Our Lost Heritage - India’s Top 10 Lost Films!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on December 02, 2015

We are a country of mythologists & our sense of history is circular, unlike the occident, that looks at history as a linear progression from chaos to order, evolving from bad to good. Maybe that's why we've never really been good at documenting our history. And the same holds true for our cinema.

P.K.Nair, the grand old man of Indian archiving, has created this short list of the top 10 films that we've lost due to our negligence. The list of films lost, is huge and the loss irreparable. Luckily, people like P.K.Nair & the NFAI have helped keep a large number of films alive. Lately Shivendra Singh Dungarpur has led the restoration effort in India with his Film Heritage Foundation. The foundation is currently focusing on archiving the artefacts and memorabilia of four major Indian filmmakers: A.R. Kardar, Kidar Sharma, Saeed Mirza and Kumar Shahani.

The list appears on the Film Heritage Foundation's site, along with some other interesting bits of information.

Bhakta Vidur (Alternate Title: Dharma Vijay), 1921, 89 mins

Directed by  Kanjibhai Rathod, the Kohinoor Studios production Bhakta Vidur adopts the perspective of Vidur- the chief advisor to the Kauravas, who, for ethical reasons, sided with the Pandavas prior to the great war of Kurukshetra. The film sought to hold a moral lens to the struggle between British colonialists and the Indian resistance.

Bhakta-Vidur-1921 (1)

Seeta (1934), 119 mins

A mythological film with a stellar cast featuring Prithviraj Kapoor as Ram and Durga Khote as Seeta along with some of the most high-profile actors of the time, Seeta broke new ground by becoming the first Indian film to gain international exposure: it was screened at the 1934 Venice Film Festival where Debaki Bose won an award, the first Indian filmmaker to do so on an international platform.


Bilet pherat (Alternate title: England returned),1921, 68mins

One of the earliest examples of broad, deliberate satire made in the mould of the Hollywood slapstick comedies of the time, Bilet Pherat (1921) lampoons the trend of Indians travelling abroad (in those days, usually to Britain) for higher education in a slavish, hankering imitation of their colonial masters and returning to their native land only to criticise its customs and traditions, especially those of love and matrimony.

Directed by Nitish C. Lahiry for Indo- British Films, Calcutta, the film had inter-titles in both Hindi & Bengali.


Khoon ka Khoon (Hamlet), 1935, 122 mins

This was the first adaptation of a Shakespearan drama by  in Indian cinema. Largely a filmed version of a stage performance of the play, the film contains a towering performance by the director Sohrab Modi in the central role of Hamlet, and is an astute adaptation of the original Shakespeare play. The film marked the feature debut of Naseem Banu, as Ophelia.


Balidan (Sacrifice), 1927, 108 mins

‘An excellent and truly Indian film’- The Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927.

Balidan was a persuasive effort at bringing about social reform with its story of a conflict between a progressive, rational king and an orthodox, ritual-bound priest. The bone of contention between them is the issue of animal sacrifice for religious purposes. Featuring the top actors of the day and based on a play by the venerable Rabindranath Tagore himself, the film was widely praised as a breakthrough both technically as well as in terms of adapting a literary piece of work. After a few initial hiccups, the film enjoyed a prolific run in theatres.


Savkari Pash (The Indian Shylock), 1925, 80 mins

A milestone film by Baburao Painter, Savkari Pash is notable not just for its courage in going against the grain but also for its technical finesse and poignant treatment of its subject matter. At a time when mythological films were de rigueur, Baburao Painter staked almost everything to make India’s first social realist film. It was filmed with a painstaking eye for detail, sometimes to the point of annoying the actors: it was expressly at Baburao Painter’s insistence that hardly any make-up was used and the actors were dressed in simple, worn out clothes. The film, an adaptation of a novel by Hari Narayan Apte named Savkari Haak (Call of the Moneylender), was about a poor peasant who is unable to pay back his debts to an usurious moneylender and is forced to move to the city for employment. He is eventually employed as a mill worker, only to face hardships peculiar to urban, industrial centres. The film juxtaposes the trials of a city life with life in the village under debt and drought and the struggle of a man caught in between them.

Baburao Painter knew, perhaps better than anybody, the significance of making such a film. In 1936, he remade it completely, employing sound for possibly greater impact. Both the silent and sound versions of the film were greatly praised.


Sairandhri, 1933, 148 mins

The first Indian film to have been made in colour, (though not indigenous, since it was processed and printed in Babelsburg, Germany using the Agfacolor process), Sairandhri is a remake of Baburao Painter’s silent classic from 1920, of the same name. It is a dramatisation of an episode of the Mahabharat: the act of disrobing of Draupadi in the court of the Kauravas, leading to the humiliation of the Pandavas.


Mill Mazdoor, 1934, 142 mins

This is the only film written by the acclaimed writer Munshi Premchand in which he also played a cameo. The film courted controversy owing to its story of a prodigal son of a benevolent mill worker who inherits the mill and proceeds to treat its workers with disdain. This brings him into conflict with his own sister who is keen to continue their father’s legacy. The scene of the sister inciting the workers to strike against her wayward brother evoked inflammatory responses across the country especially in Bombay, the hub of textile mills, and the film had to be pulled out of the theatres, in many cases through the use of force. Yet it remains a stark, accurate portrayal of industrial life in those times as well as the predicament of workers.

Ironically, workers at Premchand’s own press in Benares were inspired to strike work against non-payment of wages by this film.


Zindagi (Life), 1940, 120 mins

One of the highest grossing films of the 1940s, the music for the film was composed by Pankaj Mullick. The film saw P.C. Barua coming together once again with K.L. Saigal along with the actress Jamuna. It was a film that not only challenged social mores but also explored the complexities and consequent disillusionment of an unusual platonic relationship between an unmarried couple living together. Not surprisingly, it created quite a stir upon its release. The film contains the evergreen Saigal song ‘So jaa rajkumari, so jaa’.


Alam Ara (1931) Hindi/ Urdu, 124 mins

Alam Ara occupies its position in Indian film history as the first film to have employed sound and possess a diegetic soundtrack, complete with songs. A swashbuckling tale of warring queens, palace intrigue, jealousy and romance, the film was heavily drawn from Parsee theatre. The image and sound were recorded simultaneously in the Tanner single system camera. Since there was no recording studio of any kind in those days, the film often had to be shot behind closed doors and at night to avoid all extraneous sounds. Jyoti Studios, located near the French Bridge in Mumbai overlooking the railway tracks was the studio where Alam Ara was shot.

The crew could only shoot at night when the trains did not run, since parts of the studio rattled with the sounds of the passing trains. Microphones were placed around actors to pick up their dialogues in such a way that they were hidden from the camera, while instrumentalists climbed trees or hid behind them to provide invisible musical support. This first ever song was sung in this film by Wazir Mohammed Khan. Sadly this film was lost as it was sold for silver.



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