A dalit director called shots in '20s

Saeed Khan

AHMEDABAD: This was one area where Bollywood was way ahead of Hollywood. In the 1920s, the Americans had not yet broken through the race divide - blacks were not allowed to act so whites painted their faces black and played their roles. At the same time across the Atlantic, a Gujarati dalit broke through the caste divide to become India's hottest director of the silent era.

Kanjibhai Rathod from Maroli village in south Gujarat, is considered the first successful director in Indian cinema. His rose to fame in an era when most people stayed away from films due to a peculiar stigma attached to the filmdom.

Not much is known about Rathod's personal life. Film historian Virchand Dharamsey writes, "Kanjibhai was coming from a dalit family and he can be considered the first successful professional director of India."

Rathod began as a still photographer with the Oriental Film Company. His experience earned him a job in Kohinoor Film Company and its owner Dwarkadas Sampat made him a director.

Rathod's 'Bhakta Vidur' released in 1921, was perhaps the first criticism of the British colonialism in a popular feature film.

This mythological allegory directly alluded to political issues, particularly the controversy over the Rowlett Act.

An adaptation from a section of the Mahabharata, this film showed the British as the Kauravas and its protagonist Vidur as Gandhi. Sampat himself played the role donning the Gandhi cap and khadi shirt. The film raised a storm - while a big hit in Bombay, it was banned by the British in Karachi and Madras, write historians.

Rathod was the first film-maker to direct a crime thriller in 1920s on contemporary events. His Kala Naag (1924) was based on famous double murder case in Bombay. Rathod introduced Zubaida to film industry with his Gulbakavali.

By the time he left for Saurashtra Film Company in Rajkot in 1924, Rathod had enough work on his name. At the launch of Krishna Film Company, he returned to Mumbai in 1931, the year of first talkies.

Dharamsey writes in his 'Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934' that Rathod directed five talkies out of 17 made in 1931. He remained active in the industry even in 1940s, but he was not as successful directing talkies.

[Courtesy: TOI, May 20, 2012]

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