BFI Southbank, London
14 January 2018
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
Following on from last year’s India on Film season at the British Film Institute which included a presentation exploring silent Indian cinema and featuring India’s first indigenous silent film Raja Harishchandra (1913) together with the premier of the newly restored print of Shiraz (1928), we were back at BFI Southbank this afternoon to see another rarity of Indian silent film, Gallant Hearts (aka Diler Jigar) (Dir. G P Pawar, 1931)
But first there was a short segment from a documentary short, Sinhasta Parvani (1920), shot by Indian film pioneer Dhundiraj Govind (D G) Phalke and featuring the great Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela held every 12 years in Nashik. As well as ornate processions the film included shots of mass ritual bathing in the Godavari River.
Gallant Hearts opens with the benevolent king of Magadh and his infant son Chandrapratab distributing coins to the poor of his kingdom. But the king’s evil and ambitious brother Kalsen (Ezak Daniel) is plotting to seize power and he arranges the death of the king with poison. The infant heir is now in danger but a loyal retainer, Satyapal, spirits him away to a distant forest where he is lost.
Twenty years pass and Kalsen and his equally evil son Ramanaraj now rule cruelly over a ‘Kingdom of horror’. Meanwhile, in the forest the infant prince, unaware of his regal origin, has grown up to become Hameer (Hamir) the dare-devil acrobat who performs with his beloved Saranga (Amboo/Lalita Pawar) and her brother Balbheem. One day the acrobats arrive in Magadh. Learning of Saranga’s beauty the licentious Ramanaraj has her kidnapped. But seeing Saranga, hi father Kalsen also becomes infatuated with her and steals her from his son. His attempts to seduce Saranga with promises of wealth look to be succeeding just as Hameer arrives in an attempt to rescue her. Captured, Hameer is thrown in jail and decides to forsake Saranga for her apparent betrayal with Kalsen. Also in jail is Satyapal and, unaware of each other’s true identity, the two manage to escape.
In the meantime, Saranga has now thought better of Kalsen’s offer and has also escaped the palace. Rejected by Hameer she takes on the guise of a masked avenger and in one adventure abets the escape of Hameer himself from an ambush. As Hameer and Satyapal bathe in a river, the latter notices a characteristic tattoo on Hameer’s back and suddenly realises his true identity. Together the two seek to overthrow Kalsen, who in turn plots Hameer’s murder. Just as Kalsen is about to strike, the masked Saranga reappears and in the subsequent fight Kalsen and his son are killed. Hameer realises that his saviour is his beloved Saranga and they are re-united.
Described as ‘a fast and furious comedy-action-adventure film, filled with court intrigues, rowdy sword fights, and fantastic locations’, Gallant Hearts does indeed live up to that description and clearly owes a lot to Hollywood escapism such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and its acrobatic star Douglas Fairbanks. However, despite having a cogently structured plot the film largely fails to measure up to the style and panache of its Hollywood forerunners. In particular, it is beset by numerous over stylised yet amateurishly staged sword fights that go on interminably, reminiscent almost of a Keystone Cops knock-about, with cardboard swords and (until the very end at least) nobody getting killed.
Gallant Hearts, made by the Agarwal Film Company in Pune, was an example of a uniquely Indian sub-genre of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the stunt film, inspired by the popular serials and Fairbanks type features arriving from America. The Thief of Bagdad apparently remained hugely popular in India through repeated re-releases with Fairbanks the star extraordinaire to the extent that he was relentlessly mobbed by fans during a 1931 visit to the country. Such ‘stunt’ films were usually un-located either in time or place but relied upon an endless series of chase scenes, sword-fights and swashbuckling action. Promotion of the film was based not on plot or story-line but on the stunts and thrills it featured. Made in the same year as India’s first sound film, Gallant Hearts was publicised as the film that speaks “not with the tongue but with actions” to emphasise its dramatic content in contrast to its rival talkies. But by the time of its release, ‘stunt’ films were in decline and were regarded as distinctly ‘low-brow’ entertainment. Sadly, apart from Gallant Hearts, only one other stunt film is believed to have survived in its entirety, The Fall Of Slavery (aka Ghulami Nu Patan) (Dir. Shyam Sundar Agarwal, 1931), also from the Agarwal studio, so it would be hard to judge how typical either film is of the genre.
Although perhaps not a particularly good film, Gallant Hearts does nevertheless have some interesting features. In particular, there is a surprisingly strong female role in Saranga. Although Hameer may be the nominal star and hero she was certainly no shrinking violet. When it came to swordplay she was an equal participant. When spurned by Hameer she pulled on her mask and became something of a Zorro-like figure, saving Hameer not once but twice. Even without a sword in her hand, when Ramanaraj’s lackey got somewhat ‘over-familiar’ she was not above clouting him with her tambourine. Played by Amboo, who later became Lalita Pawar upon marrying director D G Pawar, she went on to a seventy year career in the film industry, making some 600 films and won considerable praise for her portrayal of overly-domineering matriarchs in her later years.
The film was also noteworthy for some of the outside location shooting, particularly the fine buildings where it was filmed. Sadly the studio shots were poor in comparison with particularly wooden sets and a plethora of wobbly walls. There is also a nicely inventive scene where Kalsen steals Saranga from his son using a bed which descends through a trap-door while she sleeps.
Director G P Pawar also had a long and distinguished career in Indian cinema, directing his final film, Razia Sultan, in 1983.
Accompanying the afternoon’s films were Stephen Horne on piano/flute/accordion and Jeevan Singh on percussion.
(NB Gallant Hearts is not available on disc or online.)