Raja Harishchandra: A silent beginning to a cinematic revolution
100 years ago, one man introduced the people of India to the world of moving images. It was the genius of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke that heralded the birth of the first full-length feature film and set the wheels of Indian cinema in motion. He laid the foundation for Indian cinema as we know it and is rightfully called the ‘Father of Indian cinema’. The glitz and glamour of today’s cinema started with silent humble beginnings in black and white. And it is ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the first silent Indian film that came into being in 1913 that spearheaded this movement.
Dadasaheb Phalke was greatly inspired by the 1902 French movie ‘The Life Of Christ’ that motivated him to become a filmmaker. His first instructional film, ‘The Birth of a Pea Plant’ (1912), inadvertently introduced the concept of ‘time-lapse photography’ and resulted in the capsule history of the growth of a pea into a pea-laden plant. It was this film that provided the financial assistance for his first feature film venture.
Thus on 3 May 1913, exactly 100 years ago, ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was released. The film revolved around the noble King Harishchandra who sacrificed everything he had to honor his promise to the sage Vishwamitra. His struggles and sacrifices on his journey form the crux of the story. Dadasaheb Phalke wrote the screenplay, produced the film, created the sets and directed it.
Dadasaheb’s entire family took part in the making of Raja Harishchandra, with his wife handling much of the technical details and his son Bhalachandra.D.Phalke played the role of the King’s son Rohtash.
Interestingly, the film had an all male cast as no women were willing to play the leads. With no resort left, Dadasaheb cast a man to play the role of Harischandra’s wife, Taramati.
The iconic endeavor had a run time of about 50 minutes and took almost seven months to complete. The title plates that were inserted in between the silent scenes were in English and in Hindi.
The film was premiered on 21 April 1913 at the Olympia Theater and followed by screening with one single print in Coronation Cinema Hall in Goregaon, Mumbai.
Indian Cinema prior to Raja Harishchandra
Lumiere Brothers are credited with the entry of cinema in India. In 1896, the first ever motion picture screening in India was held at the Watson Hotel in then Bombay by the Lumiere Cameraman Maurius Sestier. Their work which included short films consisted mainly of moving images from scenes of everyday life. Their film sequence of a train pulling into the station was a hit with the audiences.
Harischandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar, who happened to be present for the Lumiere presentation, was so fascinated by the Lumiere show that he ordered a camera from Riley brothers of England.
Bhatwadekar’s first film, taken in November 1899, was of a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Bombay and was sent back to London for processing. Like the Lumiere Brothers, Bhatwadekar known as ‘Save Dada’ went on to make films on day-to-day life of the city as also some important events. He was credited with India’s first reality films.
Similarly Hiralal Sen too started making films in Kolkata. Most of the films he made, captured stage productions played at Amarendra Dutta’s Classic Theater in Calcutta. His longest film, produced in 1903 and titled Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, was also based on an original Classic Theater performance. These veterans started sowing the seeds of cinema in their own unique ways.
The turning point for Indian cinema
But it was in the 1900’s that Indian cinema underwent a mammoth change which was led by Dadasaheb Phalke. Though the first films of Indian cinema began evolving from much before, the release of Raja Harishchandra marks a significant point as it ushered in the silent era. Dadasaheb captured the imagination of India and brought the revolution of moving images to the country through a full length film.
Prior to this film, filmmakers captured only the happenings of daily life or recorded events but Raja Harishchandra brought in an age where stories were narrated. His desire was to see Indian stories on the screen and he introduced the idea of mythology to Indian cinema.
Raja Harishchandra had it all – a script, actors, make-up and all that goes in to the making of a proper film. The filmmaker used the best technology available to him at that time to make a tremendously successful film. He integrated Indian traditions and culture with the new medium of the cinema. He opened the door for an industry that is now synonymous with sound, dance and varied emotions. Raja Harishchandra also featured shots of grand palaces, elaborate costumes, and dancing courtesans that are all now integral to the Bollywood-style of filmmaking.
Not to forget the marketing innovations Dadasaheb employed then to pull crowds to the theater. He called it a mile long strip of 58,000 little pictures put together as at that time audiences were acquainted with the concept of still pictures set in motion. He also offered prizes to ticket buyers. Simple techniques which have today given way to elaborate marketing strategies that production houses and filmmakers indulge in.
The film truly changed the perception of filmmaking, paving the way for today’s film industry. As time changes and technology involved the silent talkies may have gone by but not before changing the course of cinema in India.
A contrasting perspective
Almost a year before Dadasaheb Phalke gave Indian cinema its ‘first’ feature film; Dadasaheb Torne released ‘Shree Pundlik’ on 18th May 1912. Hence there are some that argue about whether Raja Harishchandra truly deserves to be called the first Indian film.
Shree Pundlik was a cinematographic recording of a popular play, one of many such Indian films that were made prior to Raja Harishchandra. Though Shree Pundlik may have released earlier, the main bone of contention is whether the film can be classified as an original full-length feature film.
Some of the points include that Shree Pundlik was the filming of a live play and not a multi-shot film like Raja Harishchandra. Also the film was shot by a British technician named Johnson and was processed in London and hence wasn’t completely Indian. But the debate continues with Torne’s son having recently filed a petition with the High Court to contest the very basis of the centenary date of Indian cinema and Dadasaheb Phalke’s status as the father of Indian cinema.
Summing it up, Raja Harishchandra was a culmination of the cinematic efforts that were taking place in India and a benchmark for Indian cinema as we know it. It holds a special place in the history of Indian cinema and will continue to be epitomized.