Legendary Indian shingle Prabhat is the subject of “Journey With Prabhat,” an enjoyable look at the output and legacy of one of the subcontinent’s most important production houses. Founded in 1929 and shuttered in 1953, Prabhat’s Pune campus is now the Film and Television Institute of India, whose work and bumpy legacy also form part of Jessica Sadana and Samarth Dixit’s made-for-TV docu debut. Overambitious and short on analysis, their film nevertheless offers a rare, welcome glimpse at the Indian industry’s adolescent days and could fill nonfiction slots in South Asian showcases.
Prabhat’s studios were first built in Kolhapur at a time when the ruler, Maharajah Rajaram II, was cinema-crazy. On moving the company to Pune, the founders built the largest film studio in Asia, producing pics praised for their artistic beauty as well as big-budget spectacles noted for their advanced technical wizardry, such as Vishnupant Govind Damle and Sheikh Fattelal’s “Sant Dnyaneshwar” (1940). According to an elderly studio laundryman whose father was also on Prabhat’s payroll, Damle still haunts the lot, in the guise of a snake (less mystically, the helmer was recently the subject of docudrama “The Unsung Hero”).
Unfortunately, most of the studio’s output has suffered from poor to scandalous conservation: The nitrate is gone and many of the prints are third-generation copies (the docu opens with a shot of rotting film reels in rusty canisters, and these aren’t even the older titles). Sadana and Dixit should have gone into more detail explaining the company’s decline and demise, and the site’s transformation in 1960 into the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
As India’s leading cinema school, FTII has played host to various currents in film thought and been the site of numerous protests, such as in the 1990s, when students objected to the lack of support for non-commercial cinema, and again in 2010, when threats of turning the school into a profit-making institute set off a wave of strikes. Sadana and Dixit include all this, interlacing these more political sequences with nostalgic episodes, such as one in which an elderly lighting technician speaks cogently about his work. The helmers struggle to find the right balance between past and present, weaving in brief discussions of preservation that cry out for further delving.
A few clips of mixed quality, accompanied by sharper stills and on-set images, testify to Prabhat’s glory years, though the absence of comparisons with rival studios leaves a big gap in appreciation. Despite caveats, “Journey With Prabhat” is a valuable piece of film history that hopefully will generate enough interest to arouse further, deeper examination.