Lives in film no. 5 – Niranjan Pal

Niranjan Pal

The chances are that few people even with a good knowledge of silent films will have heard of Niranjan Pal, though you may have started to hear about his films. The release on DVD of the film A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929) has brought to our attention the three silent films on Indian themes directed by Franz Osten: The Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas) (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice, whose production history and whose very existence strike a fascinating, almost jarring note in film history. Where and how did these non-Indian Indian films get made, and who was behind them? Well, the person behind them was, to large degree, Niranjan Pal.

Niranjan Pal (1889-1959) had a more than usually interesting life story for a filmmaker. His name has previously been best known to scholars of Indian nationalism and revolutionary politics in Britain. Born in Calcutta (Kolkata), he was the son of Indian nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal (right), and was brought up in culture dedicated to Indian self-determination and the overthrow of British imperial rule. Father and son came to London around 1908 when the father was invited by Pandit Shyamji Krishna Varma to help conduct pro-Indian freedom propaganda in Britain. Krishna Varma was the founder of the Indian Home Rule Society and the celebrated India House, a home for Indian students which became a hotbed of nationalist thinking, something which got it closely monitored by the British police. Bipin Chandra Pal was on the moderate side of the nationalist arguments, but his son was fired with revolutionary thinking, and was soon drawn into dangerous activity, as his autobiography recounts:

I was initiated into the work of preparing cyclostyled copies of formulae for manufacturing bombs. These were sent out to India by the hundreds, to addresses found in street directories. I learned that the formula had been secured, with great difficulty, from certain Spanish and Russian sources.

Pal’s father was alarmed by the route down which his son was going, particularly the admiration he had for freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar with his advocacy of violent revoution. Pal’s Irish girlfriend of the time had close links with Irish republicanism and was violently opposed to all forms of British rule. Things became particularly dangerous following the 1909 assassination at the Imperial Institute in London of Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie by Madan Lal Dhingra, with whom Niranjan was familiar. Ironically, it was not so much the attempts by his father to moderate his son’s passions as British culture itself that started to mollify Niranjan Pal’s thinking. As his great-grandson Joyojeet Pal writes:

Pal and his Indian friends were deeply torn between their sense of loyalty to an Indian homeland, and a conflicted relationship with their colonial masters. The same Indians who were subjected to second-hand citizenship back in India, were treated as equals under British law … They would grow to view the Englishman in England very differently from how they saw the Englishman back in India.

Pal was introduced to London’s literary/intellectual elite, meeting Bernard Shaw and the Countess of Warwick, befriending the writer David Garnett, and being supported by the journalist W.T. Stead after his father was arrested back in India. He made the key discovery for him of the London theatre, delighting in the colourful productions of the West End stage, bridling at its occasional representation of Indian life, and wondering how he might bring about a change in perceptions through his pen.

Pal abandoned his medical studies and took to writing for the stage. He joined up with Kedar Nath Das Gupta’s Indian Art and Dramatic Society, which put on recitals and dramatic productions designed to promote Anglo-Indian relations. One of these was an adaptation by Pal of Sir Edwin Arnold’s celebrated narrative poem, The Light of Asia, on the life of the Buddha. Entitled Buddha, it ran at the Royal Court Theatre for a few days in February 1912. Pal also acted, in the small role of Devadatta. Pal then offered the script to a couple of British film studios. The Hepworth Manufacturing Company gave him the courtesy of a hearing, but said it was not for them. Barker Motion Photography merely laughed at him.

Such work was unpaid, and to keep body and soul together Pal undertook assorted menial posts in London stores while looking to make money, and reach a wider audience, by tackling motion pictures more assiduously. He undertook a correspondence course which guaranteed, for the some of one pound, to turn the young man into a screenwriter. He starting writing to all the British film studios, he was met by a growing pile of formulaic rejection letters. Finally, someone wrote back. It was Charles Urban (left), who wrote to say that Pal’s script was completely unfilmable and that he needed the experience of seeing how a film was made. So it was that Niranjan Pal was invited to the south London studios of the Natural Color Kinematograph Company, helping out with scene shifting while learning what he could of the film production process.

While there Pal befriended director Floyd Martin Thornton. He showed Thornton his script for The Light of Asia, Thornton took it to Urban, and Urban decided it would make a handsome subject for a major Kinemacolor production. Urban was at the height of his fame at this time, having triumphed with the Kinemacolor record of the Delhi Durbar celebrations held to mark the coronation of King George V, and an exotic, Indian-themed story must have seemed a natural choice for a Kinemacolor fiction film production. Pal continued at the studio, uncertain that Urban would be as good as his word, only to be stunned by the huge payment of £500 for his script from the handsomely generous Urban.

It would be interesting to consider how Anglo-Indian film history might have developed had the Kinemacolor version of The Light of Asia ever seen the light of day. Sadly the production never reachd even the early stages of production, as Urban’s Kinemacolor business collapsed in 1914 following a court case brought by rival colour film inventor William Friese-Greene, which decided that the patent on which Kinemacolor was based was invalid.

Floyd Martin Thornton however remained keen to work with Pal, and tried continually to raise the finance to film The Light of Asia. Thornton was able to film two Pal scripts, both with stories set in India. The feature-length The Faith of A Child (1915) was made for the obscure Lotus Feature Films, and The Vengeance of Allah (1915) for the Windsor Film Company in Catford (Pal’s memoirs talk about filming for the Kent Film Company, which must have been associated with Windsor in some way). Pal also made a documentary, the title of which he recalls was A Day in an Indian Military Depot (1916), filmed at Milford-on-Sea, which he successfully sold to distributor William Jury (possibly on behalf of the War Office Cinematograph Committee with which Jury was involved), though I have not been able to trace any information about it.

Post-war, Pal remained in Britain, determined to succeed with his pen. He was still associated with Thornton, and began work on an adaption of Ethel M. Dell’s novel The Lamp of the Desert for Stoll Picture Productions. It is evidence of the conflicting impulses with Pal that this person so ardent in his wish for Indian independence and anxious for understanding of Indian culture should keep turning to sources that pandered to what we now refer to as Orientalism (the depiction of the East by the West, essentially), in the case of Dell by someone who had never even been to India. Pal was taken on as scriptwiter and technical adviser, but it seems that his suggestion that palm trees were not to be found on the North West Frontier did not tally with Stoll’s ideas of how India ought to look, and he was dropped from the production (Stoll eventually released it in 1922, directed by Thornton).

Pal attempted to go into production for himself, with a film entitled The Tricks of Fate, but he seems to have been duped by some con-men. The film that was to have been directed by, written by and starring Niranjan Pal was unscreenable, and he lost a lot of money. Instead he found success on the stage, with his play The Goddess (1922), which was put on with an all-Indian cast, first at the Duke of York’s Theatre, then the Ambassador’s Theatre and then the Aldwych, running for sixty-six performances over six months in London before touring the provinces.

Tourists being introduced to India at the start of The Light of Asia, from

Most significant for Pal’s future career was one of the perfomers in the cast of The Goddess, Himansu Rai. Rai formed an acting troupe, the Indian Players, and when efforts to stage The Goddess in India proved fruitless. Rai and Pal turned to the film industry, once again with the script for The Light of Asia. This time, with Rai’s greater drive and guile, they met with success, though not with a British studio but instead with German producer Peter Ostermayer, who agreed on a production at Berlin’s Emelka Studios, with location filming at Jaipur. Financing came from the Delhi-based Great Eastern Film Corporation. The director was Ostermayer’s brother, Franz Osten.

The Light of Asia, or Prem Sanyas, finally made it to the cinema screen as an Indo-German production in 1925. It told the story of Gautama (played by Himansu Rai), son of King Suddodhana, who leaves his sheltered existence to learn of the sorrows of the world, becoming a wandering teacher who brings Buddhism to the world. The cast was all Indian, and in keeping with Pal’s dedication towards educating a Western audiences in the ways of his country, it begins with a group of Western tourists in present-day India encountering an old man who then proceeds to tell them the story of the Buddha. The Light of Asia enjoyed modest success in Europe though it failed to find gain any bookings in Britain until Pal and Rai finally gained some attention for the film with a screening given before the royal family at Windsor Castle (King George V reportedly slept through it). The film also failed as an attraction in India.

Seeta Devi (Anglo-Indian actress Renée Smith) in A Throw of Dice

The film’s favourable reception in Europe led to two further productions, though owing to the lack of success in India the previous production finance source was no longer available to them. However, British companies were now showing interest, and British Instructional Films picked up the distribution rights for Shiraz (1928) and co-produced A Throw of Dice (1929) with UFA in Germany, both films therefore qualifying as Anglo-German productions. Both films were once again scripted by Pal and directed by Franz Osten, with Himansu Rai as lead performer among the all-Indian casts.

The Light of Asia, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice are each historical dramas set in India that stress exoticism (“halfway orientalist” is how Joyojeet Pal describes them), pandering as they do to a taste for a romantic India that was reflected in popular literature of the time. None is exceptional, but they are pleasing, well-constructed and attractively mounted productions which have found ready acceptance with audiences today, especially A Throw of Dice, which has enjoyed high profile through the score provided by Indian-British musician Nitin Sawhney, capped by a screening in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2007.

Pal perserved with British films for a while, writing further scenarios and seeing his story, His Honour the Judge, turned into the early talkie A Gentleman of Paris (1931), with Sinclair Hill directing and Sidney Gilliat the scriptwriter. It has no discernible Indian theme. Pal then returned to India, tried and failed to set up a film, Khyber Pass, to be filmed in Raycol colour and starring Clive Brook; had mixed fortunes making some films in India for his own Niranjan Pal Productions; then renewed his involvement with Himansu Rai and Franz Osten to become chief scenarist for the renowned Bombay Talkies. He stayed there until 1937, when he fell out with his fellow filmmakers (something of a recurring trait in Pal’s career, it has to be said), and concluded his career in film as a producer of advertising, documentary and newsreel films (he founded Aurora Screen News, 1938-42). He was also a pioneer of children’s films in India (with Hatey Khori, made in 1939).

Trailer for the documentary Niranjan Pal – A Forgotten Legend

Pal had been larely forgotten by the film industry and film historians when he died in 1959, but his son Colin went on to be an actor, technician and publicist for Hindi films (Pal had an English wife, née Lily Bell); his grandson Deep Pal is a cameraman; and his great grandson Joyojeet Pal is Assistant Professor of Information at the University of Michigan. He wrote his memoirs, entitled Such is Life, towards the end of his life, but they did not find a publisher, in Kolkata, until 1997.

Last year a project was launched by the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London to research Pal’s legacy, Lifting the Curtain: Niranjan Pal & Indo-British Collaboration in Cinema. With Heritage Lottery Fund support, the SACF has produced a documentary on Pal and published the memoirs for the first time in English, in a volume of essays, filmography and memoir, edited by Kusum Pant Joshi and Lalit Mohan Joshi, entitled Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life: An Autobiography by Niranjan Pal. I was honoured to be asked to contribute a chapter, on Pal and the British film studios of the silent era. The evidence of Charles Urban, someone I have researched for many years, being so supportive on an impoverished and obscure Indian student when the rest of the film industry rebuffed him, was particularly heartening to learn. The volume’s wise introduction by Joyojeet Pal is particularly recommended.

Such is Life will have great value for anyone interested in the history of Indian nationalism or Anglo-British relations at the start of the twentieth century. It is also going to be of great interest to anyone interested in silent film history, from its eye-witness account of the Kinemacolor studios, to Pal’s sharp memory for the financial details of the deals won and lost when trying to get his films of the 1920s made. His memory is not always so sharp. Some dates are clearly wildly out – for example, he recalls being inspired to produce films from an Indian perspective after protesting outside a Lowell Thomas lecture-with-film on India. But Pal began his film career in 1912/13, five years before Thomas turned to the cinematograph, and ten years before Thomas made his travelogue Through Romantic India and into Forbidden Afghanistan, which was indeed the subject of Indian protests when presented at Covent Garden in London in 1922.

Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life is available from the South Asian Cinema Foundation. A DVD is available of the accompanying 30mins documentary, though I don’t have details of how to obtain a copy except by contacting the SACF direct. Book and DVD were launched recently at the BFI Soutbank, and there is to be a launch event at the National Film Archive of India in Pune on 20 February 2012. A Throw of Dice, with the Nitin Sawhney scre, is available on DVD from the BFI in the UK and Kino in the USA. For those interested in Pal’s political background and that of the Indians in Britain around the time of India House and the burgeoning nationalist movement, I recommend the Open University’s Making Britain site, which has information on all the key individuals, locations, organisations and events. David Garnett’s autobiographical work, The Golden Echo (1953), recalls his friendship with Pal, known to him as Nanu, and other Indian nationalists in Britain (an extract is available here).

Niranjan Pal appears to have been hot-headed, a little gullible and tirelessly dedicated to his causes throughout his life. His life story was indeed his most dramatic production. It is certainly a story rich in incident and in the social, cultural and political themes of the times. That an Indian in the Britain of the 1910s and 20s should succeed in the way that he did, despite the racism that he clearly experienced on a continual basis, seems astonishing, though perhaps it was simply that he saw opportunities where others only saw hurdles. Hopefully the chance to read his life story will lead to further investigation of his life and times, and to DVD releases one day of The Light of Asia and Shiraz.

8 responses

  1. This concerns your article on Niranjan Pal and the silent film ‘The Light of Asia/ Prem Sanyas / Die Leuchte Asiens’ produced in India in 1925 and restored by the British Film Institute etc. in 2001. Your article refers to the film as a joint production of GREAT EASTERN FILM CORPORATION, DELHI, and EMELKA FILM CO., MUNICH. You refer to Jaipur as the site of filming and Delhi-based Great Eastern Film Corporation as the financier.

    After reading your very scholarly article, some problematic questions have arisen in my mind concerning the place of origin of the Great Eastern Film Corporation, the locations where the film was shot and the applicability of censorship legislation on the film Therefore, I would like you to kindly clarify the following questions.

    The restored version of this film has missed out the credits. The censorship certificate does not exist. Therefore, one has to rely on other sources of information including the circumstantial evidence in determining the origin of the Corporation.

    (i) Some extant archival material suggests that the Great Eastern Film Corporation was based in Lahore and not in Delhi. However, it had a sub-office in Delhi . The sub-office in Delhi was established owing to the presence of Seth Prem Sagar, one of the managing partners of the Corporation in Delhi. The Corporation also established the first film studio on the Mall at Lahore. In 1928, the Corporation produced its second film ‘Love of a Mughal Prince’ also from Lahore. After this unsuccessful venture, the Corporation ceased to exist. Apparently, it was not logical for the Corporation to have been operating from Delhi, while its technical resources and business interests were in Lahore, which happened to be the Head Quarters of India’s Northern Circuit.

    (ii) According to the British Film Institute , the subject film was shot on locations in Lahore . In my view, had it not been for the sake of utilizing its technical resources in Lahore, the Corporation would not have other solid reasons for filming in Lahore.

    (iii) The title of the restored version of film refers to performers of the film as members of Indian Players’ Association. Therefore, I infer that either the film was produced under a sort of tripartite arrangement among Emelka, Corporation and the Association or the Hindi and English version contained varying credit lists.

    (iv) According to a review published, on the occasion of screening of Light of Asia by the Film Guild at Carnegie Hall, in New York Times on May 12, 1928, the film was produced in India by the Himansu Rai Group in collaboration with the Emelka Producing Company of Munich . There is no reference to Great Eastern Film Corporation and Indian Player’s Association in the review.

    (v) The film also shows scenes of Jamia Masjid (Grand Mosque) in Delhi, and other locations in Benares, Calcutta, and Bombay as well. Given the nature of these shorts, the possibility that this footage, forming part of a brief travelogue of India, covering places of religious worship and tourist interest, might have been drawn from the stock cannot be ruled out. The actual film might have been shot in Jaipur and Lahore.

    (vi) The film literature in Pakistan also contain references to other completed and incomplete films based on stories by Narinjan Pal produced from Lahore. However, there are no references to these films in studies emerging from outside Pakistan.

    (vi) According to the database of Indian Film Archives the censorship requirement was not applicable on the film . This is not understandable since censorship came into force in India from 1919, as a statutory requirement of the Cinematograph Act of 1918 .

    Looking forward to hear from you on these contentious points.

    Sheraz Hyder
    Islamabad, Pakistan

  2. I am not an expert in this area, and it does sound that you have access to a wider range of sources, and primary ones, than I do here.

    I don’t have access to the BFI print, but from an old BFI catalogue of its silent films I see that the credits are given as produced by Great Eastern Film Corp. and Emelka Film, for the Indian Players. What that might mean is not clear, but undoubtedly the different release versions of the film has different credits, none of which may be precise clues as to the film’s provenance. It is interesting that there is no mention of the Great Eastern Film Corporation in the credits for the film given in the German film encyclopedia (see

    I got the Delhi location for the Corporation from the introductory notes to the Niranjan Pal book.

    It would be interesting to know what Pal-scripted films the Pakistan sources mention. The Pal book contains a filmography which lists six films directed by Pal in India 1930-32. I did not cover these in my post, though given that they were silent films I should have found space for them. All were feature length. They were:

    Troubles Never Come Alone / Nasseb ni Balhari (1930)
    Needle’s Eye / Sui ka Naka (1931)
    Pujari (1931)
    Pardeisa / Gypsy (1931)
    Qatil Katari / The Knife (1931)
    Dardi / Faithful Heart (1932)

    He writes only about Troubles Never Come Alone (apparently unreleased) and Needle’s Eye in his memoirs.

    I cannot explain the censorship anomaly.

  3. Dear Sir ! Greetings from Islamabad.

    In March 2012, I will visit Lahore to personally review the archives. Accordingly, I will update you on the issue of place of origin of the Great Eastern Corporation. I will also look in to the other extant records to find out the location and ownership of Punjab Film Studio.

    I will update you on Lahore related filmography of Narinjan Pal by tonight.

    Currently, I am exploring the censorship related issue and as soon as I am able to understand it, I will share the findings with you.

    The reasons for the different credits in German database might be explained by the following reference, which I recently came across :

    ‘The many faces of Weimar cinema: rediscovering Germany’s filmic legacy’, 2010
    By Christian Rogowski (page 168-181) includes a chapter on the subject film. According to this work, Narinjan Pal sold the script to Great East Film Corporation before he negotiated with Emelka. Under the subsequent arrangement with Emelka, the rights of film for European market were retained by Emelka in return for processing and editing of film in Munich. In India, the Great Eastern Film Corporation held the rights.

    May I request you to explore why the film was referred to as shot in Lahore by BFI if it did not have a Lahore connection. Here is the link to BFI press release:

    Click to access 20110617_august_press_release.pdf

    Many many thanks.

    With regards

    Sheraz Hyder

  4. Hi

    Here is the list of silent films, related to Narinjan Pal, which were produced in Lahore:

    Abla or Orphan Girl based on Narinjan Pal’s novel Daku Mangal (Mangal Bandit)directed by JG Pillai,produced by Punjab Film Company Limited 66 Jail Road Lahore, released in 1931.

    Bandit Bold 1930: Directed by Narinjan Pal under the banner of his own company International Pictures at Lahore but it was never released for unknown reasons-the introduction of talkies in 1931 might be a possible reason.

    You might have noted that ‘Troubles Never Come Alone’ was also produced by Punjab Film Company Limited 66 Jail Road Lahore. Thus, four films (Light of Asia, Troubles Never Come Alone, Abla Bandit Bold) by Pal from Lahore suggests his strong professional ties with the city and interest in the Punjabi circuit. However, this does not seem to have adequately been registered by post 1947 studies.

    While your data lists ‘Troubles Never Come Alone’ as a 1930 film, the local data suggests that it was released in 1931. During the earliest days of films in India, the reviewers did not clarify what they meant by their reference to a year for a particular film: year of production or year of release. Today, when these reviews have become the primary sources for researchers, the mistakes in the primary data are often transferred to the secondary data. In your list, there are four films for the year 1931, if I add to this number, one film from my list, then we have to believe that Pal was connected with five films in 1931.

    Thanks and regards
    Sheraz Hyder
    Islamabad, Pakistan

  5. Many thanks again for this extra information, which extends the filmographic information given in the Pal book. The filmographic sources I have to hand list Abla but do not give a director – what source are you using? Pal writes about the Punjab Film Company, mostly recounting the sort of melodramatic troubles he seemed to encounter in each stage of his film career. He says that the managing director of the company was Hariram Sethi (whom he describes as being “not beyond murder”!)

    I look forward to learning of your further discoveries about Great Eastern and filming in Lahore. I don’t know where the BFI got the information for their press release – not from their own catalogue records, I think. One should never put too much trust in press releases, at any time.


  6. Dear Luke

    Thanks for your note.

    For Pal’s films, I consulted ‘The History of Film in THE Punjab’ (in Urdu) by Pervaiz Rahi, ‘Directory of Pakistani Films’ (in Urdu) by Yaseen Goreeja.

    The Abla or Abala also finds mention in IMDB site

    Here is an interesting excerpt from Balraj Sahni’s (an icon of Indian film industry) biography, which includes reference to Abla ( or Abala) and Lala Hari Ram Sethi:

    ‘It was only a week ago that I had gone to the capital to see Jean Harlow^ in Hell’s Angels, As I stood in the queue in front of the ticket counter, I heard someone mention that a. private show of the film Abala (which was made in Rawalpindi) was at that moment being given in that cinema-house and that Imtiaz Ali Taj and Ahmed Shah Bukhari were amongst the invited dignitaries. The latter was my professor. Presently the show was over and I saw Prof. Bukhari emerge from the auditorium. I ran to him and asked him his opinion about the film. He sounded very pessimistic. ‘From the technical point of view, the film is no doubt on par with the best of American films,’ he opined. ‘It is, there­fore, all the greater pity, that when spending all those thousands of rupees, it never occurred to the producer that the days of the silent films are over!’

    The film spelt the ruin of its producer, Lala Hariram Sethi, and yet I did not feel sorry for this fellow-Rawalpindian. On the contrary, I was rather elated at the thought that we Rawalpindians did after all manage to compete with the ‘firangis’ (Britishers) on equal terms’,

    The line (in the preceding paragraph) that Abala was ‘made in Rawalpindi’ probably means that the film was shot in Rawalpindi.

    Hari Ram Sethi, before starting as a film entrepreneur, had been an active Indian nationalist. In 1928, he arrested for suspicion of anti-British activities at Lahore. This might have been the common streak between Pal and Sethi.

    And here is another references to the place of origin of Great Eastern Film Corporation-‘Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema’ by Rachel Dwyer, Routledge, 2006 on page 115 refers to the ‘Great Eastern Film Corporation of Lahore’.

    Thanks for providing me an opportunity to express.

    Warm regards
    Sheraz Hyder
    Islamabad, Pakistan

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  8. Thank you again for having supplied all of this information which has added greatly to the reference value of the post. The anecdote about screenings of Hell’s Angels and Abala at the same time I find illuminating and really helpful.

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