BIOGRAPHY OF HIRALAL SEN
Former Bangladeshi-Indian Film Maker
(1866 – 1917)
Born in 1866, Hiralal Sen is considered the pioneer of (Bangla) Filmmaker. Though he was brought up and spent his almost entire life in Kolkata, India, Hiralal’s birthplace or the root was in Bogjuri village of Manikganj, the then undivided Bengal, currently Bangladesh. That is why, Hiralal is the pride of both Bangladesh and India.
Born in a Zamindar family, he was always more passionate about science, art, and photography. He left his education while studying at I.Sc, Kolkata to pursue photography. He learned photography by himself, took part in different photography competitions, and also won prizes. He, along with his younger brother, opened up a photography studio. It is said that the studio was in Manikganj.
Later, he got passionate about learning bioscopes. He brought in foreign machines and learned about them by himself. He worked with others and eventually launched his own cinematography company, The Royal Bioscope Company. He earned money by selling machines and shooting different films, commercials, etc. In his career, he has made over 40 films and 3 commercials. The commercials are said to be India’s very first commercials. Also, India’s first political film was shot by Hiralal Sen.
The company stopped operating after the 2 brothers got separated. Furthermore, the godown where all of Hiralal’s works were stored, got fire and all the films were destroyed.
Hiralal spent his last days of life in sickness and poverty. He was suffering from throat cancer due to being an alcoholic and he lacked enough money. He could not save money for himself due to spending them relentlessly. He lacked business strategy and was bad at maintaining relations with people. All these really made him suffer mentally as well as physically. He died in October 1917. He did not get the acknowledgment or recognition that he deserved while being alive.
Life of “Hiralal Sen” at a glance
Full Name: Hiralal Sen
Date of Birth: 1866
Place of Birth: Bogjuri, Manikganj, Bengal Presidency, British India
Father’s Name: Chandra Mohan Sen
Mother’s Name: Bidhumukhi Sen
Sibling: 2 brothers, Matilal Sen, Devkilal Sen
Cousin: Dinesh Chandra Sen
Married To: Hemangini Devi
Children: 3 daughters and 1 son; one of the daughters: Prabhabati Devi
➢ Film maker
➢ Commercial maker
Education: I.Sc, Calcutta, India
Filmography: 40; some notable are:
➢ Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, in 1903
➢ Bhramar, in between 1901 and 1904
➢ Hariraj, in between 1901 and 1904
➢ Buddhadev, in between 1901 and 1904
➢ Anti-Partition Demonstration and Swadeshi movement at the Town Hall, Calcutta, on the 22nd September 1905, in 1905
Awards: Gold medal for photography competition, 7 times, from 1887 to 1898
Date of Death: October 1917
Place of Death: Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India
➢ A platform named “Hiralal Sen mancha”, by Kolkata International Film Festival authorities, in 2012
➢ A program named “first filmmaker of the sub-continent”, by Federation of Film Societies of Bangladesh
Film on him: Hiralal by Arun Roy, in 2021
Book on him: হীরালাল সেন by Md. Azharul Islam, in 2020
It is widely accepted Hiralal Sen was born in 1866, in the village Bogjuri, of the district Manikganj, which is around 80 km away from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Back then, it was the undivided Bengal of Indian subcontinent, known as Bengal Presidency, British India. Hiralal belonged from an affluent, (Baidya) zamindar family. His father, Chandromohan Sen, was an eminent lawyer who worked at the Dhaka Zilla Court and later in the Calcutta High Court when he moved to Calcutta. Hiralal therefore grew up and spent the rest of his life in Calcutta. That is why his nationality is Indian. Sources say that at first they shifted to Bhawanipur and later to Masjid bari Street, Calcutta.
Hiralal had one brother, Motilal Sen, with whom he worked together to progress in his initial business and career. As an heir of a zamindar family, he always got support from family. Hiralal’s mother, Bidhumukhi Debi, and grandfather Gokul Krishno were always in support of Hiralal especially in terms of lending money for business purposes. All his desires and wants were fulfilled from the family. From his childhood, Hiralal had a passion for science, and photography. Dinesh Chandra Sen, the renowned folklore researcher was the cousin of Hiralal. From him, Hiralal learnt about art and culture. Though Hiralal was a student of I.Sc, Calcutta, he had left academic studies to focus on film making.
Starting of Photography
Hiralal, while still a student, in 1896, watched a cinema which was arranged by Star Theater, Calcutta. From then onwards, he felt an intense passion for cinema or film making. He learnt photography by himself. He even took part in photography contests. One of his photographs took the first position in a photography competition organized by Born and Shephard company. His photograph beat other foreign photographers. As no one could believe that a native Indian took such a photograph, he had to take the photograph for the second time to prove himself. It is claimed that between the years 1887 to 1898, Hiralal received gold medals for 7 times. In 1890, he, along with his brother Matilal, launched a photography studio named “H. L. Sen and Brothers”. The studio is said to be in his old home at Manikganj. Within a short period of time, his expertise in photography gained popularity in Calcutta. He was known as India’s number 1 ‘Still Photographer’.
Passion for Bioscope
On July 7, 1896, the first film shown in India, The Flower of Persia was shown at the Watson Hotel, in Bombay. Some days later, it was screened at Calcutta. One professor named Stevensons, aka, Stevens, used to screen films at the Star Theatre. Hiralal and Motilal, the two brothers, used to watch and enjoy them. Since then, Hiralal got mesmerized with this invention and so he fell in love with motion pictures and the bioscope. He understood the medium of the future is movies. He even borrowed Stevenson’s camera and made his own first film, “A Dancing Scene” based on that opera. Furthermore, Hiralal used to infuse a bioscope with theater to create moving images. For this, he used to work together with Amarendra Dutta of Classic Theatre.
He asked the Professor to teach him about this but got rejected. The professor thought Hiralal might become his rival. Hiralal still did not stop and learnt cinematography by himself by reading journals and newspapers. One day, he saw an advertisement in a newspaper about a cinematograph machine. He then immediately took the then Rs. 5,000 from his mother to purchase that English cinematograph machine along with projection equipment from England. Additionally, he bought Urban Bioscope from Charles Urban’s Warwick Trading Company, a London-based company that develops film projectors.
He started focusing more on developing bioscopes by forgetting his photography business.
Inauguration of India’s first movie company
To screen films, electricity is required. That is why, even though Hiralal had got the cinematograph machines, he could not show films. He lived in a colony that had no access to either technology or infrastructure. Hence, he had to make elaborate arrangements to screen movies. Bioscopes needed electric arc lamps, or at least Limelights. For limelights, oxygen and hydrogen gas are required. Working with bioscopes was actually a little risky job too. From Father E J Laffont, a teacher at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, Hiralal learned how to handle this machine. The Father also gave him different pieces of advice about movie screening.
Finally, in 1898, Hiralal set up “The Royal Bioscope Company”, a film production company to screen films. This is known as India’s first movie company. Hiralal’s 2 brothers, Motilal and Devkilal Sen, and their nephew Kumar Shankar Gupta were in this project. They arranged their very first film screening, at Classic, on April 4, 1898. In 1902 and 1903, Hiralal brought modern technologies from abroad and thus was able to standardize the company across the globe. Gradually Hiralal became a filmmaker and distributor. The company attracted the attention of the British people. They used to purchase different films made by the company. Hiralal used to capture different photographs of mundane life on the street and showed them at the parties and weddings of rich people. But later Hiralal understood that only taking and selling photographs are not enough, but some stories should be included too to make cinemas. Thus, he started making films and publishing them from the company.
The very last film released by The Royal Bioscope Company was in 1913.
From 1900 to 1917, he made over 40 short films. Between 1900 and 1912, he made 12 feature films, ten docu-films, and three advertisements.
Hiralal was unsatisfied with making money from showing films made by others. He himself wanted to shoot them. That is why, in 1903, his longest film called Alibaba and the Forty Thieves was produced. This was based on an original Classic Theatre performance. It was a speechless movie at that time. However, this film was never screened.
Between 1901 and 1904, Hiralal made some notable films like Bhramar, Hariraj, and Buddhadev.
In 1905, Hiralal captured and made a film about the public protest over Lord Curzon’s proposal to split Bengal. This is known as the “Anti-Partition Demonstration and ‘Swadeshi’ movement at the Town Hall, Calcutta on September 22, 1905”. This is considered to be India’s first political documentary according to different sources. To record the huge rally, Hiralal placed the camera on top of the treasury for impact.
Hiralal shot three commercial films; C.K. Sen’s Jabakusum Hair Oil, Botkrishno Pal’s Edward’s anti-malaria drug, also known as Edward’s Tonic, and W. Major and Company’s Sarsaparilla. These are known to be India’s very first commercials. It is said that he requested Botkrishno to bring in cameras from abroad. At that time, there was no opportunity to create advertising sets. So, he chose lavish villas beside the Hooghly River to use as locations for the commercials.
He also made news films and took commissions from them.
In 1911, when George V visited Delhi, Hiralal defeated four of the top cameramen from England and became the very first to release the Visit Film of Delhi Durbar with broader coverage.
In Bengal, Hiralal started traveling to film festivals and produced a steady stream of documentaries, commercials, and movies about politics, nature and the environment, and daily public life.
He was married to Hemangini Sen and the couple is said to have 3 daughters and 1 son. However, he was not worldly-minded. He did not give much time and attention to his family. Even though he did not treat his wife well, she still cared for him and remained by his side always, especially during his last days of life.
Not much information about his successors is known.
It is rumored that Hiralal had an affair with an actress named Kushum Kumari because he had shared some portion of the money that he earned after making the Alibaba movie. It is said that Hiralal took Kushum Kumari to the owner of Jabakusum Hair Oil so that she could be the model of the commercial.
Hiralal lacked a business strategy and this was his biggest drawback. Also, he was bad at money management. He could not save money for himself as he would spend unnecessarily huge amounts of money. This is probably because he was born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and so never understood the value of money as his family always fed him. However, he had to face poverty during his last days. He even had to sell his favorite camera to gather some money. Also, one of his friends took advantage of him by taking all the business money, leaving him in poverty. He had spent the last days before dying as an unhappy, and broken person.
Moreover, his other problem was that he was bad at maintaining relationships. He and Dutta had a falling out, which resulted in their partnership ending. Thus, Hiralal failed to generate significant revenue for the Royal Bioscope Company. He even lost ties with his own brother and partner Motilal towards the end of the company i.e. in 1913. It is said that Motilal used to manage all the finance of the company. But, since Hiralal used to spend money relentlessly, it became hard for Motilal to manage money. Thus, Motilal wanted to get separated from the company. From that time onwards, the company stopped operating.
No doubt he was a very talented and creative person. However, his characters have made him suffer from great loss from different angles.
Hiralal was an alcoholic. This led him to have throat cancer. As he was suffering from poverty, he could not even do proper treatments. His wife Hemangiri tried to gather money by selling her jewelleries and home furnitures, but this was still not enough. Hiralal sold one of his 2 cameras to Anty Mollik, a wealthy man, to gather money. Additionally, before dying, he was suffering mentally. He could not tolerate the ending of the Royal Company, and the breakup with Kushum kumari. Some days before his death, on October 24, 1917, a fire broke down in his godown situated at Blacquire Square in north Kolkata. The fire burnt all of the films that he ever made in his life and career. Those films also remained unreleased for the world to see.
Sources claim he died on 26 October 1917, at Kolkata. But he had to suffer both physically and mentally for around 4 years before dying. Even his own brother Motilal did not attend during Hiralal’s last days or after his death.
Unfortunately, even though Hiralal had contributed so much for the Indian media world, he remained unnoticed in the pages of history and his memories are almost erased too. He is hardly known outside his state, Kolkata. Almost 100 years after his death, some researchers have started to acknowledge him now.
In 2012, after the Trinamool Congress government, India, assumed power, The Kolkata International Film Festival organizers established an open platform to screen silent era films. There, they named the platform as Hiralal Sen mancha. This was the biggest recognition Hiralal has got.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, on October 26 (of which year is unknown), by collaborating with Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the Federation of Film Societies of Bangladesh organized a programme to mark the 100th death anniversary of the “first filmmaker of the sub-continent”. Also, a Bangladeshi author named Md. Azharul Islam wrote and published a book on Hiralal, naming it as “হীরালাল সেন”, in 2020.
In 2021, Indian director Arun Roy made a biopic film named “Hiralal”.
It is a matter of shame that Hiralal, being the pioneer of Bangla cinematography, did not get much recognition, both in Bangladesh and India. In India, people who live a few buildings away from 18 Blacquire Square i.e. where the godown of Hiralal was situated, those people too never even knew or heard of Hiralal. Many people even argue that because he just captured and showed the theater’s works for the first time, he can not be called as the first film maker. However, Hiralal was a promising film maker and had such a potential that he could create more history in the cinema world. If only the misfortunes did not fall on him, he would be a great cinematographer in the world.