Though largely forgotten, Hiralal Sen was a trailblazer in the film industry
Manikganj, in the latter part of the 19th century, was an area of flourishing agricultural activity, of which traces still exist in some of the lavish palaces of the Zamindari of the area. Baliati and Teota palaces, amongst others, even in their semi-ruinous state today, bear testament to that affluence.
Born in 1866, in Manikganj, Hiralal Sen was the son of a successful lawyer and judge, from a zamindar family, like so many. His father’s work, eventually, took him to Calcutta. It was there that he developed a fascination with the relatively new art and technology of photography.
Such an interest, alone, together with the opportunity to indulge it offered, presumably, by his family wealth and connections, would identify him as, what we now know as “an early adopter,” ready to embrace and explore innovation in its early stages.
But it was moving film that became his true vocation following his first exposure to it in 1898. He was to go on to become, it is believed, the first maker of film for entertainment, advertising, and even political propaganda “commercials” in India, advertising, amongst other popular consumer products of the time, Jabakusum Hair Oil and Edwards Tonic.
Such, “commercials” were, just as today, aired during public showings in the developing, early cinematic world.
He might be regarded, especially, as the innovator of such film material for political propaganda purposes, influencing viewers’ political attitudes.
This was made for the Swadeshi Movement, resisting the partition of Bengal; and the film finished with the rousing slogan: “Vande Mataram!” It was aired at Calcutta Town hall in 1905.
In 1899, Sen, together with his brother Motilal Sen, formed The Royal Bioscope Company, based in Calcutta. They had immediately recognised the potential for using the small spools of film that the machine included for recording brief episodes with which to intersperse live stage performances
In the international pantheon of early film makers, no doubt Sen would have had even wider recognition … not least for his turning his hand to using the medium for advertising, were it not for the fact that the entire collection of his work was accidentally destroyed by fire, a few days before his death, in 1917.
Advertising, of course, is an ancient form of communication.
My former business partner in the advertising business we founded in London, the late great Don White, president of the Creative Circle in London, and former creative director of McCann Erickson Advertising, in its heyday of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, in London, always swore, when lecturing on the history of advertising, that the earliest piece of “modern” advertising material was to be found in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, in Asia Minor.
The material comprised footprints engraved in a pavement, leading to a bawdy house; even in my life in advertising I have seen such promotional form of the floors of supermarkets, leading to a particular product display!
Even the United States had to wait, it seems, until the 1904 advent of “Cohen’s Advertising Scheme,” for film to be used as an advertising medium, which puts Sen’s efforts right at the leading edge of advertising innovation, worldwide, in his work with film.
By the time Sen arrived in Calcutta, photography had already, certainly, become a popular passion. The chemical processes of photography arrived in India early in the 19th century, and there is no doubt that, by the time of Sen’s arrival, probably in the late 1870s, it had become a popular pastime, especially amongst the better educated and wealthier, for whom Calcutta was the main Indian social and economic honey pot of the time.
Official photography, in the early days, had become the prerogative of the British, and, even for official photographic purposes, skills were often imported from Britain.
There can, however, be no doubt that, by the time Sen decided to make his career in the art, he was already pioneering in making a living from it as a photographic specialist. Indeed, his life might well be considered that of a technical and commercial pioneer.
By the time he was first exposed to moving images, in 1898, he had already created his own flourishing photographic business.
It was in 1898, that, alongside a stage show, “The Flower of Persia,” at the Star Theatre in Calcutta, he saw a presentation of film — the moving image — by Professor Stevenson, one of the earliest protagonists of this innovative entertainment.
Recognising, immediately, the appeal of this new form of visual communication, Sen teamed up with his brother to acquire an Urban Bioscope, projector, and camera, from the Warwick Trading Company of London.
The kit had been developed, in 1897, by Walter Isaacs, for Charles Urban of the Warwick Company. It was based on patents held by the French developer George Demeny and development work in the USA.
In 1899, Sen, together with his brother Motilal Sen, formed The Royal Bioscope Company, based in Calcutta. They had immediately recognised the potential for using the small spools of film that the machine included for recording brief episodes with which to intersperse live stage performances.
It was an entirely new medium, for both entertainment, and, as Sen had immediately appreciated, for information, and an evidently compelling one. A fact that the brothers determined to exploit.
Initially, Sen, the man who managed the business, was reliant on imported film recordings to fill the theatrical spaces, but he was soon recording his own material.
Between 1901 and 1904, his material was, mostly, recordings of stage productions at the Classic Theatre, but, in 1903, he produced his longest piece, Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, based, also, on a stage presentation at the Classic.
There can, however, be no doubt that, by the time Sen decided to make his career in the art, he was already pioneering in making a living from it as a photographic specialist. Indeed, his life might well be considered that of a technical and commercial pioneer
He quickly found that the demand, for both public and private entertainment, was enormous. It was in that early period that he evidently realised, also, its potential as a medium for publicising products, services, and political beliefs.
By 1913, however, newer forms of film-making and projection were arriving on the Indian, especially the Calcutta, market, and Jamshedji Framji Madan of the Elphinstone Bioscope Company had taken from him much of his market.
His growing disappointment and financial difficulties were then compounded by the discovery that he was suffering from cancer.
Between 1900 and 1912, Sen, and two of his brothers, made 12 films, 10 documentaries, and three “commercials.”
There is little doubt that, at the leading edge of such innovation, Sen blazed a trail that others rapidly followed. There is, of course, a saying in the communications business: “Pioneers are the ones the Indians kill!”
In the case of Sen’s innovative business, it was, literally, true. The cliché was, of course, being of American origin, a reference to American Indians, but, sadly, in Sen’s case, it was both the unhealthy atmosphere of late 19th and early 20th century Calcutta, together with the unquestionable stresses of commercial and technical innovation, that combined to contrive his somewhat early demise, both physically and commercially.
But, equally, there is no doubting his early appreciation of the cultural and commercial potential of moving images, and his unquestionable skills in production.
Were it not for the loss of his archive of work, one suspects that Sen would, today, be a name that might resonate in the international world of film and television advertising, the multi-billion dollar industry that can nowadays afford to pay its most senior executives upward of $80 million a year as a reward for the endeavours of their businesses.
Sen was, perhaps, yet another of those world leaders in innovation, born in Bangladesh.