New Delhi: The final decades of the British Raj in India coincided with the meteoric rise of a visionary film industry in Bombay that was not only vibrant but also prolific, releasing over 200 films a year by the 1930s.
In the years leading up to India’s independence, Bombay was “a modernising city in the throes of political agitation” and a site of regular religious riots that “worsened in the 1930s and 1940s”, writes film historian Debashree Mukherjee in Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City.
In the midst of these political and social changes, Bollywood came into its own.
“It is through a whirlpool of synchronous and incommensurable material practices generated by diverse film workers that cinema was forged as a distinctive and nameable medium for the modern age,” says Mukherjee in the book.
At the forefront of the Bombay-based Bollywood film boom, were the film production companies. And few such companies can claim to have enjoyed as much prominence in its heyday, and as little-documented a disappearance, as Filmistan Studios.
T 486 -Shoot at Filmistan Studios, such memories, the films done, the rejections faced, the triumphs of endeavor, the dejections of failure
— Amitabh Bachchan (@SrBachchan) September 6, 2011
Established in 1943, Filmistan was located in the far north of the city centre in Goregaon (West), and was a mainstay in the industry for the next two decades, releasing 66 films before falling off the map in the late 1960s, after which it operated only as a sporadically-rented film set campus, which continues till this day.
Beginnings & peak during ‘Golden Age’ of Hindi cinema
Filmistan Studios owes its creation to the problems faced by the better-established Bombay Talkies, following the death of director and Talkies chief Himanshu Rai in 1940.
In the years after Rai’s death, a falling out between actress and Rai’s wife, Devika Rani, and an opposing faction led by Sashadhar Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar, led to Mukherjee and Kumar breaking away to form Filmistan.
Fellow Bombay Talkies stalwarts Gyan Mukherjee and Rai Bahadur Chunnilal too got on board, with the former helming Filmistan’s first feature, Chal Chal Re Naujawan, in 1944, starring Ashok Kumar and Naseem Banu.
Sashadhar Mukherjee was responsible for Filmistan’s art direction and creative output, while Chunnilal took charge of finances, writes Shishir Krishna Sharma in his blog, ‘Beete Hue Din’.
This arrangement seemed to typify Filmistan’s growth and success over the years. While Chal Chal Re Naujawan was regarded as an “above average” grosser for its time, having collected Rs 30 lakh in the box office, Filmistan’s 1947 release Do Bhai was the second highest-grossing film in India that year.
The company also served as the Bollywood launchpad for celebrated writer-playwright Saadat Hasan Manto and director Ritwik Ghatak, both of whom worked at the production company as screenwriters, before establishing themselves independently.
“On regular days, I would take the electric train from Filmistan and reach home by 6 p.m. But on that particular day, I got a little late. The heated discussions over Shikari had gone on endlessly,” Manto is quoted in ‘Bombay Hustle’, as having shared about his experience as a screenwriter for the film Shikari (1946).
The 1950s are generally considered by today’s film writers, journalists and historians to be the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindi cinema. Filmistan’s growth in the 1940s came as a precursor to the Golden Age, but the films produced by the studio were an important part of this era, and some of the highest-grossing ones made during this period.
Chunnilal’s death & Sashadhar’s departure
Just six years after the release of Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Chunnilal passed away and the financial responsibilities for Filmistan were transferred to the company’s new owner, Tolaram Jalan, while Sashadhar remained the face of the creative content.
The company continued to make financially successful, acclaimed films throughout the 1950s, such as Jagriti (1954), Nastik (1954) and Paying Guest (1956).
However, Sashadhar’s departure in 1958, due to disagreements with Jalan, and the formation of Filmalaya by Sashadhar Mukherjee not only marked the end of a 15-year era of success but also sowed the seeds of a complete shift in the company’s strategy.
Shishir Krishna Sharma in his blog implies that Filmistan’s post-1958 productions lacked the quality of its predecessors and were effectively rudderless without Sashadhar’s leadership, until its last ever production, Payal ki Jhankaar (1968).
Ever since Tolaram Jalan pulled the plug on Filmistan as a production company, all that has remained is the Goregaon location, which continues to be rented out occasionally for film shoots. In the past decade, scenes n films such as Ra.One (2011), 2 States (2014) and Radhe (2021) have been filmed here.
Such a long journey. With @iamsrk at the same spot where I started as an aide in Filmistan studios. http://twitpic.com/1ugdiy
— Anubhav Sinha (@anubhavsinha) June 6, 2010
Over 40 years after the release of Payal ki Jhankaar, Filmistan made headlines again in 2011, but for the wrong reasons, with rumours of the company’s Goregaon studio being shut down and sold doing the rounds. Both were denied by the company’s then-proprietor, Jasraj Purohit.
For a production company that achieved such highs, however, Filmistan’s sharp decline has received little attention in film history academia, compared to the well-documented collapse of Bombay Talkies in the same era.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)