Dr Kirsty Sinclair Dootson is a Lecturer in Film and Media at University College London. She specialises in the global history of color cinema and particularly Technicolor.
There are many movies that claim to be the first “Indian” Technicolor film. However, Sohrab Modi’s 1953 historical epic Jhansi Ki Rani has a special claim to the title (Fig 1). As the only three-strip Technicolor movie to have ever been produced, directed, and shot domestically in India, Modi’s film holds a privileged position both in the history of *Indian cinema and the wider global history of Technicolor filmmaking. As the most prestigious and expensive color process available at the time, the use of Technicolor ensured Jhansi Ki Rani became a landmark cultural event not just in India but around the world. The New York Times reported in 1952 that this ‘super production’ would be “India’s first bid for world distribution,” while The Times of India proclaimed in 1953 that the film not only “heralds a new era of color films” but “paved the way for the motion picture of tomorrow” putting the Indian industry “on the map of the world in show business.”
The film recounts a well-known period from the nation’s history— India’s First War of Independence in 1857, when the Rani (or Queen) of the Indian state of Jhansi, lead forces in military combat against the British East India Company (Figs 2, 3). The war forms the dramatic climax to the life of the Rani—a role played by Modi’s wife Mehtab—traced from her childhood displays of bravery and courage, to her death on the battlefield at the hands of British soldiers. This popular story of Indian heroism luxuriates in dazzling courtly rituals including spectacular dance numbers, elegant military pageants, and massive battle sequences that showcase the rani’s military prowess, complete with golden body armour. The Technicolor brand was used as a mark of distinction by Modi (Fig 1a) who not only directed, but produced, and acted in the film, and also owned Minerva Movietone Studios in Bombay where Jhansi Ki Rani was filmed.
To enhance its global appeal, the film was to be released in two versions, one in Hindi and another shorter edit in English, with the latter released some years later in 1955 under the alternative title The Tiger and the Flame. This title derives from a vibrant dance number within the film, with choreography directed by Simkie (Figs 4, 5).
Sadly, only the English-language version is still available to watch in color as there are no surviving color copies of Jhansi Ki Rani, only black and white versions on DVD and video. While the lack of high-quality color copies may have dissuaded historians from writing about Jhansi Ki Rani, the approaching 70th anniversary of the film’s release in 2023 offers an ideal moment to revisit this hugely significant production.
Of course, Jhansi Ki Rani was certainly not the first time India had appeared on screen in Technicolor (hence the tussle over the title of the first “Indian” Technicolor film). India had been the subject of numerous British and American Technicolor productions since the late 1930s, but these films were rarely shot on location and often exploited stereotyped ideas about India’s supposedly exotic and mystical nature. Following India’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947 however, and the expansion of color production on the subcontinent, Indian filmmakers found new opportunities to work with Technicolor in the 1950s.
By 1952 several headlines in Technicolor’s inhouse magazine Technicolor News and Views promoted greater collaboration between Technicolor and India, claiming “Technicolor Pictures Preferred in India” and “India Called Active Field for Technicolor.” For instance, although esteemed director Mehboob Khan shot his 1952 color debut Aan on 16mm Kodachrome, he had release prints processed by Technicolor’s laboratory in London (hence Aan is quite often labelled as the first Indian Technicolor film) (Fig 6). Khan repeated this arrangement for his seminal 1957 color film Mother India, which was shot on Gevacolor stock but printed by Technicolor Limited in London. Technicolor cinematography also expanded in India at this time. When French director Jean Renoir travelled to West Bengal to make his 1951 color debut The River, he chose to shoot this international co-production using three-strip Technicolor cameras in collaboration with local creative and technical personnel (as Priya Jaikumar has expertly analysed in her 2019 book Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space).
So eager were Technicolor to expand into the Indian film market at this time (unsurprisingly, given it was the second largest film market in the world) they even held discussions about establishing a dye-transfer laboratory there. Technicolor’s Kay Harrison held talks with India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Dr Keskar to discuss the possibility of a new *Bombay Technicolor lab, presumably while Harrison was in India addressing an industry meeting headed by Prime Minister Nehru and attended by Raj Kapoor among others (Fig 7). (As an interesting aside it was Harrison’s brother Montagu Marks who had purchased western distribution rights for the 1952 film Aan, making Indian Technicolor something of a family affair for Harrison).
Yet, while Jhansi Ki Rani emerged amidst a period of enhanced collaboration between Technicolor and Indian filmmakers in the early 1950s, when Modi decided to shoot his feature in three-strip Technicolor, this was perceived as a watershed moment for the nation’s industry. As the Illustrated Weekly of India put it in December 1951, the film marked “the first time a Kalmus [i.e. Technicolor] unit with American technicians and an international reputation operated to the orders of an Indian director.” As the press coverage of Jhansi Ki Rani reveals, the film was (like The River) an international co-production, made through the combined efforts of Indian, American, and British expertise. In fact, it had been Jean Renoir’s assistant on The River, the American Forrest Judd, who played a crucial role in the development of Jhansi Ki Rani (Fig 8). As part of a contract between Modi’s Minerva Movietone studios and Judd’s production company The Film Group, Judd helped secure funding for Jhansi Ki Rani in addition to securing the studio for work on the production of Rod Amateau’s 1952 Technicolor film Monsoon. As part of this contract Judd had agreed to help modernise Modi’s Minvera Movietone for further work in color, which demanded a complete remodelling of the studio’s facilities. However, this major renovation work was far from complete by the time shooting began on Jhansi Ki Rani, which meant that the majority of the equipment necessary for filming in Technicolor had to come from overseas.
Beam-splitting cameras, arc lights and cabling were all imported from England, where Technicolor had operated its European subsidiary Technicolor Limited since 1936. In addition to the hardware shipped from England, British engineers and creative personnel also formed core members of Jhansi Ki Rani’s production team, including Indian-born make-up artist Jimmy Vining, who had worked on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Technicolor films in England (Fig 9). While Indian artists, technicians and designers formed the majority of Jhansi Ki Rani’s crew, they were paired with high-profile foreign personnel from Technicolor’s British and American branches hand-picked by Modi to assemble his own elite Technicolor unit of color experts.
Minerva’s make-up man Murari Narayan Borkar (Fig 10) collaborated with Vining, art director Rusi Banker (Fig 11) worked alongside American color consultant George Jenkins, and Minerva cinematographers M. N. Malhotra and Y. D. Sarpotdar (Fig 11a) – who had both trained in Technicolor cinematography in London – worked alongside Ernest Haller, the renowned American Technicolor cinematographer best known for his Oscar-winning work on Gone With the Wind (1939) but who had recently worked in India on Monsoon (Fig 12).
It is interesting to note that several Indian cinematographers travelled to London to train in color cinematography at Technicolor Limited: Renoir had sent his cameraman Ramananda Sengupta there in the 1950s as Raj Kapoor then did with his cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, while in the 1960s Guru Dutt sent V. K. Murthy to London to learn new color techniques.
The American color consultant George Jenkins praised the quality of the research his Indian counterpart had undertaken in preparation for the film, recounting in The Times of India in 1953 that it “could not have been improved upon by a major studio in Hollywood” and realising that the man “I had flown half way around the world to help in his color problems, was teaching me a few tricks.” It is unsurprising Jenkins was so struck by the depth of Banker’s research as the art director had, accompanied by researcher Pandit Dube, undertaken a three month fact-finding trip taking in historical sites, museum collections and meetings with historians across Jhansi, Gwalior, Sagar, Kalpri, Chandari, Meerut, Delhi, Lucknow, and Calcutta in order to ensure the utmost accuracy to his designs for the film.
Working in collaboration with Banker was costume designer Kanu Desai (Fig 13), whose strive for authenticity for the film’s many historical uniforms meant he commissioned items from military master tailors stationed in Meerut based upon his own designs. Banker and Desai’s labors did not pass unremarked in the press, with The Times of India praising “the gorgeous palace interiors and resplendent costumes of rich brocades and shimmering silks which . . . could easily have run to garish excess but are here confined with skilled knowledge of color, light and film within the strict limits of a beauty which never ceases to be lyrical.” While promotional materials claimed Jenkin’s helped “finalise” the film’s color scheme, he maintained his advice was largely technical, noting in his Times of India interview that “the only color that I imposed on him was the Technicolor grey scale to be used in place of whites,” — a common solution to the limited contrast range accommodated by the three-strip process. (Fig 14)
The scale and opulence of the film’s design was of enormous interest to the Indian press, as papers routinely reported on the development of this huge production, which spanned a number of location shoots across Jaipur, Bikaner and Gwalior in addition to work undertaken over twenty-eight studio sets, including the 5.5-acre recreation of nineteenth century Jhansi, necessary as Modi allegedly found the present day city too modernized (Fig 15). Around 60% of the film was shot outdoors, which Haller recalled in a 1952 interview with American Cinematographer. He claimed that the extended use of the three-strip camera outdoors proved challenging in terms of heat and humidity but did note that the technical challenges of working on Jhansi Ki Rani would help Technicolor improve the adaptability of its equipment and stock for these kinds of conditions, enabling further work in Technicolor across Asia. (Another challenge Haller noted from his work on the production was the preference of the Indian and British workers for ‘tea breaks’ over coffee.)
The statistics listed in the film’s promotional materials are staggering. The production required over 25,000 extras, 560 horses, 300 camels, 3600 swords, 4200 gallons of paint, not to mention the 250,000 feet of film exposed. The production itself, which was the most expensive in the history of Indian cinema, became something of a spectacle in its own right, with many high profile visitors coming to the set to marvel at the scale of the work being undertaken. While in India attending the first International Film Festival of India in 1952 American director Frank Capra toured the set and was, according to promotional materials “impressed with Indian color” (Fig 16).
The production work in India was only one part of the film’s history though. Given Modi was filming in three-strip Technicolor, exposed film had to be flown to London for processing. Modi himself travelled to England to edit the print at 80 Wardour Street in Soho, with Banker and Haller flown in for additional advice on the final look of the film. During this time in England Modi and his wife enjoyed socialising with London’s glamorous film scene, and were photographed at premieres and parties, in one instance snapped in conversation with Francis and Michael Powell, the director of the renowned Technicolor classic The Red Shoes (1948) (Fig 17). Given the importance of sound to the film, the music editor Vasant Desai (Fig 18) was also flown to London to ensure both the Hindi and English language versions were of high quality, with mixing completed at R.C.A in Hammersmith. The trial prints were finally screened in London in December 1952 and deemed ready for release.
The Bombay premiere of the film was an extremely high profile affair attended by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah, and other high-ranking members of India’s cabinet, diplomatic corps, and military. Another important attendee was Laxman Rao Jhansiwala – the son of the adopted son of the film’s protagonist Rani Laxmi of Jhansi. Opening simultaneously on one hundred screens in India the film’s theatrical release was timed to coincide with the recently established Indian Republic Day holiday in January, which was noted as particularly fitting by the press for a film that celebrated Indian political autonomy. The film was later selected by the government of Bombay to be screened as part of the centenary celebrations marking the First War of Independence in 1957, concretising its importance in the political culture of India as symbol of national pride. Domestic reviews praised the film’s splendour with one headline remarking ‘Modi’s “Jhansi Ki Rani” Milestone in Indian Film Industry”. A recurring theme of contemporary reviews was that the film was equal to any Technicolor films made in Hollywood. Reviews variously noted that “in respect of color it is equal to the best Hollywood production”, that the film “rivals the best Technicolor that ever came out of Hollywood”, that with “its colorful Indian locales and the pomp and pageantry of princes and palaces, this historical equals the best Hollywood productions.”
Jhansi Ki Rani was seen by many in the film industry as a test-case for establishing the feasibility of three-strip photography in India. If it proved successful, the film could lead to many future collaborations between Technicolor and Indian filmmakers. However, Jhansi Ki Rani remains to this day the only film made domestically using the process, as Technicolor retired its fleet of three-strip cameras only two years after the release of Modi’s epic. But the film did create a legacy for collaborations between Technicolor and industrial professionals in India. Although the Bombay Technicolor laboratory proposed by Kay Harrison never came to fruition, in 1956 Ramnord Research Laboratories of Bombay were appointed as “Agents of Technicolor” in India. Ramnord collaborated with the London laboratory on processing work that could be undertaken domestically in India before material was sent to London for dye-transfer printing. This resulted in color credits like those found in the opening titles of the hugely successful Gunga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961), stating that the film was “Processed at Technicolor Ltd. London through Ramnord Research Labs. Ltd. Bombay.” (Fig 19)
As the Indian film industry enthusiastically embraced chromogenic film stocks like Eastmancolor and Gevacolor in the later 1950s, Technicolor continued to manufacture vibrant dye-transfer release prints of these films, including V. Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) and Navrang (1959) (Fig 20). Jhansi Ki Rani should therefore be seen less as a unique anomaly in the history of Indian color cinema, but part of a long history of collaborations between the Indian film industry and Technicolor that took many forms across cinematography, processing, and printing. Given the British Film Institute in London currently holds the color separation negatives of Jhansi Ki Rani we might hope for a restoration of the title in the future that enables audiences to enjoy the magnificence experienced by audiences in the 1950s.
*I use the term “Indian” cinema here acknowledging that the Hindi language filmmaking practices of Bombay/Mumbai (known as Bollywood) discussed here constitute only one part of a wider, linguistically and culturally diverse filmmaking ecology across India.
*Please note colonial-era names for Indian cities have been used here for consistency with historical documents.
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