Romance and Action: Episode 8

Buster Keaton in The General an action thriller (1926)

If you were a resident of Lahore in the 1920s—the first decade when movies truly began to catch the public’s imagination—what sort of movies were you able to watch? 

From our last episode we learned that throughout the 1920s Lahore was home to between 6 and 9 cinema halls scattered across the city.   Depending on where the cinema was located, you would have a good idea of what sort of movies you could expect.  In the andarooni shahr (inner walled city) around Taxali and Bhatti Gates, you’d catch movies that had previously been shown in the better cinema halls around McLeod Rd or on the Mall, the wide shaded boulevard that dominated the European/modern part of  Lahore.   

And of course, the venues themselves would differ radically. At the Regal on Mall Road you’d have heavy chandeliers in the lobby and a full bar with uniformed bartenders upstairs.    In the kutcha, tin shacks in the working-class parts of the city you’d sit on the floor or a rickety bench and probably get wet if it rained too hard. 

The vast majority of movies exhibited in Lahore’s movie halls were foreign.  More precisely they were American. Made in Hollywood.  A few were imported from France, Germany and Britain but Hollywood was the behemoth that ruled the roost. 

Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin, Pearl White, Douglas Fairbanks and especially Rudolph Valentino who often wore ‘oriental’ costumes were immensely popular in Lahore. The film, Orphans of the Storm told the story of an Englishwoman who was abducted by a lecherous aristocrat, was banned in Punjab out of fear Indians might get ideas!

Raja Harischandra was India’s first feature film made in 1913 by Dadasaheb Phalke in Bombay.

Though American movies made up of 85% of the films shown in Lahore (and across India) audiences really preferred Indian movies. But they were more expensive to make and there were relatively few Indians who had the technical skills to operate the cameras. Despite this, more than 1300 silent films were produced in India between 1913-1934. Very few have survived the decades but one of the most famous and best regarded that has survived is the Light of Asia/Prem Sanyas which tells the story of the life of Buddha.

It was an Indian-German production with financing from a Lahore High Court justice [Sir Justice Motilal Sagar], through the Great Eastern Film Corporation. The movie was more successful in Europe where it even had a special command performance for the King of England. In India it didn’t do so well but it was able to launch the careers of several famous Indian cinema figures like Himanshu Rai who went on to set up the iconic Bombay Talkies Studio in 1934.

For a link to this episode, click here.

Some sources that I have used to make this episode:

Sahni, B. (n.d.). Balraj Sahni: Autobiography. A wonderful read and full of great anecdotes and reflections by one of India’s greatest cinema actors.

Rangoonwalla, F. (n.d.). 75 Years of Indian Cinema.

Dwyer, R. (2002). Yash Chopra. In Yash Chopra. A biography of one of post Independence India’s greatest film makers. He and his brother BR Chopra were Punjabis who were educated in Lahore. This book has quite a bit of good information about B.R. Chopra’s time as a journalist and producer before 1947.

BHAUMIK, K. (n.d.). THE EMERGENCE OF THE BOMBAY FILM INDUSTRY 1913-1936. Immensely rich and valuable PhD thesis covering the growth of India’s film industry including in regional areas like Punjab and Lahore.