A glorious beginning: The Founding Fathers of Indian cinema
Renowned humanitarian, Harriet Tubman had said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” Bearing testimony to this adage are those stalwarts who dreamt of the moving images and made this dream a reality through the foundation of cinema in India. If it weren’t for them, India wouldn’t have had one of the largest and most successful film industries which is globally recognized today. In the 100th year of Indian cinema, we pay ode to these ‘Founding Fathers’ and take you down memory lane to the beginnings of Indian cinema.
Cinema dawned as a new form of art and entertainment in India in the early 19th century. The country’s first exposure to motion pictures was in 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers demonstrated six soundless short films in Bombay. This set the ball rolling for cinema in India and inspired many visionaries who gave the country its first taste of films. We introduce you to these maestros instrumental in making Indian cinema what it is today.
Harishchandra Bhatwadekar: Popularly called ‘Save Dada’, Harishchandra Bhatwadekar was fascinated and highly inspired by the Lumiere shows. A resident of Mumbai, he was a portrait photographer by occupation. In 1899 he shot a wrestling match between two well-known wrestlers at Mumbai’s Hanging Garden. This project called The Wrestlers was India’s very first short film and also the first film to be shot by any Indian. He went on to make several other short topical films capturing day-to-day activities and important events. In 1901, he made the first news reel of sorts when he filmed the return of Ragunath P. Paranjpye, who had secured a distinction in mathematics from Cambridge University. Save Dada is rightfully credited with the beginning of documentary films in India.
Hiralal Sen: He is hailed as India’s first political filmmaker. A short film made by a foreigner called Stevenson ignited the spark of filmmaking in Sen who was originally a photographer. Stevenson’s film was was screened in Calcutta along with a stage show called The Flower of Persia. Hiralal’s first film was made of scenes from The Flower of Persia in 1898. Keen on making films, Hiralal learnt more about the process by reading several journals and newspapers. He then purchased an Urban Bioscope and formed the ‘Royal Bioscope Company’ in 1899 with his brother Motilal Sen. He made over 40 films in his career, most of which depicted scenes from theatrical productions played at Amarendranath Dutta’s ‘Classic Theatre’. In 1903 he produced his longest film titled Alibaba and the Forty Thieves. Hiralal’s 1905 film documenting the anti-Partition demonstration and Swadeshi movement in Calcutta is considered as India’s first political film. The filmmaker also made many news films and advertising films.
Ramchandra Gopal Torne: Ramchandra Gopal Torne, fondly called ‘Dadasaheb Torne’, belonged to a Malwan village on the Konkan coast but later shifted to Bombay. Torne was highly impressed with the foreign films being released in Mumbai and also influenced by the plays being conducted by the ‘Shripad Theatre Company’. These factors gave birth to his interest in filmmaking and he made his first film, Pundlik, which was essentially a recording of a play titled ‘Shri Pundlik’. Though this film was released in 1912, a year before Raja Harishchandra which is regarded as India’s first feature film, it missed out on the title owing to several factors. Torne wanted to make a mythological film and spoke to his friend Charles Glouner from Hollywood to understand the art of filmmaking. He bought a Williamson camera but nobody knew how to operate it and so the company sent a British cameraman named Johnson to shoot the film. The film was also processed in London. It was these factors that held it back from being called as India’s first feature film. Dadasaheb Torne later set up a distribution company called ‘Famous Pictures’ which started importing Hollywood movies, some of which were talkies. He is also said to be instrumental in producing India’s first talkie film with Ardeshir Irani.
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke: The father of Indian cinema, he is recognized for India’s first full length feature film titled Raja Harishchandra. Dadasaheb Phalke started his career as a small time photographer and also trained in the art of magic and started his own printing press. But his true calling came in the form of films after he got inspired by a movie, The Life of Christ, in 1910. He loaned money from his friends to go to England and learn the art of filmmaking. A lot of hard work and effort later, India received its first feature film through the silent movie, Raja Harishchandra. Phalke was a one-man army doubling up as a cameraman, art-director, costume-designer, editor, processor, printer, developer and distributor, all rolled into one. Infact he himself toured from one town to another to showcase his movie. Post the success of his first film, he went on to produce many films and also set up the ‘Hindustan Films Company’. His outstanding contribution in filmmaking changed the course of Indian cinema.
Ardeshir Irani: Ardeshir Irani gave India its first own talking-singing film with Alam Ara. Irani has donned many hats in the field of films. He acquired ‘Alexander Theatre’ in Bombay in partnership with a friend, Abdulally Esoofally. He also became India’s representative of ‘Universal Pictures’. He made his first silent feature film, Nala Dayamanti in 1920. Inspired by Dadasaheb Phalke’s commercially successfully films like Krishna Janam and Kaliya Mardan he ventured into film production. He set up ‘Star Production’ with Bhogilal Dave and made over 17 films under this banner. Irani then founded ‘Majestic Films’ in 1924 and in 1925 ‘Imperial films’ was formed. It was under this banner that he made India’s first sound feature film Alam Ara in 1931. Though Alam Ara took months to complete owing to various hazards, the film was a runaway hit. Ardeshir Irani is also remembered for two other momentous achievements, the first ever Indian colour film, Kisan Kanya in 1937 and the first ever Persian talkie, Dukhtar-i-Lor. Irani made over 150 films in a long and illustrious career and has been a true revolutionary for Indian cinema.
These gurus also ushered in the early studios of Indian cinema.
Over the years, Indian cinema has progressed and seen the birth of several legends that have made innumerable contributions to this growth. From veterans like V. Shantaram to filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak who are attributed as the founding fathers of the new cinema and commercial filmmakers including the likes of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, every decade of Indian cinema has been blessed with the glory of talented filmmakers.
A concluding glimpse of the fine works of the illustrious filmmaker, V Shantaram.