J.B.H. WADIA: FROM SPECTATOR TO CREATOR

A young boy's obsession with film was the cause of his secret trips to Bombay's cinematheques. Perhaps it was J.B.H. Wadia's heart thudding in anticipation that often broke the silence enveloping the dark movie theatre right before the big screen would light up. Mr. Wadia was a dedicated student of film since his high school days, growing up in an ever-present environment of cinema. Bombay's historically prominent locations dotted with stand-alone theatres were photographic landmarks etched in J.B.H's memories. These glorious theatres were not just recreational spots for the cinephile but institutions that shaped his cinematic oeuvre. 

"The first film I watched was a topical one called the Russo-Japanese War. It was shown in Bombay at the Victoria Theatre where today we have the Taj Cinema. It was a short film, and I used to go there with my sister. I must have seen it not once but perhaps 20 times for the simple reason that the man who had imported the film was a family friend of the Wadias. My sister and I used to see that film with our eyes wide open and agape. "

J.B.H Wadia

At this time, commercial cinema was yet to set foot in Bombay. However, there were a few cinemas in the city that screened silent films. Jamshed recalls forming a trio with his friends and going cinema hopping every weekend. Starting from Excelsior Theatre in the Fort Area to Lamington Road, the trio would watch two or sometimes three movies a day. One of the early films Jamshed Wadia recalls watching at the Excelsior was Who will marry Mary? Every week a new episode of this series was screened along with other films. "Today, I have forgotten everything about Mary and the film, but the impression is still there," reminisced Wadia. 

At that time, Wadia was fascinated with American films. Western serials, thrillers, and short films that entertained the audience, often preceded by a comedy. The film enthusiast was not just a spectator of cinema but also its audience. His observatory eye would often gauge the viewer's reactions.

"I remember people enjoyed comedies that had some gag, some jump, some acrobatic feet; something very comic and the audience would laugh their lungs out."

A film student at heart, Wadia would pay attention to the techniques used in western serials that would astound him as an audience. The Broken Coin, The Black Box, and The Red Glove used the cliff-hanger technique that left the audience wanting more. "We would watch it most anxiously. The technique they employed back then was a razor edge suspense, the cliff-hanger, as they say. The result was that we were so excited and engrossed about what was going to happen that we would speculate amongst ourselves the entire week," recalled Jamshed. 

With his cinematic interests mainly inclined towards American, English, French or Italian films, Jamshed soon decided to explore the Indian film arena. In 1916, he saw Dadasaheb Phalke's Lanka Dahan, a silent Hindi film.  Anna Salunke's double role as Ram and Sita, with Hanuman's tail that set Lanka ablaze, amused Jamshed. And this was how he fell in love with Indian films. By the time he reached the matriculation level, his interest in Indian cinema had further increased. 

Jamshed's love for literature in college overpowered his love for film. He began writing letters to not just artists but great filmmakers like D.W. Griffith. Hence, somewhat still nurturing his obsession with cinema. Around this time, Wadia's growing mode of entertainment was the stage. And a majority of these theatres and cinemas were owned by Parsis. In his interview for the National Film Archive, Mr. Wadia said that he could not resonate with the moral overtones used in Indian mythological or social films. "I could never understand the submissive role played by women in films," he said. This ignited a fire in him to weave stories concerning the freedom struggle, emancipation of women, and anti-fascism. 

However, Jamshed Wadia did not begin his career as a filmmaker. After graduating in English Honours, he began preparing for the Civil Services exam. He was rejected because of poor eyesight. His father passed away around that time, leaving J.B.H. as the sole bread earner of the family. So he gave up his fellowship and job as an English tutor and began working at the Central Bank of India. However, his heart still belonged to the world of cinema. He began writing 10 to 12 film stories a day, hoping to submit these to Bombay's production houses. 

Jamshed Wadia stepped into the filmmaking industry in 1928, towards the closing years of the silent film era. Until then, he observed the Indian film industry and watched films while writing several scripts on his own. 

"By that time, I had seen quite a few good films. And with my interest in films, I would study Indian films and try to understand the content of the stories from my point of view. I built interest in the fantasy, mythology, and stunt film genres."

J.B.H. Wadia

The first film he produced was an Indian silent social film called Vasant Leela, directed by N.G. Deware in 1928. The second film in 1929 was called Bondage or Pratigya Bandhan, another social film by Deware. Jamshed Wadia was a devotee of the stunt film genre. He was also in great awe of Douglas Fairbanks's silent film called The Mark of Zorro. Which is why the very first film he directed after starting his own company in 1931 was Thunderbolt or Diler Daku - "a copy of Douglas's Mark of Zorro produced in 10 or 12 shifts." Homi Wadia, Jamshed Wadia's brother was given the task of directing.

After the film's success, Jamshed Wadia went on to make India's first railroad thriller, Toofan Mail in 1932. A film inspired by the railroad series of Helen Holmes. The film was entirely shot on location; atop running trains, railway stations, cabins, and engine chimneys. At this time, Homi Wadia who was always interested in the technicalities of cinema was the cameraman. Recalling an interesting anecdote during the film's shooting, Jamshed Wadia said:

"The making of Toofan Mail was as interesting and thrilling as the film itself. I wanted to take a shot of a train approaching and going over the camera. Homi was the cameraman at that time and I was the director, so we went and hid in a railway naala with our camera. As soon as the train came, Homi pulled out the camera and we took the complete shot to make it more effective, and in slow motion. The Station Master was furious, but luckily I had issued a letter of authority to show him. I was so nervous, I stopped shooting that day."

Jamshed Wadia continued to make silent stunt pictures in competition with the talkies that were rapidly gaining popularity in the Indian film industry. After Toofan Mail, he made stunt films such as Lion Man, Whirlwind, and Amazon. Now Amazon was a gamechanger. This film starred the action star, Miss Padma, and portrayed her as the saviour which was quite an anomaly in those times. The film's success also made J.B.H. Wadia realise the potential of action films with female leads ultimately leading him to Fearless Nadia. 

In 1933, J.B.H. Wadia under the banner of Wadia Movietone made his first-ever talkie film called Lal-e-Yaman. An Indian Bollywood film whose story he adapted from Joseph David, a producer. The film was inspired by the Orientalist fantasy world championed by the Arabian Nights with a Shakespearean touch. Lal-E- Yaman was a musical play with classical and semi-classical songs as a result of Wadia's experimentation. Soon after this, Wadia came across Mary Ann Evans- more popularly known as Fearless Nadia. During an interview with her, it soon dawned upon him that he had also worked with action star Miss Padma, who he described as beautiful but very delicate. However, Nadia, he said was quite hefty, acrobatic, and capable of performing stunts by herself. 

"She was a rider, swimmer and also a fencer- she would do acrobats, go on the trapeze and do numerable things that would leave us astounded."

Picture Credit: Cinestaan.com

In 1935, Hunterwali starring Fearless Nadia was released, taking the country by storm. For the first time ever, somebody was challenging the traditionally submissive roles played by women in Indian cinema. The stunt queen of India performed many amazing and dangerous stunts required for the action and swashbuckling genres in which she extensively worked. This film marked the beginning of the Fearless Nadia era in the Indian film industry. These stunt films were often directed by Homi Wadia as he was rapidly gaining expertise in the arena of stunt filmmaking. While producer Jamshed Wadia would chime in to help and sometimes create music. 

"The movie became an obsession. Had I patented the name Hunterwali, I would have earned a lot more. Hunterwali merchandise such as shoes and matches were sold all over India for three whole years. I felt very glorious that my film has succeeded, but I went on producing stunt pictures one after the other. And as luck would have it, every picture that I made succeeded, and some of them were as good as Hunterwali."

J.B.H. Wadia

And even though there were many stunt films made in India, there was something about Wadia Movietone's stunt movies that set them apart. Jamshed Wadia said that his stunt films stayed with the audience long after because the stories added value and an element of novelty that not every other stunt film could achieve:

"It wasn't just the gags, comedy, action, or acrobatics that captivated the audience, but a certain story value and purpose communicated by the film. My stunt films addressed social concerns such as emancipation of women, illiteracy, and the freedom struggle. These accounted for not just entertainment but also enlightenment."

J.B.H Wadia believed that the charm of entertainment lies in its element of novelty. And once that wears off, the producer has to sit up and take notice. Giving the example of stunt films, he said, "Everybody would make stunt films. But a time came when the audiences got bored more or less with the same sort of formula films in the market." This is why he would encourage and initiate a constant state of flux in the film industry - from mythologies, devotionals, socials, small films to big-budget and historical films. 

"And that is the secret of show business. It has got to be on the move throughout. As soon as something becomes stale, something new has to come up."

In lieu of this very thought, Wadia introduced an array of new concepts to the world of Indian Cinema under the banner of Wadia Movietone. The highlight being Fearless Nadia. In 1936 or 1937, J.B.H. Wadia made Nav-Jawan; the first Indian film without a single song. This was at a time when the average Indian film had nothing less than 10 to 12 songs. Wadia also went on to make a historical visual documentation, "Wadia Movietone's Variety Programme"about classical music geniuses and prominent dancers including Feroz Dastur, Bal Gandharva, Malika Pukhraj, and Pandit Tirthankar from 1933 to 1940. In 1942, when the Hindu-Muslim tension was at its peak, Jamshed Wadia was asked to make a documentary on Indo-Muslim unity. However, he did a feature film called Ekta, the first Sindhi-language movie after partition.

Another milestone in the history of Indian Cinema was the first complete Indian film with dialogue in English called The Court Dancer in 1942. Quoting J.B.H Wadia from his speech at the Taj Mahal Hotel during the preview of The Court Dancer:

"The Court Dancer is a red-letter day in the history of the Indian Motion Picture because with all its merits and defects, the film will serve as India's messenger to the entire English-speaking world. It will contribute its quota in eradicating the myth of the backwardness of this great country of ours and compel the attention of the world at large to the fact that given the proper opportunity, there is nothing that India cannot achieve and that nothing will stop her from taking her rightful place in the glorious democratic civilization of the 20th century." 

In 1942, after a few artistic differences between the Wadia Brothers, Homi Wadia started Basant Pictures and would direct most of Fearless Nadia's films. However, the duo's camaraderie never came to a halt. Jamshed Wadia would often look after Homi's films' editing and music, while Homi would continue to direct his brother's films. Jamshed Wadia's desire to switch from the stunt film genre to more socially relevant films was growing stronger. This was something that he had experimented with in the past. However, his younger brother Homi Wadia had no intention of doing anything else but stunt and mythological films at that time. However. in 1948, Shri Ram Bhakta Hanuman was the first mythological film to be released under the Basant banner as a result of Homi's sudden desire.

Picture Credit: Wadia Movietone's Facebook page

At that time, J.B.H. Wadia was working on his film Mela starring Dilip Kumar and Nargis. Hence, busy with its making, J.B.H. handed over Shri Ram Bhakta Hanuman's script to Homi. Both siblings worked side by side well into the 1970s.

Saaz aur Sanam (released 1972) was the last feature film under the Wadia Movietone banner. Begun in 1970, and shot partly in Goa just a few years after the territory's independence from Portugal, the film fulfilled J.B.H. Wadia's promise to Rekha, then a teenager, that he would usher her into the world of Hindi cinema. [1]

An avid consumer of cinema, who absorbed the art and its ways, who believed in not to just entertain but enlighten - J.B.H Wadia's movies were glimpses into his own personality, values, and ideologies. Each film served a purpose and made a social statement. Be it the Fearless Nadia era that changed the face of the portrayal of women in Indian cinema or Nav Jawan, the first Indian film without a single song. J.B.H. Wadia and Wadia Movietone constantly challenged conventional cinema in ways more than one.

References

All information, quotes have been transcribed from J.B.H Wadia's extensive interview to NVK Murthy, the historian, as part of an effort by the National Film Archives of India to record the greats of Indian cinema for posterity.

Cover image taken from: https://bollywoodirect.medium.com/remembering-jbh-wadia-a-pioneering-filmmaker-of-hindi-cinema-on-his-116th-birth-anniversary-353c4889ba7e

[1] Wadia Movietone's Facebook page