and second, imagine specifically regionalised narratives in the cinematic realm. We can, therefore, observe that Ayodhyecha Raja, made by Phalke as Raja Harishchandra, was re-presented in sound. Similarly, MFC’s Sinhagad, based on the legendary story of Tanaji (one of Shivaji’s brave soldiers) was made only in Marathi. For the studio personnel, the making of talkie films proved to be the juncture where the earlier artisanal tendencies got reordered with people like Damle and Fatehlal becoming expert technicians of cinema.

In the documentary It’s Prabhat, Shyam Benegal is shown talking about the remarkable technical feat that the studio achieved in producing talkie films (Vaidya 2004). The transition to talkie observed in early sound cinema bordered on experiments of trial and error, with the perfection of marrying visual and aural tracks mastered much later by the end of the 1930s. Vatve (2001) has described how Damle’s inherent skill with mechanical devices helped in recording live sound as filming progressed. He also mentions the manner in which Damle was able to identify snafus with the projector when a preview screening of Ayodhyecha Raja was arranged. The technological mastery that Prabhat achieved in recording and reproducing sound is an indication of how aurality became a determining factor for differentiating national and regional cinema. In much of Prabhat’s talkie films, there is a process of bilingual film-making. Here scenarios would be the same, but actors, dialogues and lyrics would be different for Marathi and Hindi versions of the film. There is, therefore, a thrust for addressing regional audiences and imagining cinema for a Marathi society, but simultaneously, the studio is intricately negotiating national audiences, markets and circuits. The primacy of sound for creating a regional address is discussed later, when we consider its significance for the saint genre and devotional films.

Regional Social Spaces

In the context of the standard narrative of cinematic modernity, Prabhat’s early talkie films, and its later masterly productions such as Sant Tukaram and Amrit Manthan, posit an unfolding of film history through several slippages and contradictions. These can be abstracted as the fashioning of a Marathi public sphere in Presidency towns and its social consequences that emerge as the horizontal spread of regional Marathi cinema. More interesting, however, is the question of respectability, where Prabhat figures prominently in the historical narratives of studio era Marathi cinema.

Three towns are central to the proposition of evolving social spaces: Kolhapur, Pune and Bombay (Arvikar 2015). Kolhapur was a princely state with the seat of the residual Maratha rule. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj had emerged as a singular princely pioneer of social reform in the early 20th century where he supported building of hostels, grants for higher education and most significantly, promoting arts and culture in Kolhapur. The MFC had benefited from this lineage, and later Prabhat got its first land through the intervention of Tanibai Kagalkar (the court singer who was related to Dhaiber) (Vatve 2001). Bypassing the actual patronage for cultural production, what emerges from MFC and Prabhat’s enterprises in Kolhapur is the transitioning of the artisanal class (and social mobility) through the frames of cinema as the new artistic capital. This caste consideration suggests that by the time Prabhat was formed, social hierarchies had begun to acquire a fluidity, where creative talent could be passed on to the next generation outside the restrictions of kinship and occupation.

Pune presents a capitalist superimposition on the earlier segregated but functionally interwoven geographies of a presidential town. As Pune had evolved centrifugally, its older Peshwa sites remained (and still remain) the epicenter against which caste and colonial identities evolved. In the post-Tilak age of 1930s–1940s, Pune had become the site of learning and print capital of Marathi publishing. A growing center of cloth trade, Pune emerged as the site where lower classes had started to lay demands on the traditional Brahmanical sites for access to learning and higher education.3 The Pune municipality was established in 1916, subsequently driving its expansion as a prominent urban centre.4 The most significant capitalist turn, however, was the railway interconnection with Bombay when the Deccan Queen was started in 1928–29. Already well connected by road southwards with Solapur, Satara and Kolhapur, its urbanisation was announced by the rail link to Bombay (to its east). By 1933, therefore, when Prabhat had moved to Pune, the city had transitioned from being a political city of Maratha power to an urbanising town of cultural significance.

Cinema and its development in Bombay has been seminally mapped by Kaushik Bhaumik (2001). His insights into the making of the Bombay film culture throw light on crucial industrial aspects, most significantly on the social spaces that the film industry facilitated. More importantly, Bhaumik’s elaboration of Bombay cinema between 1928 and 1935 situates the constant negotiations with regional centers of filmmaking including Poona in the Presidency areas. Here, he contends that the expansion of Bombay cinema resided in the building of exhibition sites in small-town locations, and the interexchange of personnel from regional centers like Lahore, Calcutta and Poona into the Bombay industry. Significantly, Bhaumik has highlighted the role of film magazines and print culture as a determiner of the negotiations between regional and Bombay film industry. Underlying this historical spread of film culture is the indication that besides considerations of film genres of early sound cinema, the formation of the regional film industry placed demands on the predominantly Hindustani Bombay cinema. These attempted to seek an accommodative industrial evolution where Bombay cinema benefited from the influx of skilled personnel while regional film industries attempted to generate vernacularised public address, thus entrenching their identity from the perspective of linguistic affiliation. It is intriguing, therefore, to see how Prabhat’s films permeated a regionalist cultural address through various performative forms, musical genres, styles, and its own artisanal thrust of projecting grand visual spectacles.

Studio Film-making and the Regional

A clue to Prabhat’s regional rootedness is the strategy of bilingual filmmaking. Prabhat though was not the only one with such a practice; New Theaters in Calcutta was the other major studio. The distinguishing aspect of Prabhat’s bilingual filmmaking was the projection of regional Marathi content for a national, Hindustani speaking audience. This can be distinctly demarcated in two phases; the first is the early talkie phase till about 1935 when Amrit Manthan was made, and the second phase begins with Sant Tukaram. In the first instance, the regional is revealed through the frames of narrative cinema that Prabhat drew from. This, as mentioned above, aggregated themes and narratives from the earlier phase of MFC and also from the insistence to construct visual spectacles from the artistic endeavours of set-design and building a pro-filmic space. More importantly, in the aural realm, language became a primary concern as Prabhat’s focus was on gaining a national audience. We, thus, see that the first three talkie films of Prabhat were produced both in Hindi and Marathi. Vatve (2001) has described the conditions that led to the conception of Maya Machindra. It was Govindrao Tembe who thought of this story. He had performed the Hindi version of a tale from the puranas called Siddha Sansar. The play however was never published and thus, posed difficulty in preparing a script. However, one of Prabhat’s organ players, Rajarambapu Purohit, had this play memorised to its dialogues, and he wrote it for Tembe to make the script.

For the Hindi version of this film, Narmadaprasad wrote the dialogues. The intersection of orality, theatrical performances, Sangeet Natak, a mythic tale, and the studio setup is what gave Maya Machindra and other films of this period a characteristic regional identity. It goes on to highlight that when the film was conceived it had to be written in Marathi (Hindustani was used to replace dialogues). Tembe’s own oeuvre as a seasoned performer of Sangeet Natak intersected with several styles, gharanas and repertoires as pointed by Keshav Bhole (1994). Furthermore, the visual image had to be imaginatively reordered to suit the spectacle of the sets. More importantly, however, it is the spoken word, its register of standard Marathi, that had undoubtedly carried forward from the stage and literary writing that underscored the Marathi regional content of Prabhat’s early talkies.

In the second phase beginning somewhere in 1935–36, we observe the regional content aggregating into a formal consistency. This is most evident in the saint films, namely Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar. The regional content of these films distinguishes Prabhat’s saintly endeavours from its fantasies and socials. Specifically, we find a unique cultural negotiation of projecting biographical narratives of the saints through the underlying devotional philosophy. These films, thus, imagined a cultural world outside the dominant Brahmanic, scriptural impositions on the devotional realm; consequently opening up the questions of caste hierarchies, the centrality of folk performative forms like bhajans and kirtans, and more significantly, the reinscription of Eknath or Tukaram’s spoken (later, written) hymns, commonly referred to as abhangas. With Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar, another level of cultural interrogation generates subtle undertones of gender, caste and performativity in Prabhat. Vishnupant Pagnis had become part of Prabhat in 1935 along with Bal Gandharva. Pagnis caricatured female parts in the theatre as well as the MFC. When Damle and Fatehlal decided to make Sant Tukaram, they chose Pagnis to play Tukaram, perhaps to highlight the genteel side of the screen projection of this popular saint (Athavale 1965).

The form that Sant Tukaram evinced is accessed via the iconicity of the visuals and the aspects of linguistic performances that the film utilises. Geeta Kapur’s original reading of Sant Tukaram, as a revival of the mythic for social change in the context of India’s struggles for independence situates the iconic in a decidedly nationalist paradigm (Kapur 1987; Bhaskar 1998). However, the iconic in the film is more than just frontality of the figures, or its address to the cinematic devotee and through it to the devotee-citizen of the real world. Tukaram’s iconicity is closely relational with three factors: (i) his historical, and popular mnemonic presence in the Marathi social realm, (ii) the performances of his abhangas, manifesting the secular trajectory of the Bhakti philosophy, and (iii) the language of Bhakti, that evokes a devotional register that is uniquely vernacular and regional. Transposing these in the cinematic realm, however, is where films like Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar assert the Marathi cultural everydayness, which is neither exclusively territorial nor governed by the exigencies of statist policies. Observing this in Prabhat’s saint films, Ravi Vasudevan (2005) compares their specific regional aspect with those of Bombay Talkies—

The overall result was a strong regional identity in the world conjured up by the studio, one rather different from the abstractions of Bombay Talkies, a studio which took recourse to a simplified Hindustani to appeal to the broadest market and whose fictional worlds often appear uprooted from reference to any specific regional habitat. (p 240)

Sant Tukaram and other saint films produced by Prabhat present an interesting process of recasting linguistically specific devotional philosophy and lives of the saints into vernacular cinematic narratives. The transpositions of the linguistic into a devotional register, of narrative conflict assuming a social and caste significance, and the miraculous, constructed to manifest divinity of the saint, indicate a mobilisation of the cinematic institution to address regional social spaces. In Sant Tukaram, this process engendered for Prabhat and Marathi cinema a remapping of a cultural mnemonic onto the studio mode of production, aggregating vernacular actors, story writers, musicians, and the audience. I want to highlight two instances of this in the film.

The initial sequence shows Tukaram singing the abhanga Panduranga Dhyani (Panduranga in my thoughts and mind) in a devotional serenity. His is an isolated and private devotional expression, presented as a continuously framed figure of Tukaram without any cuts. Immediately after this, Salo Malo is depicted singing the same abhanga claiming it to be his own to a crowded court of the temple premises. As the abhanga proceeds, there is an interactivity with the singer(s) and the devotees. One also notices a distinct caste hierarchy, as Salo in his Brahminical robes, stands and preaches to the predominantly lower caste devotee crowd in the temple. In the next sequence, we are taken into the domestic life of Tukaram, who is visibly living in poverty. His wife Awali is shown bathing the domestic buffalo. As Tukaram enters the household, he is confronted with his sick son. An argument between Awali and Tukaram erupts, as Awali accuses him of neglecting the household for the love of Panduranga. She drags the sick child to the temple with the intention of punishing the deity with slippers. But we are shown the magic of the deity, as an invisible hand caresses the sick child and cures him of sickness, as the mother turns to confront Salo and his devotee crowd. The child starts jumping around announcing that he has become alright. This is followed by Tukaram entering the temple and Salo Malo admonishing him for threatening to desecrate the deity by his wife. Tukaram apologises and accepts any punishment that is offered by Salo Malo. Salo declares that Tukaram is henceforth banished from entering the temple premises, triggering a melodramatic engagement between Tukaram and the deity as an abhanga.

Reimagining Regional Content

The essential elements of the film are emblematically seen in the above sequences. We have the figure of the calm, devotional Tukaram, with his lower caste situation. This is in conflict with the Brahminical Salo Malo’s mediation as a precursor to the devotion of the deity. And finally, there is the cinematic manifestation of the miracle, enabled by the use of purely cinematographic properties of double exposure and superimposition. The underlying thread of conflict, however, is bound by a peculiarly vernacular presentation of Tukaram’s biography, where the events of the narrative are imagined through a common mnemonic of abhangas and kirtans.

Prabhat was, thus, primarily a regional film studio which contributed prominently to the national scene with films like Amar Jyoti, Duniya Na Mane and Padosi. Producing films for a national audience, however, necessitated a reimagining of regional content. This content, I argue, is the clue to how Prabhat effected its narrative tendencies, as genres, that were refracted from the lens of a modern Marathi sociocultural milieu. In its two decade long trajectory, the regional seems to transcend the boundaries arising out of language and cultural distinctiveness. It is, thus, pertinent to note that the studio era of Marathi cinema is almost synonymous with Prabhat, which, due to the creative energies of its partners, could employ the best artists, singers, actors and craftsmen.

Respectable Social Capital

In the chequered histories of the Indian studio era, Prabhat’s case stands out and perhaps presages, the constant cultural flows between nationalist aspirations and regionalist affiliations. Through the glorious recollections of numerous personnel working for Prabhat, including the noted writer P L Deshpande (2001), the studio emerges as a marvel of modern technology where excellent craftsmen could imagine a cinema that the Marathi people accepted as a respectable art form. The notion of respectability has been forwarded by Madhuja Mukherjee (2009) in her historical analysis of New Theatres. She locates the shifts in narrative processes and the necessity of incorporating a literary lineage into Bengali cinema of the studio era to dispel social perceptions of its being amoral. With Prabhat, the notion of respectability is visible from various extra-textual aspects. Before elaborating on these, however, the significance of Prabhat’s social films requires some detailing.

If the saint genre demonstrated the “creative fabrication” (Prasad 2011) of a regional devotional form, then films like Kunku/Duniya Na Mane, Manoos/Aadmi and Shejari/Padosi underscore the studio’s engagement with themes of social realism. Here too, the cinematic is inflected through the prism of vernacular lingusitic and literary forms, specifically with writers like Narayan Hari Apte working in the studio. Apte had written the script for Kunku and later, Manoos. Kunku’s significance as a social film corresponds with its historical resonance with the Child Marriage Restraint Act, popularly known as the Sarda Act of 1929. The play from which the act got this moniker is Sangeet Sharda, which deals with the marriage of a serial venerable widower with a girl child, with the intention of producing an heir. The play was a Marathi Sangeet Natak written by Govind Deval. Kunku begins with a sequence of this play being acted by small children of the neighbourhood where Neera (Shanta Apte) resides. As anticipated in this childish performance, Neera is sneakily married off to an aged lawyer by her maternal uncle. When she learns who her husband is, Neera resists with anger and resentment. Kunku transcended the regional rootedness of Apte’s story to address a national social problem. A similar trajectory is observed in Manoos, where the lead female is a prostitute named Kesar (Shanta Hublikar) who is rescued by a police constable Ganpat (Shahu Modak). Both the films address the issue of restoring the female into socially acceptable normative structures, in the process, projecting a critique of the very social norms that have constructed the identity of these women. Prabhat’s social films were, thus, deeply sensitive towards portraying a growing progressive modernity of the Marathi public, and contributory to the debates around social reform on the national stage.

It was this peculiar diversity of cultural sources interacting and interchanging at points of contact in the studio, where stage performers subdued an overt frontal address to the requirements of narrative cinema’s spatial situations, or where musicians incorporated various strands of aural performatives to generate film-music, that earned Prabhat a social respectability. But the journey towards this had already begun from within the studio. As emphasised by Vatve (2001), the terms of incorporation of the studio strictly forbade any kind of personal relationships with female co-stars and co-workers. Respectability, thus, was literally “incorporated” into the manner in which Prabhat erected its film-making practice. Vatve’s recollection of how Durga Khote was contracted to play the role of Taramati in Ayodhyecha Raja is instructive here. According to him Khote, then married to Vishwanath Khote, had played a minor role as the wife of an alcoholic in the film Farebi Jaal. However, this had not gone down well with the respectable middle class Marathi family of Khote and thus, she was asked not to act in cinema. With Prabhat, the fears of playing a scandalous role were dispelled as she was being sought for the lead character of Taramati in a mythological story.

As the talkie became the status quo of the industry, an invisible star system emerged, where female actors were projected into the public imagination with an implicit sexuality. The three issues of the magazine Prabhat Monthly, edited by Baburao Patel, carry this veiled projection in the captions that he gives to the pictures of Shanta Apte and Durga Khote. Although Patel (1936) introduces the magazine as a service which the “friends of Prabhat” had asked for and they wanted to know “details of Shanta Apte—her hobbies and activities.” However, as pointed out by Neepa Majumdar (2009), this star system was relayed through the professional lives of the actors, eschewing the personal and private selves of the stars. It indicates, therefore, that the emergent female stars of the talkie era were more or less protected from public scrutiny behind the social veil of respectability.

A number of people who worked with Prabhat have memorialised the decade of 1934–44 as a manifestation of a culturally fluid artistic industry signifying social respectability. One of the most influential accounts is that of Deshpande (2001), where he has elaborated the culture of respectability that Prabhat studios exuded. He says:

the people of Prabhat conformed to the then contemporary notions of social respectability, and their films too were demonstrative of it. (author’s translation) (p 4)

The notion of respectability that Prabhat encapsulated diverges from the New Theatres’ strategies of harnessing literary sources. Prabhat’s social image was closely associated with carving out a unique space in the volatile realm of film production. Its journey from Kolhapur to Pune was contingent on exhibiting artistic excellence (most visible in the films), but also needed to correspond with the world outside its cinematic imaginations. The second issue of Prabhat Monthly presents an indication of this. Patel (1936) gives a colourful account of various dignitaries visiting the studio including the neighbouring queens of Akkalkot and Sawantwadi and later, the Lord and Lady Brabourne. Apart from the overt attempts to publicise the studio’s repute, what is observed in these publicity materials is a movement towards affirming a favourable public opinion about the studio and its personnel. It is evident, therefore, that Prabhat aimed to be an institution of social repute, one where avoiding gossip, suppressing sexual objectification of female actors, and observing middle class social norms, superseded concerns of leveraging the popularity of its screen personnel for economic gain. This notion of respectability was driven towards projecting a public image of the studio that valued artistic excellence over sensational romantic liaisons. Such an insistence, thus, aligned the studio with the social spaces from which Prabhat had emerged, fostering a sustained bonding with the Marathi social sphere. It also effectively secluded the inner workings of Prabhat from public scrutiny.

Another crucial instance of respectability is found in the internal socio–personal and professional relationships of the various personnel. As a replica of social kinship, where age, skills, and intellect were revered by suffixing a person with a honorary word like “dada” (elder brother), “mama” (maternal uncle) etc, we see that Prabhat seems to have promoted these kinds of informal interactions. It, thus, demarcated an inherent hierarchy of work, and corresponded to the respect that a specific person like Shantaram, Fatehlal or Damle garnered from artists and colleagues (Vatve 2001).5 Such respectability suggests a larger spatial feature of Prabhat Studios. It points to familial kinships forged not only out of real-life relationships, but also in the culture of politeness, social interactions and the manner of organising the departments of the studio.

It emerges, therefore, that as much as Prabhat invested in enabling a niche mode of studio production, its social stature had to correspond with the grandeur of its sets, the technical mastery of its film-makers, and imbibing a respectable context of a workplace, where exceptional artists could feel at home. Prabhat’s respectability, though, also opens up the possibility of scrutinising its journey in Kolhapur and Pune as referencing the emergent Marathi middle class preserve that was distinctly different from Bombay’s cosmopolitan world of film-making. This also indicates the formative period of a regional film industry, where cinema and society engendered one another as a self-referential prism of cultural production.

Finally, it needs to be asserted that Prabhat’s respectability was closely tied to its regional roots and therefore, could be resurrected—in the form of anecdotal histories, documentaries and retrospectives celebrating its cinematic achievements—as an inherent part of Maharashtra’s cultural history. The site of the studio that now makes up the campus of the Film and Television Institute of India has this legacy of the studio era of Marathi cinema, that encapsulates a cultural past mummified in the films of Prabhat and the lives of its personnel.


1 This article derives from some important sources. The primary sources are the films of Prabhat made available by A V Damle. Secondary sources include the biographical account of Prabhat written by Bapu Vatve titled Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri (second edition); and other biographies referenced at appropriate places. It also draws on the history of Prabhat Studios researched by Hrishikesh Arvikar and presented as an unpublished MPhil dissertation with the title “The Cinema of Prabhat: Histories, Aesthetics and Politics” (2015).

2 MFC was one of the first studios outside Bombay. Its name suggests its regional origins and film-making concerns, as opposed to Phalke’s company named Hindustan Films. The MFC had perfected a production practice where elaborate and detailed backdrops, costumes and objects made up the realist pro-filmic space. Its practices suggest the interconnection between the artisanal class and the emergent capitalism of cinema in regional India.

3 See Gazetteer of Bombay State District Series, Vol XX, Poona District, pp 163–316.

4 See Gazetteer of Bombay State District Series, Vol XX, Poona District. The Gazetteer notes: “Not only was the Poona municipality one of the first municipalities to be set up but it was also the first to have a majority of elected members and also to have the privilege of having an elected president” (p 67).

5 Damle was known as Damle mama, while Fatehlal was addressed as Saheb mama.


Arvikar, Hrishikesh (2015): “History of Prabhat: Histories, Aesthetics and Politics,” MPhil thesis submitted to Department of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Athavale, Shantaram (1965): Prabhat Kaal, Pune: Venus.

Bhaskar, Ira (1998): “Allegory, Nationalism and Cultural Change in Indian Cinema: Sant Tukaram,” Literature and Theology, Vol 12, No 1, pp 50–69.

Bhaumik, Kaushik (2001): The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry, 1913–36, Oxford: Oxford University.

Bhole, Keshav (1994): Majhe Sangeet Ani Digdurshan, Bombay: Mouj Prakashan.

Deshpande, P L (2001): “Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri,” Ek Hoti Prabhatnagri, Bapu Vatve (ed), Pune: A V Damle.

Gazetteer of Bombay State District Series (1954): Vol XX, Poona District, pp 163–316.

Kapur, Geeta (1987): “Mythic Material in Indian Cinema,” Journal of Arts and Ideas, Vol 14, No 15, pp 79–107.

Majumdar, Neepa (2009): Wanted Cultured Ladies Only!: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s–50s, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mukherjee, Madhuja (2009): New Theatres Ltd: The Emblem of Art, the Picture of Success, National Film Archive of India, Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Patel, Baburao (1936): “Just Another Link,” Prabhat Monthly, Vol 1, No 1.

— (nd) “The New Temple of Art,” Prabhat Monthly, Vol 1, No 2, p 6.

— (1990): “Background and Costume,” Kalamaharshi Baburao Painter, Mumbai: Jagatik Marathi Parishad.

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Updated On : 13th Jul, 2017


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