Remembering Hiralal Sen | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 11, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 11, 2008

Remembering Hiralal Sen

A pioneering Bengali filmmaker

In the undivided Bengal as well as in the Indian sub-continent, Hiralal Sen (1866-1917) was the first ever filmmaker. Hiralal was a photographer as well. He is also credited with creating India's first advertising films and quite possibly India's first political film.
Hiralal Sen was born in the Bogjuri village, Manikganj, approximately 80 kms from Dhaka. His father, Chandromohan Sen, was a reputed lawyer, first at the Dhaka Zilla Court and later in the Calcutta High Court.
Although Hiralal was the scion of a zamindar family, he was passionate about science, photography in particular. Hiralal learnt a lot about art and culture from his cousin Dinesh Chandra Sen, who later became a renowned folklore researcher.
Hiralal grew up in Calcutta. While a student, he started practicing photography. In 1890, he inaugurated a photography studio named "H. L. Sen and Brothers". Within a short time, his expertise in photography gained much exposure in Calcutta.
In July 1896, the first film screening in India was held at the Watson Hotel in Bombay. Several days after that, a film screening took place in Calcutta. Two foreigners, Stevens and Father Laffo, led the way to screening films.
Stevens screened films commercially at the Star Theatre and Father Laffo screened films for students. Hiralal Sen enjoyed the films at the Star Theatre along with younger brother Motilal Sen. Later the siblings went to Stevens to learn more about films. But Stevens refused as he thought Hiralal might become his business rival.
A keen Hiralal learnt about films by reading journals and newspapers. Then he borrowed Tk 5000 from his mother and bought necessary equipments for projection.
In 1898, Hiralal established "The Royal Bioscope Company" to screen films. Younger brothers -- Motilal Sen and Devkilal Sen -- and nephew Kumar Shankar Gupta were along with him in the Bioscope Company. They arranged a first film screening on April 4, 1898.
Eventually Hiralal became a filmmaker and distributor. In 1900, he imported necessary equipments for filmmaking. For this purpose, he communicated with then renowned theatre activist Amarendranath Dutta. At that time Amarendranath was the owner of Classic Theatre. Hiralal took snaps of a Classic Theatre production, Sitaram, which made him the first ever-Bengali filmmaker.
Throughout his career, Hiralal Sen made over 40 films. Between 1900 and 1912, Hiralal made 12 feature films, ten docu-films and three advertisements.
Most of the films he made depicted scenes from theatrical productions played at Amarendranath Dutta's Classic Theatre. At that time raw film was imported into the country. Between 1901 and 1904, he produced many films for Classic Theatre including Bhramar, Hariraj, and Buddhadev. His longest film, produced in 1903, titled Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, was also based on an original Classic Theatre performance. However, not much is known about this feature film since it was never screened.
Hiralal also produced a number of advertising films. Having made two films advertising Jabakusum Hair Oil and Edwards Tonic, he may have been the first Indian to use film for advertising purposes.
His film documenting the anti-Partition demonstration and 'Swadeshi' movement at the Town Hall, Calcutta on September 22, 1905 is considered India's first political film.
Royal Bioscope made its last film in 1913. Hiralal Sen's later years were marked with disappointment and economic hardship. Jamshedji Framji Madan of the Elphinstone Bioscope Company had long surpassed him in terms of success. Hiralal was also suffering from cancer. A few days before his death in October in 1917, a fire broke out destroying every film he ever made.
Not much is known about his family and children. It is believed that legendary Bengali actress Suchitra Sen is related to Hiralal's daughter Prabhabati Devi.
Compiled by Cultural Correspondent

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