From PhalkeFactory

Beginnings of Cinema in India by P.K. Nair

[The Pioneer][1]

Nearly nine decades ago, in a small town about one hundred kilometres from Pune, a devout young man, brought up in a traditional orthodox Hindu household, got interested in the Arts and Photography, threw away his family profession of priesthood, sold his wife's ornaments, pledged his life insurance policies and made history by producing what has been commonly acknowledged as the first Indian film. The man - DUNDIRAJ GOVIND PHALKE, popularly known as Dadasaheb PHALKE, the year - 1913, the place -Nasik and the film - Raja Harischandra - a silent four reeler with inter-titles in English and Hindi - the story of a benevolent king, who sacrificed his kingdom, family and material wealth for upholding the ideals, he cherished most, viz - "truth and integrity" - the two rare qualities lacking in our present day rulers. The dream of a true visionary to see Indian images move on the screen, in what he called - "The SWADISHI FILM" (inspired by the term popularised by the great patriotic leader Bal Bangadhar TILAK) - thus became a reality. And so began the long and arduous journey of INDIAN CINEMA. The Phalke phenomenon was, by no means an isolated venture. It was the culmination of several years of persistent struggle and untiring devotion and determination on the part of a great genius and his illustrious predecessors.

[[[Pre-Cinema Attempts]]]

Narrating stories form the Puranas (mythology), using hand-drawn images in a tableaux form in pat, scroll paintings, with accompanying live sounds, mostly emanating from human vocal chords with simple musical instruments, for popular entertainment and enlightenment has been an age-old Indian tradition. The narrative depicts a scene or a situation brought alive by a verse sung, by a singer-performer as portions of the scroll painting are selectively lit, through the flames of the oil lamp and unravelled by the Shaman - the familiar stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and episodes from mythology and folklore, revealed slowly through choreographic movements. Later the idea was carried over by the successive projection of hand painted images on glass slides and with the help of two magic lanterns creating the illusion of movement. The magic lantern shows were getting popular, when the 'Lumiere Bros' representatives held the first public showing of their Cinematograph at Bombay's Watson's Hotel on 7th July, 1896 nearly six months after their Paris demonstration. The new phenomenon did not create much of a stir among Indian viewers and none in the audience ran out, as the train entered the station and moved towards them, as it is reported to have happened elsewhere. The Indian viewer took the cinematic experience in stride, as something he was quite familiar with.

The Lumiere Effect

Bhatwadekar, who happened to be present for the Lumiere presentation, was not interested in showing the Lumiere films to a wider audience. Instead he was more keen on getting hold of the Lumiere cinematograph, the three-in-one gadget - camera, projector, processing unit, all rolled into one. and trying it out for himself to record Indian reality and Indian life. He did get hold of the Lumiere gadget and managed to record interesting snippets of life of ordinary people, caught in the midst of their daily routine activities. The public reception accorded to the Wrangler Paranjpye at Bombay's Chowpathy beach on his return from England, with the coveted distinction he got at Cambridge was covered by Harischandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar (popularly known as Save Dada) in December 1901 - and the first indigenous topical or actuality film was born. The 1903 Durbar, that celebrated the coronation of Edward VII with oriental and occidental splendour, was another event photographed and shown by Bhatwadekar.

Recording Stage Plays

In Calcutta, Hiralal Sen photographed scenes from some of the plays being performed at the Classic Theatre. Such films were shown as added attractions after the stage performances or taken to distant venues, where the stage performers could not reach. The possibility of reaching a large audience through recorded images which could be projected several times through mechanical gadgets caught the fancy of the people involved in the performing arts, and the stage and entertainment business. The first decade of the century witnessed live and recorded performances being clubbed together, in the same programme. As the popularity of FILM caught on, all forms of live shows were slowly pushed out and FILM dominated the entertainment space. However the early films were in the form of photographed stage-plays, from a fixed viewing position in the auditorium. Example: Bhakta Pundalik (1912) of Chithale and Data Torue, exhibited in 1912, prior to Phalke's Raja Harischandra ( 1912-13).

A Pioneer Gets Inspired

It is said that inspiration for Phalke came when he was watching the imported film "Life of Christ", on an Easter Sunday of 1911. Phalke started visualizing mentally the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the burning desire to see Indian images and the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. While struggling to familiarize himself with the intricacies of operating his imported camera, Phalke exposed single frames of a seed sprouting out of a growing plant, shot once a day, over a month. Inadvertently Phalke was introducing the concept of "Time-lapse photography", which resulted in the first indigenous "instructional film" - The Birth of a Pea Plant (1912)- a capsule history of the growth of a pea seed into a pea laden plant. This Swadeshi instructional film, came in very handy for Phalke in getting financial backing for his first venture. Postponing his favourite Krishna Project, Phalke decided on a comparatively easier subject - RAJA HARISCHANDRA - also taken form Indian mythology and which, according to him had enough potential to have powerful appeal. He fixed up a production office on Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the sets, and started actual shooting in the summer of 1912. In an interview with Mauj Magazine in 1939,Phlake had declared, "If I had not possessed the artistic and technical facilities, required for film-making, namely - drawing, painting, architecture, photography, theatre and magic and had not shown the courage and daring, the film industry would never have been established in India in 1912."

The Ravi Varma Connection

The first full length story film of Phalke (4 reels) was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation Cinema, Bombay on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by everyone present and proved to be a great success. The opening tableau, inspired from the Ravi Varma paintings present a scene of royal family harmony - with a space "outside" the frame from where the people emerge and to which space the King when banished seeks shelter. Phalke's narrative is abbreviated into little more than a sequence of such defined spaces in which the logic of involvement is effected via the viewer's gaze. The film's treatment is episodic, following the style of Indian folk theatre and the primitive novel. The film has title cards in English and Hindi - English the language of the elite and Hindi that of the common man. Most of the camera set-ups are static, with plenty of movement within the frame. However, one notices an instinctive pan movement, beautifully reflected in the river waters below, as Harischandra goes out on a hunting expedition with his retinue. The palace sets are so well designed and mounted that the visual impact is as striking and pleasing as in any present day film

. The Sacred and the Profane

The bathtub sequence, when Harischandra enters the frame to beckon his wife Taramati, seen in the company of her fully drenched attendants, a couple of whom are fiddling with the sprouting fountain located at the centre, is indeed the first bathtub scene in Indian Cinema. The extent of sensuousness which Phalke has managed to infuse into this well designed scene can be gauged, when we realize that all the females in their wet sarees, clinging to their bodies are in fact, all males in female garb! Only a fertile mind as that of Phalke could have gauged the need for incorporating an erotic scene in what is basically a "religious" subject.

Why "Mythological"?

It's just not a stray accident, that the first Indian story film happened to be "mythological". Phalke, came from an orthodox Hindu household - a family of Brahmin priests with strong religious roots. So, when technology made it possible to tell stories through moving images, it was but natural that the Indian film pioneer turned to his own rich cultural heritage - the epics and puranas for source material. Moreover, the characters, incidents and plot outlines were very much part of our rich tradition and therefore close to the heart of each and every Indian. As such, their presentation through the new medium of Cinema did not pose much problem of communication and public acceptance. Another factor could well be the intense religious ethos inherent in the traditional performing arts of the country. Through the medium of performance in the precincts of a divine atmosphere, the performer reached out for a spiritual experience, in the same way a worshipping devotee seeks salvation in front of the sanctum santorum. And since Cinema took off as an extension of the performing arts, the same umbilical relationship existed between the author/creator and the work in the initial stages, particularly in the works of Phalke. It was therefore but logical and natural that Indian Cinema had to commence its long momentous journey with the "mythological" genre

. To Entertain, Inform and Educate

No magician likes to reveal his bag of tricks, but magician-turned-film-maker Phalke had other ideas. He was convinced of the need of taking his audiences along with him. Or else, how could he ever have conceived the idea of recording the process of making the first Indian film? His one-reel short - How Films are Prepared? (1913) - a film record of the making of Raja Harischandra - a study film primarily designed to inform his audiences that there is nothing dirty in the profession and not to look down upon film-making as a menial job. On the contrary, it is as arduous, painstaking and creative as any other decent profession. This short study film was designed by Phalke to inform his audiences, the various technical aspects of film-making. It is in fact, an eloquent testimony to the vision of a man, a creative genius, who believed the role of Cinema even at that infant stage is not only to entertain, but to inform and educate also.

The Swadeshi Film Takes Root

The phenomenal success of Raja Harischandra was kept up by Phalke with a series of mythologicals that followed - Mohini Bhasmashur (1914), significant for introducing the first woman to act before the cameras - (Late) Kamalabhai Gokhale (Rema Mohan's recent hour long documentary film - Kalamabhai - is a fitting tribute to this great octogenarian artiste of Indian Cinema and theatre). The notable titles that followed include - Satyavadi Raja Harischandra (1917) - a remake of the 1913 Phalke film, Lanka Dahan (1917), Sri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919)

Nationalism and Cinema

Phalke was a Nationalist to the core. He was firm in his conviction the Cinema, apart from telling stories from mythology should have some relevance to contemporary life. That's why, we could come across even in his mythologicals a true reflection of the nationalist ethos of the time. For example, in Shri Krishna Janma (1918) - on the life of Krishna, he does not wind up with the killing of the devil King Kasma by the Child Krishna, gifted with supernatural powers, played by his own daughter Mandakini Phalke, but goes beyond the frame work of mythological narration, to show he is as much a committed social activist as a story-teller. This is evident in the title cards, prologues and epilogues in which he sandwiches his mythological narration, as well as his down-to-earth treatment of gods and goddesses. His tableau presentation of devotees of different castes - from the Brahmin to the Shudra (the untouchable) - offering their obeisance to the Lord may appear naive to present day viewers. But a closer look at the organisation of space and movement within the frame, the entry of characters, their movements, looks and exits and the props they carry, the clothes they wear, reveal the rationale behind the film-maker's ideological preoccupations. They need to impress on the unity of all religions and the equality of Man in a highly hierarchical, caste-ridden society, must have been upper most in Phalke's mind, when he conceived this sequence. He was using a popular medium like Cinema to motivate people into positive thinking and higher values, thereby contributing to the patriotic cause.

The Family Contributes

The opening of Kaliya Mardan (1919) gives one the impression that the screen test Phalke took of his daughter Mandakini, has been inadvertently spliced onto the main film. Judging from what he did earlier by making a study film on the making of Raja Harischandra, his present attempt seems to be a conscious decision and with a definite purpose. He could very well have made another short film explaining the do's and don'ts and the basic principles of acting before a movie camera, to accompany the main feature. But he preferred not to repeat himself and devised a novel method of introducing his daughter to the audiences to get their approval for her legitimacy in the film - also a kind of pioneering activity.

A Mythological in Neo-Realistic Mould

It may seem ironic to look for 'Neo-Realism' in a traditional Indian mythological. To Phalke, God's land is no different from man's. He transposes Gokul, Mathura, Brindaban, the places immortalised in the Krishna legends, to his own familiar Nasik back-drops - the river bank, the alleys, the water falls, the grass lands, and Yashoda (Krishna's mother) and Gopis (the lovers) to local Maharashtrian rustic women in their nine yard sarees. They have more in common with the ordinary people, picturised against familiar backdrops, behaving quite naturally, rather than out-of-the-world, heavenly characters with heavy make-ups and ornate costumes, moving in a fantasy world. There is no attempt to deify them or give them the appearance of "kitsch" in the name of giving them a supernatural or larger-than-life image, as has been done in several mythologicals by later film-makers and TV Serial Producers (example Ramanand Sagar - Ramayana and B.R. Chopra - Mahabharata). The scene where mother Yahoda and father Nanda face an irate crowd of belligerent women complainees (male actors in female garb) - some with broken pots, others with twisted knots - all unleashing their fury at the naughty Krishna and insisting he be banished from their midst, brings out this aspect quite convincingly. The image of the holy cow, which the targeted Krishna draws on the inside wall of his living room, when the accusation drama goes on outside in a sense, is an indication of the next phase of his life i.e., as Krishna, the cow-herd. Later the haunting music of his magical flute sends waves of magical reverberations to the village Gopis, who rush out of their houses, leaving their household chores, and come flocking around the Lord to dance in ecstacy to the melody of his divine flute. This is one of the most haunting sequences in the film. A meditative viewer may even experience the musical notes of the flute even though the images that flash on the screen are silent. An excellent example to illustrate to what spiritual heights the silent films can rise.

The Phalke Trail

"Phalke Films" - the company which Phalke started initially was more of a cottage enterprise with borrowed money and personal mortgages and supported by well-wishers and family friends. The first five films were made under this banner. However by that time, he found his home enterprise too inadequate to handle the vexing problems of management, keeping track of box-office returns, raising capital and planning more ambitious productions. In keeping with the times, he had to start a purely indigenous outfit - Hindustan Film Company in 1918, a corporate partnership between business-minded friends and well-wishers. Out of the 93 films made under the "Hindustan" banner, Phalke contributed to over 40 - the most significant ones being Shri Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Sant Tukaram (1921), Sant Namdev (1922), Sant Eknath (1926) and Bhakta Prahlad (1926) - all silent.

Film as Business

When Jamshedji Framji Madan (1856 - 1926) launched his bioscope in a tent on Calcutta Maidan, he heralded the public exhibition of films in the country. By 1907, the tent cinema had transformed into a Picture Palace and film exhibition became a big glamorous business, and cinema theatres had sprung up all over the country. By the end of the second decade, Madan himself had a chain of thirty-seven theatres and had built up an exhibition - distribution and production empire, on the lines of Hollywood. Side by side, importing films to fill up the screens of his vast chain of theatres, he also imported foreign actresses (Ermeline, Patience Cooper and others) to act in Indian mythologicals and folk tales as Indian women, tied down by taboo, kept away from the glare of the film camera. S.N. Patankar, a contemporary of Phalke came up with the four part serial - Ram Banwas (Exile of Rama) in 1918. Well, the "Serial" was not an innovation of Television. The format was there, right from the early cinema experience, both in our country and elsewhere, especially during the Silent era. The format was carried forward to "Sequels" in the later Sound era, depending on the initial success of the 'original'.

Regional Expansion

The credit for making the first feature film in Southern India - Keechaka Vadham (1916) - goes to R. Nataraja Mudalier, an automobile spare parts dealer-turned-film-maker. As the title indicates, the subject is again mythology - an episode from Mahabharata, the great epic. Another film made in Madras - Valli Thirumanam (1921) by Whittaker - drew critical acclaim and box-office success. Hollywood-returned Ananthanarayanan Narayanan founded General Pictures Corporation in 1929 and established film-making as an industry in South India and became the single largest producer of silent film. Kohlapur in Western Maharashtra was another centre of active film production in the twenties and the man who spearheaded the film scene in this city was Baburao K Mistry -- popularly known as Baburao Painter. Coming from the discipline of the stage, set design, lighting and art direction, painter saw Cinema as a vehicle for interpreting history. And so, he chose episodes from the Maratha history, the exploits of Shivaji and his contemporaries and their patriotic encounters with their opponents. These formed the recurring theme of Painter's "historicals," all of which invariably had contemporary relevance, in the sense the people identified with the patriotic struggle they were waging at the time, for the country's liberation from the colonial oppressors.

Nationalism and Cinema

The false and decadent values associated with the Western way of life and its blind imitation by a certain section of Indian Society, came for sharp criticism and scathing attack at the hands of some truly nationalist film-makers like Dhiren Ganguly (popularly known as D.G). His brilliant satirical comedy - England Returned (1921) - is an early "social satire" on how Indians, obsessed with western values, make fools of themselves. And another genre of Indian cinema - known as "the contemporary social", slowly surfaced. Baburao Painter followed it up with another significant film in 1925 - Savkaari Pash (The Indian Skylark) - an attempt at realistic treatment of the Indian peasant exploited by the greedy village money-lender. V. Shantaram, who started his career as an understudy to Painter, got his acting break as the young village peasant in the film. Painter remade the film as a talkie version, eleven years later. But it did not create any ripples at the box-office.


Bengal-born Himanshu Rai, while pursuing his legal education at the Inner Temple in London, came into contact with playwright Niranjan Pal, who was working on a script based on Edwin Arnold's poem, Light of India. The two set up a partnership. Pal got Peter Ostermeyer's German company, Emelka, to pre-buy the European distribution rights and contribute the technical crew consisting of Director Franz Osten (Ostermeyer's brother), cameraman Joseph Wirsching, production designer Karl von Spretti and assistants and all technical equipments, while Rai got the Delhi-based Great Eastern Film Corporation owned by Moti and Prem Sagar to invest in one-third of the production. And thus took shape Light of Asia (1925) - the first significant international co-production. The unique film was shot entirely in India, in actual locales, without aid of studio sets, artificial lights, faked up properties or make-up. The Maharaja of Jaipur placed the whole resources of his State, for making the picture. Designed primarily for an international audience, the film opens with an introduction to the "Wonder that was Ind?" with a five-to-six minute travelogue footage of India, covering places of religious worship and tourist interest. Later we end up along with the English tourists in Bodh Gaya and the story slowly gets unfolded through a flashback, being narrated by a venerable old Sadhu. Despite the best intentions of the film-makers, and the technical accomplishments, in terms of camera work, use of actual locales, absence of heavy make-up, competent performance and virtually appealing, the film did not get noticed in the international scene - probably due to a deliberate attempt on the part of the film-makers to protect the conventional, stereotyped exotic image of India - a land of tigers, elephants, snake-charmers, maharajas, princely weddings, hunting expeditions, royal ornaments and victory processions. The film stands out as a bold attempt on the part of a sincere and dedicated artiste trying to reach out to an international audience. "The Himanshu Rai" - Frank Osten team repeated the co-production exercise in two more productions - Shivaz, the loves of a Moghul prince (1928), based on a story of the Taj Mahal, and Throw of Dice (1930) - inspired by an incident from the great epic - The Mahabharata. All the three titles had more or less the same approach, resulting in the films having a lukewarm reception, both nationally and internationally and remained an interesting though an abortive attempt to capture the international market. Marthandavarma (1931) The film produced by R. Sunder Raj under the banner, Shri Rajeswari Films, Nagercoil(now in Tamil Nadu), and directed by P. V. Rao, got into a legal tangle and was withdrawn after the premiere show. Based on the celebrated novel by Shri C.V. Raman Pillai, the film recounts the adventures of the crown Prince and how he eliminates his arch rivals one by one, so as to become the unquestioned ruler of the erstwhile Travancore State. He has also been remembered by many as the builder of modern Travancore. The film has title cards in English and Malayalam, some of which were taken from the original text. A few of the title cards and actions make reference to the Swadeshi movement of the time. The film also opens with a seven-minute actuality footage - a newsreel coverage of the famous temple procession of the late Travancore Maharaja, Sri. Chithira Thirunal. We see the famous caparisoned elephants, the state cavalry, the Nair brigade, the barefoot officers and the Maharaja being carried in a tastefully decorated palanquin in a ceremonial parade. Had it not been for the legal embargo, the film would have had a great impact on the regional cinema of the South, especially in Malayalam.

Government and Cinema

Appalled by the deplorable conditions under which the public were watching films, and also the indiscriminate growth of crime and sex especially in imported films, the British Colonial Government passed the Indian Cinematographic Act of 1918, which made it compulsory for licensing of Cinema Theatres and introduced Censorship of films meant for public exhibition. Soon a bureaucrat in West Bengal came up with a brilliant idea to impose an education cess on the tickets sold at the box-office counter. A beginning was made which led other provinces also to follow suit. "Entertainment Tax" thus became an acceptable reality. Starting with a negligible percentage in 1922, the entertainment tax has since grown to such momentous proportions in several states that the film industry is reeling under its burden. After the Independence both the central and State Govts. claim to have ploughed back part of the tax money for creating infrastructure and other welfare schemes for the film industry. But the amount invested is a negligible percentage of the tax income.

Colonial Censorship vs. Nationalism

Censorship came into force from 1919, as a statutory requirement of the Cinematograph Act of 1918. Initially it was a Police activity with responsibility vesting with the Chief of Police in the respective provinces i.e., Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon. While the censors were soft on kissing, hugging, and romantic interludes, they came down heavily on violence, communal clashes and and national uprisings. Violent scenes even about mythological subjects were objected to and deleted. The Saint film - Bhakta Vidur (1921) which showed one of the characters in a Gandhi cap ran into rough weather with the British censors, who later banned it. The nationalist film-maker had to camouflage his intentions, through period films, devotionals and episodes from Indian mythology. A seemingly simplistic escapist entertainer set in no-man's land, showing the plight of ordinary people suffering under the repressive regime and their ultimate revolt against such oppression could make the viewers identify with the patriotic struggle they themselves were waging against the British rulers of the time. Rangachariar Committee Report The Indian Cinematograph Committee was set up in 1928 under the Chairmanship of Dewan Bahadur T. Rangachariar, with the primary brief of improving the status of "Dariwan/Empire" films, which according to the British, included both British and Indian. Being a true nationalist, Rangachariar used the opportunity to study the condition of the Indian film industry and suggest ways and means for its improvement. To arrive at a decision, the Committee launched a major investigation, travelling the length and breadth of the country and questioning over 300 witnesses, all those who had anything to do with the film scene of the country. The resulting material - the one volume Report of the Indian Cinematographic Committee and five volumes of Evidence - form a rich storehouse of information on the first two decades of film-making in India. For the development of the film industry in India, Rangachariar made several useful recommendations which included: creating a Central Cinema department consisting of experts to advise, guide and assist the trade and industry, building more permanent cinemas, encouraging the growth of travelling cinemas, grant of institutional loans to producers, setting up a national film library, institution to train film technicians, production of documentary/educational films, instituting awards, prizes for works of excellence in the field and duty exemption for imported raw materials required for film production. The report was completed with a dissenting note from the British members of the Committee. The Report soon disappeared into the dusty corridors of the "Raj" bureaucracy. The industry that Rangachariar had so meticulously studied and shrewdly analysed, was itself poised for a revolutionary change with the technological innovation of Sound. The world of Silent Cinema was soon to come to an end with a whimper.

Balance Sheet

According to Censor records available with the National Film Archive of India(NFAI), since 1918, a total of 1,268 Silent features have been made in the country. Unfortunately most of them vanished long ago. Despite the best efforts, the NFAI could preserve only ten to twelve titles so far and most of them, are incomplete. The more or less complete ones are the three Co-productions Light of Asia (1925), Shivaz (1928), and Throw of the Dice (1930), as well as Phalke's Kaliya Mardan (1918). Ironically all the three co-productions were obtained from abroad. It is a pity that neither the film-makers nor the authorities concerned took the trouble of identifying and preserving the country's silent camera heritage. An Archivist, like me, keeps on hoping these mute treasures, at least some of them, may turn up somewhere some day! title