The Royal Bioscope Co.
Updated: Jan 13
India's first native production company started by the forgotten filmographer - Hiralal Sen, who's legacy like his works have vanished with the fire in his studio in 1917
Hiralal Sen was born in 1866, to a successful lawyer in the Bhogjuri village, Manikganj, approximately 80 kilometres from the capital of current day Bangladesh, Dhaka. His father, Chandra Mohan Sen, was a reputed lawyer in the Calcutta High Court.
Although Hiralal was the successor of a zamindar family, he was someone who always found his passion for science, and photography, in particular. His cousin, Dinesh Chandra Sen, who later became a renowned folklore researcher, taught him a lot about art and culture. While growing up in Calcutta as a student, he started practising photography. In 1890, he established a photography studio of his own by the name H.L. Sen and Brothers. Within a short time, his expertise in photography was very popular across Calcutta.
In July of 1896, the first film screening in India was held at the Watson Hotel in Bombay. Many days after that another film screening took place in Calcutta. Professor Stephenson and Father Lafeau were the people who had come to Calcutta to screen films at the Star Theatre. Here, Hiralal enjoyed the films, along with his younger brother, Motilal Sen.
Later, the siblings went to Stephen’s to learn more about the films. But apparently Stephen refused as he thought Hiralal might become his business rival. However, we have also found conflicting reports which say that Hiralal was also supported by Stephenson and that he also gave his camera to him to shoot his first film.
A very keen Hiralal learnt about films by reading journals and newspapers. He later borrowed 5000 takas from his mother and bought some equipment for the projection. In 1898, he established the Royal Bioscope Company to screen films. Of the people who supported him were his brothers, Motilal Sen and Devkilal Sen, and his nephew, Kumar Shankar Gupta. On the 4th of April, 1898 they arranged for the first film screening in their company.
The Royal Bioscope Company was the first film production company in Bengal, and possibly the first in India. The initial production used an urban bioscope, which was bought from Warwick Trading Company in London. The company here produced shows generally exhibited at the Classic Theatre in Calcutta, where the films featured in intervals of stage shows. When Hiralal began producing his own films regularly, they were chiefly scenes from stage productions of the Classic Theatre. However, as newer film ventures entered the marketplace, Royal Bioscope’s fortunes declined and the production ceased in 1930. Eventually, Hiralal became a filmmaker and a distributor.
In 1900 he imported a few more pieces of equipment for filmmaking and communicated with a renowned theatre activist, Amendranath Dutta. Amendranath Dutta was the owner of Classic Theatre. Hiralal took snaps of the Classic Theatre production, Sita Ram, which made him the first-ever Bengali filmmaker. Throughout his career, Hiralal Sen made around 40 films, 12 feature films, 10 documentary films and three advertisements. Most of the films he made were scenes which were depicted from theatrical productions played at Amendranath Dutta’s Classic Theatre.
During that time raw film was imported into the country. In between 1901 and 1904, he produced many films for Classic Theatre, which included ‘Brahmaar’, ‘Hari Raj’ and ‘Buddha Dev’. His longest-running film, which was produced in 1903, was titled ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’, which ran for approximately 22 minutes. It was also based on an original Classic Theatre performance. However, not a lot is known about these feature films since they were never screened.
He was the first known Indian to have used film for advertising purposes, having made two films advertising for Jaba Kusum Hair Oil and Edwards’ Tonic. He is also someone who is associated with having created the first political film, documenting the ‘Anti-Partition demonstration’ and ‘Swadeshi movement’ against Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal while placing his camera and equipment atop the Town Hall in Calcutta on September 22. In 1913, Royal Bioscope made its last film.
Hiralal was someone who was calm and composed by nature though many people thought of him as a coward. However, he was someone who was excellent at his studies and loved swimming. An early childhood experiment which Hiralal and Dinesh Chandra performed gives us a glimpse of what was in store for their future years: they played with shadows.
Hiralal and Dinesh Chandra made some paper models of Ram, Sita and Dashratha from the Ramayan. The papercrafts were tied with strings and hung between two walls. In the evening, after there was darkness, a wet cloth was placed on the opposite wall and lighting was arranged through a lantern behind the models. This resulted in a large shadow of the models. To and fro motions of the lantern and moving the strings connected to the models resulted in some magic of shadows. Apart from his elementary learning, he was also someone who was well versed with Persian. During his stint in Jagarnath Collegiate School, he got interested in photography. He made a darkroom in his own house and experimented with the form. Hiralal was later awarded a gold medal in a photography competition organised by Bourne and Shepherd. Later, Hiralal got admitted to Duff College, but could not continue with his degree. He started practising photography seriously and made it into his profession.
‘A panorama of Indian scenes in possessions’ in 1898, ‘Anti-partition Demonstration’ and ‘Swadeshi movement’ in 1905, ‘Holy bathing in Kumbh’ in 1913, were some of the few films that Hiralal produced.
Hiralal’s later years were marked with disappointment and economic hardship. Jamshedji Faremji Madan of Elf Stone Bioscope Company had long surpassed him in terms of success. At this point, Hiralal was also suffering from cancer. A few days before his death in October 1917, a fire broke out, destroying every film he had ever made.
Not a lot is known about him and he is definitely not someone who was remembered and celebrated.
Hiralal Sen was someone who was prolific and enthusiastic when it came to experimenting with the new medium, which was called cinema. His achievements are not open to scrutiny as none of his films survived. His bankruptcy in 1913, followed by the devastating fire that destroyed everything in 1917 drew a curtain to all his exploits.
Whatever evidence remains suggests that Hiralal was making several genres from the very beginning. Many people have been attributed to having been pioneers in the field of Indian cinema. Among these people are Dundhiraj Govind Phalke, also known as Dada Saheb Phalke,
who is also considered to be the ‘Father of Indian cinema’, where he became popular through his film, ‘Raja Harishchandra’. He was also the first one to release ‘Aalam ara’, the first motion picture with sound, directed by Ardeshir Irani which released on March 14.
A lot of cinema was produced during the time of the British Raj with very complex stories in and around them.
Hiralal Sen’s tryst with films is a story that is not widely shared or known among people when it comes to the history of Indian cinema. However, had his work survived and his venture of the Royal Bioscope Company lived on, our understanding of the legacy of the pioneers of Indian cinema would have been different. However, given that his films were destroyed in a fire, and that not much remains of his work, it is hard for us to understand a man as complex as him and to get any resources to imagine how life would have been for a film director, producer and a photographer at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It is difficult for us to imagine how he battled his economic hardships and health issues and eventually all his efforts were lost and nothing of him or his legacy remains today.