The Indian epic Mahabharata is timeless, lending itself to great adaptations and interpretations. A potent commentary on the battle between right and wrong, the first film to be banned in India, was one based on it. Bhakta Vidur , a silent film released in 1921 was banned under the infamous Rowlatt act.
In 1919, the British Government had passed a new law called the Rowlatt Act, under which British authorities had the power to arrest people and keep them in prisons without any trial, simply on the basis of ‘suspicion of treason’. This lead to protests and the terrible Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in which hundreds of innocent Indians were killed.
The Act and the tragedy led to extensive outrage, nationwide protests and a mass Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi.
It is in this backdrop that Bhakta Vidur was made wherein Vidur, a pivotal character in Mahabharata was portrayed in the likeliness of Gandhi. The movie was directed by Kanjibhai Rathod and produced under the Kohinoor Studios banner. Dwarkadas Narandas Sampat of Kohinoor Studios, both produced the movie and played the lead role of Vidur, in the film.
– The Indian epic Mahabharata is timeless, lending itself to great adaptations and interpretations
The story of the film was based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata, that depicts a deep rooted family feud fuelled by blind ambition, between cousins the Pandavas and Kauravas. Vidur was half-brother to the kings Dhritarashtra (father of Kauravas) and Pandu (father of Pandavas) of Hastinapur. He is the main character of the film and the events of the film are portrayed from his perspective. Throughout the film, Vidur appeared like Gandhi, making strong references to the contemporary political events of the time.
‘When the movie was screened in Majesty cinemas of Bombay the rush was so great that the police had to resort to lathi charge to break the assembly’ recollects Dwarkadas Narandas Sampat in an interview with Manishita Dass, the author of Outside the lettered city: Cinema, Modernity and the public sphere in Late Colonial India.
– The Rowlatt Act and the tragedy led to nationwide protests and a mass Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi.
The Censors banned the film on political grounds. The film was banned in British provinces of Madras and Karachi.
The censor boards official verdict on the film was – It is likely to excite dissatisfaction against government and incite people to non-cooperation.
Though Bhakta Vidur was banned, it didn't deter the emerging Indian film makers from taking up cudgels against the British authorities. A series of other mythology based films commenting on the politics of the time, were made. These films went a long way in fueling the growing dissent against colonial rule.
The Rowlatt Act, the Press Act, and twenty-two other prohibitive laws were repealed in March 1922.
With inputs from: Outside the lettered city: Cinema, Modernity and the public sphere in Late Colonial India by Manishita Dass